CHICAGO — Recently, former Chicago Bear Steve “Mongo” McMichael announced to Chicago he had Lou Gehrig’s Disease. His diagnosis shocked the sports world as well as his football fans and the city that #76 calls home.
This week, WGN News connected with another former NFL family living with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS.
With no known cure, former Baltimore Ravens OJ Brigance, is defying the odds.
Brigance, nicknamed “Juice” back in the day, never thought he would see his 40th birthday, much less his 50th. Diagnosed with ALS at 37, the former linebacker is now 51 and counting.
He’s confined to a wheelchair, is on a feeding tube and can no longer speak, but his wife Chanda Minor-Brigance shared a story of hope and purpose even as they live with the near certainty ALS will eventually claim Brigance’s life.
They live for today and hope the McMichael’s family can too.
Minor-Brigance lives with a team mentality every day. She learned it from her husband.
“It’s a decision. And we’ve decided to make lemonade out of lemons,” she said.
For the early part of their marriage, she was the wife of an NFL linebacker. But in 2007, everything changed when Juice was suddenly diagnosed with ALS. The progressive neurodegenerative disease usually gives patients two to five years to live. Brigance has lived with it for 14 years. They are getting through it together.
The couple says they lean on their faith, rely on one another and live everyday with appreciation.
“Is it easy? No, it is not. Is it fun? No, it is not,” Minor-Brigance said. “But guess what, we’re going to make up our minds to get through it the best way we can and to be as strong as we can. That way, we can help someone else.”
Brigance still works in the front office for the Ravens. He and his wife run their foundation The Brigance Brigade to help others in the fight against ALS.
To McMichael and his wife Misty, reeling from Mongo’s own ALS diagnosis, Minor-Brigance said, “They have got to stick together. Yes, he needs her. She needs him too. At the end of the day, I look at OJ, he’s still my husband. I still need him.”
In March, Minor-Brigance took a break as a full-time caregiver and published a book. It’s the first in a collection and called “Who Cares?” It is a children’s book from the perspective of a caregiver and talks about disabilities, specifically ALS, and the experience of walking through it with someone you love.
“He’s the cute little boy in the wheelchair and I’m the cute little energetic girl showing our relationship and what I do as a caregiver and the bond that has been formed because of this help,” Minor-Brigance said.
And as the Brigances continue their battle against ALS, they are convinced OJ’s health remains steady for one excellent reason: He’s a living example to others.
“This assignment is bigger than we are,” Minor-Brigance said. “It’s bigger than we are. We got to find a way to get it done and walk through it because there are others who need us to do it so they can know how to do it.”
The couple is a reminder that it’s not just what happens in life, it’s how you respond to it. For this Superbowl champ, that means living his life knowing he gave it his all.
“At the end of the day, we got one shot at this and we want to make sure we hit the ball out the park,” Minor-Brigance said.
The illustrated book is for children but the Brigance family sees it as a launching pad for difficult conversations centering on disabilities no matter how old you are.