O.J. Brigance: "Quitting is never an option"

The simple act of holding a football is no longer possible for the man who's the heart and soul of the Baltimore Ravens
The simple act of holding a football is no lo... 08:24

(CBS News)     The simple act of holding a football is no longer possible for the man who's the heart and soul of the Baltimore Ravens.  What he CAN do is inspire and motivate his team by his very presence and example.   Here's Rita Braver:

He is the man with the smile that won't quit . . . surrounded by family and friends as he celebrates his 44th birthday. 

But O.J. Brigance has lived a life of stark contrasts. This former pro football player who sports a sparkling Super Bowl ring is now paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.

"I learned a life lesson through football early on," he told Braver. "I learned that quitting is never an option."

Stricken with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a disease that progressively attacks the nervous system, Brigance must take every breath through a ventilator, communicate every thought through a computer-generated voice.

He described the system: "It tracks the movement of my pupils and allows me to type with my eyes, like others type with their fingers."

Born and raised in Houston, Brigance played football for Rice University, then the Canadian Football League, and finally in 1996, number 57 made it to the NFL.

He played first for the Miami Dolphins, then joined the Baltimore Ravens in 2000. They went on to win their first-ever Super Bowl that year.

Brigance made the first tackle of the game.  "I remember seeing the thousands of flashbulbs sparkling in the night. It was my dream come to reality," he said. "

Still, the team didn't re-sign him after that big win. 

He played a few more years for other teams, but -- plagued by a longtime back problem -- decided to retire in 2003.

That's when the Ravens called him back -- this time to be a counselor to players, and a spokesman for the team.

His wife Chanda was by his side through it all. Married for 20 years, they still joke about their first meeting; she thought he was poorly dressed, and kept ignoring him.

"Why did you keep going after her when she didn't seem interested?" Braver asked.

"Didn't need to be dressed because I had the goods!" he laughed.

Their life seemed golden until, while playing racquetball over the course of a few weeks in 2007, Brigance began to notice increasing weakness in his right arm when swinging the racquet.

Then Chanda noticed something, too:

"It was one night, and O.J. was asleep and something just woke me up," she said. "I felt his muscles just jumping."

After a battery of tests, doctors diagnosed ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease (after the major league baseball player).

"The biggest shocker was that ALS was a fatal disease, with a two- to five-year prognosis," Brigance said.

That was six years ago.

O.J. Brigance has not only outlived predictions, but also become the heart of the Baltimore Ravens, continuing to counsel and rally the team, even as his health was declining.

Even as he lost the ability to speak on his own.

Brigance still goes to the office five days a week. He says it gives him a reason to wake up each day.

"You seem so upbeat despite all of this," said Braver. "Do you ever get angry and frustrated?"

"I have experienced times where I have been overcome by the weight of the diagnosis," Brigance replied. "But once I dried my tears and stopped feeling sorry for myself, I realized that God had given me the strength to handle this assignment."

But year after year, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has always believed in Brigance.

"Some of his counsel now is just by who he is, just by his life, by his presence, by how he attacks every day," Harbaugh said. "You know, the enthusiasm that he brings to it and the strength, that's counsel enough."