O.J. Brigance is credited with the first tackle in Super Bowl XXXV, which his Baltimore Ravens went on to win 34-7. Today, however, the former linebacker is tackling a much more serious threat. The ‘Death with Dignity’ bill, which would allow people to end their lives if they are given a terminal diagnosis, is up for debate in Maryland – and Brigance is ready to stop it in its tracks.
Brigance was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2007. Although living with the disorder required major lifestyle adjustments, he now embraces life fully and even leads an organization called the “Brigance Brigade,” which offers grants to families living with the disease. The organization has provided, among other benefits, assistance ramps, wheelchairs and communication devices to those in need.
But Brigance didn’t stop his efforts there. When the football player heard that a right-to-die bill, which would allow terminally ill patients to obtain a lethal dose of a drug from a doctor, was making its way through the Maryland legislature, he knew he had to try and block its path.
"It is my belief that valuable contributions can still be made in life, despite one being diagnosed with a terminal illness," said Brigance, whose public seven-year fight against ALS has made the former star and current Ravens front-office staffer both a national advocate for people with the neurodegenerative disease and an inspiration to the team.
"I don't think legislation should be approved to legally take a life before the appointed time," he said.
Brigance took his passion for life to Annapolis on Tuesday to testify against the Death with Dignity Act being considered by Maryland's General Assembly. Here is just a snippet of his powerful comments, which he shared via a communication device, in which he hoped his own personal experience could help render such a law unnecessary.
"Because I decided to live life the best I could, there has been a ripple effect of goodness in the world," Brigance said. "Since being diagnosed, I have done a greater good for society in eight years than in my previous 37 years on earth."
Although his life is much different than it was a decade ago, Brigance argues it is one that is still worth preserving. Others living with disabilities agree with the football player.
"We think it really puts people with disabilities at significant risk of being told that they should end their lives," said Samantha Crane, director of public policy with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
Yet, proponents of the right-to-die legislation argue that the law is needed to give patients the option to end their extreme suffering and have some control over their harsh situations. Del. Shane Pendergrass, the bill’s primary sponsor, insisted the bill was written out of compassion.
She said her law would give dying people "some semblance of control."
"We're simply all going to die," Pendergrass said. "If we can make that end a better end, then let's do that."
In Oregon last year, 29-year-old Brittany Maynard ended her life under the state’s Death with Dignity Act, deciding her remaining months wouldn’t be worth living after getting the grim diagnosis that she had a brain tumor. Twenty-three legislatures, including Washington, DC, will consider right-to-die legislation by the end of this session, according to the Death with Dignity National Center. If the Maryland legislature moves forward with this bill, it will become the sixth state to do so.
Receiving dire news from the doctor is always terrifying for the recipient. No doubt life is harder after the diagnosis. But “hard” doesn’t need to mean final. Brigance has proven that such a life can still be fulfilling. The former football player is now confined to a wheelchair and cannot speak, yet he loves every day. If you asked him, I’m sure he’d say that defending life is more important than any Super Bowl ring.