Love And Inspiration: Chanda And O.J. Brigance Share Their Story

The words seem to reach Chanda Brigance’s ears like some untranslatable foreign language.

Her husband is O.J. Brigance, the former Baltimore Ravens football player who sits immobilized in his wheelchair with Lou Gehrig’s disease. She is his caregiver and his constant shining light.

“Have there been times,” she is asked, “when you’ve just wanted to give up?”

By nature, she is one of the most effervescent people in North America. She bubbles, she radiates. But now, she stares at a questioner as though this thought does not compute in any language, in any universe in which she resides.

“Give up?” she said.

“What about O.J?” she is asked. “Does the thought ever occur to him that…?

“Never,” she said, cutting off the question. “Never, before you can get the question out, never, because that’s O.J. I can see sometimes he’s tired of being in that wheelchair. I mean, one day you’re active, the next day…”

The rest of the thought hangs in the air for a heartbeat.

“But I’ve never heard him say, ‘Why me?'” she said. “I’ve never heard him feel sorry for himself, and I’ve never heard him talk about giving up. Look, we’re human. No one would choose a terminally ill disease. But that’s where we are. Like my mom would say, ‘It’s spilled milk.’ Move on. Pour another glass of something else. But it’s done, so that’s where we are. The question now is: Where do we go from here? Is there someone else to touch? What is our assignment with this?”

Where do we get such people?

Some of us get a hangnail and find ourselves asking, “Why, God? Why me?” O.J. Brigance sits in a wheelchair with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, his muscles withered, his body refusing the simplest commands, his natural speaking voice gone — but the two of them, husband and wife, have become an inspiration to a team, a town and millions more.

They have their Brigance Brigade Foundation — established six years ago, a year after O.J. was first diagnosed — which raises money to assist other ALS patients. They helped champion the good-natured ice-water dousing this summer which raised national awareness — and money — beyond all previous amounts to help fight the disease.

And they have a love affair with each other.

Now, on a recent afternoon, Chanda reaches down to give O.J. an affectionate touch as he leaves his little office at the Ravens’ training complex, his wheelchair pushed by an aide. He doesn’t want to be late for practice. He sits on the sidelines most days, watching the club go through its training rituals. Some days he’s talking, through a computerized vocal device, with Harry Swayne, the Ravens’ director of player development. O.J. is Swayne’s senior advisor. But they never talk football.

“No,” Swayne said, “we’ve never had a football discussion, never. He’s not about football. This is much bigger than football. We’re concerned with the whole man, about what it’s like off the field for a professional football player, to be a young husband, to be a father. O.J. brings class and dignity and faith. And he gives everybody here a picture of how fortunate we all are.”

In this troubling time of former Ravens running back Ray Rice’s domestic abuse charges, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s child abuse allegations, and recriminations around the Ravens, and across the NFL, Chanda and O.J. Brigance offer a more heartening picture.

It’s also a time when professional football belatedly faces the game’s inherent physical problems — not just the broken bones and torn ligaments that come with powerful men colliding, but with concussions, latter-day dementia, Alzheimer’s, all manner of cognitive decline threatening the game’s combatants.

In late summer, the NFL, which for years disputed evidence that its players had a high rate of brain damage, admitted in federal court documents that roughly 30 percent of its retirees develop long-term vulnerability — and that such conditions as dementia and Alzheimer’s will likely develop at “notably younger ages” than in the general population.

But what about their historically overlooked wives and families? And what about those, like Chanda and O.J. Brigance, who deal with ALS and have to get on with their lives?

“They are incredibly inspirational people,” said John Maroon, whose public relations firm represents the Brigance ALS foundation. “Even people in perfect health don’t have the positive outlook on the world that they have.

“Just imagine what Chanda’s gone through, to see the love of your life challenged like this. But she funnels that grief and turns it into something positive. And they try to make a difference in the lives of others facing the same challenge.”

“The two of them are an inspiration for everybody,” Ravens president Dick Cass said. “Talk about amazing grace; talk about resilience. Just to see him come to work — attending meetings, talking with John [Harbaugh], talking with Harry [Swayne], and Chanda, his life partner. You know, it’s not easy being the wife of a professional football player, but, the courage and the determination of this woman. …”

‘It’s You and Me’

The two of them, O.J. and Chanda, go back to adolescence in Houston. Chanda was a cheerleader, a gymnast, a beauty contest participant.

“Oh, sure,” Chanda said, “I’ve heard about the old cheerleader fantasy of marrying the football star. But that was never our story. I didn’t set out to get stature from a football player. He pursued me, I didn’t pursue him.

“For a long time, I didn’t even know he was a football player. He didn’t mention it, and I didn’t know it. It wasn’t mentioned. It wasn’t a conversation he ever had with me. And then, when I found out, I still didn’t go to his games. I was going to school. I was working. And finally, I was marrying the man, not the football star.”

She was also on her way to a bachelor’s degree in business management from Texas Southern University.

O.J. was beginning a linebacking career that took him to stardom at Rice University and five years in the Canadian Football League, including two with the Baltimore Stallions. And then came seven seasons in the NFL, including a 2000 Super Bowl championship season with the Ravens.

But something else was defining O.J. Across the years, he did volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Daily Food Bank. He was honored by the NFL Players Association Unsung Hero Award and the Ed Block Courage Award.

This was never a man whose life revolved strictly around football.

“O.J. is a man who makes you feel safe — from the very start,” Chanda said.

She giggles slightly as she recalls their first meeting. Though their families were friends, O.J. and Chanda never knew each other until the graduation night of a younger cousin of hers.

“And afterwards,” she laughed, “I’m at my godmother’s house, and O.J.’s mom is there, too, and my godmother says, ‘You got to meet her son; you got to meet her son.’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh, boy, old people hooking up young folks — I don’t think so.’

“So she phones O.J. and says he should come over to the house. And he comes over wearing washed-out jeans and a wrinkled, dirty, too-small T-shirt.”

You can hear the excitement in Chanda’s voice, as though all of this happened just last night.

“See, O.J. would love to hear this, ‘cause we’d both be laughing,” she said, “‘Cause it turned out, he was at the graduation with some of his friends, and they saw me, and they’re going, like, ‘Wow, she looks good.’ But I didn’t know any of this. And then O.J. went home and changed clothes, and when he got the call to come to my godmother’s house, he was a mess. I wouldn’t even give him my phone number.

“You know how he got my number? He got his little sister to call my little cousin. And when he finally called and asked me out, he took me to dinner — at the Olive Garden.”

By then, O.J. was playing football for Rice.

“Words can’t express what a gentleman he was,” Chanda said. Her voice turns tender. “He would always open my door, put me in the car, and reach over and put my seatbelt on, every time. From the first day until … until he was confined to a wheelchair.”

They dated for about five years, on and off. While O.J. was playing ball in Canada, Chanda worked in the communications department at a Houston medical center. One day he sent her a letter, which she has kept. The letter said he was all grown up now, and ready to commit to a lifetime together.

They were married May 14, 1994, in Chanda’s church in Houston.

“Then we loaded all our belongings — there wasn’t much — in the back of his Ford Explorer. The biggest box was probably my wedding dress. And I still remember later, the first time we came to Baltimore.

“O.J. went to training camp, and I went to our new home — at the Comfort Inn on Reisterstown Road. Oh, my. Stayed there for about a month or so, until we got a little apartment in Owings Mills, and then bought a house in Bel Air.

“We were young. It was the beginning of something. It’s new and fresh and you’re starting a new life. You don’t know where it’s going, you don’t know where it’s going to end up.

“And he’d say to me, ‘Just trust me; it’s you and me. We’re as one.’ I felt safe and secure, and I knew I was in good hands. And he knew he had a good woman.”

Then came the day when he played racquetball and felt numbness in his arm and shoulder. They thought it was an old football injury. O.J. was retired from his playing days by then and working as the Ravens’ director of player development. They started seeing doctors.

“And we get the diagnosis that he has ALS,” Chanda said. “We had to learn what that means, and O.J.’s on the computer doing some intense learning. And then comes the really devastating part, to find out there’s no cure.”

Cass still remembers the day O.J. broke the news to the Ravens.

“He stood in front of the whole team, and he tells them what he’s got,” Cass said. “I mean, I don’t know if all our players understood what he was saying. But I know a lot of ‘em were in tears. And he’s saying, ‘I have a terminal disease, but I’m going to beat it.'”

In their way, O.J. and Chanda have beaten it. ALS has beaten his body, but not their resilience, or their courage, or their desire to help other victims.

The disease moved quickly. O.J. lost control of his arms and hands. Chanda had to feed him after a while. She had to dress him and shower him. He couldn’t walk, couldn’t speak and swallowing became impossible. Now they have around-the-clock nursing help.

Where do people find such strength?

“We have faith,” Chanda said. “We believed this would be temporary, and O.J. would be healed. But we’re still living with it, and that’s where it is. But God is still merciful.

“Whether O.J. is healed or not, we know that this is not being done in vain. Meaning, look at the people he’s touched. Look at the people who have gravitated to him and his strength. Look at the people who have ALS and have said, ‘I can get out of bed this morning, because O.J. Brigance got out of bed.’

“The e-mails we get through our foundation, the cards saying thank you for being out in the public eye. Whether they have ALS or they’re perfectly healthy, they see that if he can do it in his condition, they can, too.

“You can bury yourself at home, pull down the shades and turn out the light. Or you can get on with your life. And that’s our message to everyone: We’re here for a purpose. See what you can make of that. There’s someone who needs you. And you’re not alone.”

Issue 202: October 2014