NEW ORLEANS — It was fitting that O.J. Brigance was an honorary team captain for the Baltimore Ravens, presenting a trophy to them when they won the AFC Championship on Jan. 20 and earned a trip to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII.
That victory will bring Brigance — a member of the Ravens when they won the Super Bowl after the 2000 season and the team’s current senior advisor to player development — an opportunity to meet face to face with former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason.
Brigance and Gleason have inspired many others as they have battled Lou Gehrig’s disease (otherwise known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS). They managed to inspire each other along the way without ever actually meeting before now.
After Baltimore beat the New England Patriots to earn the right to play against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Brigance, who is confined to a wheelchair, presented the Lamar Hunt Trophy trophy to his team and offered a recorded, computer-generated message in the locker room in a moving scene that was shown on CBS.
Not long after the presentation, Gleason tweeted that he was “stoked” to finally meet Brigance in person, calling him “an ALS mentor to me.”
The next day, Gleason tweeted again, addressing the citizens of New Orleans directly, urging them when they see Brigance in the Crescent City to “shower him with the same sweet love you have given me.”
Gleason forever secured a place in Saints fans’ hearts by being the catalyst for one of the most memorable plays in team history. It was the emotional reopening of the Superdome, 13 months after Hurricane Katrina, when Gleason blocked an Atlanta Falcons punt that Curtis Deloatch recovered a for a touchdown.
That score triggered a victory that improved New Orleans to 3-0 and helped launch the Saints to their first trip to the NFC Championship.
But New Orleanians’ feelings for Gleason have deepened during his courageous fight against ALS and his tenacious work to help others with the disease since he was diagnosed in January 2011.
On Wednesday, Gleason’s foundation — Team Gleason — will offer reporters a tour of the Team Gleason House for Innovative Living in New Orleans, which helps people with incurable neuro-muscular disorders live more independently.
When Gleason was forming his foundation he found many organizations focused on ALS research and he chose instead to focus on helping ALS patients find better ways to live through technology.
He also focused on aligning with tech companies and engineers working on leading edge research and admired Brigance’s organization, the Brigance Brigade Fund.
Brigance, in turn, has expressed interest in opening a Living Center like Gleason’s, the second such facility in the United States. Brigance and Gleason will meet some time after Brigance’s arrival Thursday.
Baltimore and the Ravens have been inspired by Brigance much as New Orleans has been inspried by Gleason.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh called Brigance “a shining light in the building” that has “energized” the AFC champions.
“He’s a man of heart, a man of valor, a man of restraint,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said of Brigance after Baltimore arrived here Monday. “There’s no obstacle too great for O.J. We’ve seen him fight this fight for about six years now and he’s been really special to us and we really love him. He’s one of us.”
Brigance joined the Ravens front office in 2004 and has continued to work with all the Ravens players with each phase of their careers.
“Getting to know O.J. in the time that I’ve been here and seeing what he was like when I first got here (five years ago) and what he’s like now, it’s a pretty incredible story, and the guy’s putting up a pretty incredible fight that’s a lot bigger than football,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “To see him around the building every day and see the interest that he still has in this football team and how much a part of it he remains is pretty incredible.”