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Terminally ill assistant gives Ravens strength

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

WESTMINSTER, Md. – How can you complain about the rigors of training camp after listening to a man, one slowly disintegrating in front of you, say he's content with his life?

How could a veteran criticize first-year Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh's strenuous practices in front of director of player development O.J. Brigance, a 38-year-old man who once made his livelihood covering kickoffs and even helped the team win Super Bowl XXXV in 2001.

The short answer is that you can't. You can't whine about the extra reps Harbaugh is running or the high-tempo drills. You can't wish for the old days, when veterans drove home every night from training camp to sleep in their own beds.

O.J. BRIGANCE ADDRESSES RAVENS

Here's an extended, edited version of the director of player development's address to the team early in training camp. Brigance is afflicted with Lou Gehrig's disease.

"Many of you, as I looked into your faces when you saw me coming back, you've seen I've changed a little bit.

First of all I want to apologize to you, because you're all going to go through something that no other NFL team will have to endure. You will have to see a man walk out before you to his possible death. That can be tough and scary, but I say 'possible' because I'm still believing I will be cured. Regardless of what it looks like, my spirit is still strong.

Time is precious, man. Do not make a mistake in thinking this is just another training camp. No matter how long you have been in this league, make no mistake in understanding that you are blessed to be in this room and that many of you will look at me and some will turn their heads because they just can't look. But I want to encourage you to look at me and understand that you have tremendous opportunity to live, to play a game that no one else has the opportunity to play.

From (watching) that you'll get an opportunity to see what true courage is … I'm not strong. I'm weak just like you, but because of my faith in Jesus Christ, I know I'm going to come out OK regardless. Each and every one of you will deal with something in your life that challenges you and it's going to continue to be that way because not everything goes perfect. But I want to encourage you every time you look at me … do not give into your circumstance. Do not give in to weariness, do not give in to soreness and if you do not do that, you will have something special before it's all said and done."

You can't do that when Brigance is standing in front of you, his arms withered to the bone by Lou Gehrig's disease, an affliction that has advanced so much, that Brigance is too weak to lift his arms as he talks. You can do little more than sit in silence during the opening team meeting of training camp, using every muscle in your upper body to fight the tears as Brigance talks about his struggle with a disease that has no cure.

"Many of you, as I looked into your faces when you saw me coming back, you've seen I've changed a little bit," Brigance said during an address to the team that was videotaped on July 23.

"First of all I want to apologize to you, because you're all going to go through something that no other NFL team will have to endure," Brigance continued. "You will have to see a man walk out before you to his possible death. That can be tough and scary, but I say 'possible' because I'm still believing I will be cured. Regardless of what it looks like, my spirit is still strong.

After Brigance, diagnosed with the disease formally known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis approximately a year ago, finished his four-minute talk to an ovation from the players, Harbaugh came to the front of the room and called upon chaplain Rod Hairston and asked the players to gather as well, take a knee and pray.

It's a moment that has set the tone for Harbaugh's first training camp with the Ravens. Harbaugh has come in with a set of rules and a different way of doing things. Last week, a general manager from another team wondered if those methods would be met with resistance, particularly from established veterans who might expect more favorable treatment.

Instead of complaints, Harbaugh and his methods have been embraced.

"No matter what you think you're going through in your life, there are men who are sacrificing more and facing greater challenges than you ever really will," guard Ravens Jason Brown said. "People say we have the toughest training camp in the NFL, but there has not been a single complaint because we have heard a testimony from a man who has more strength than any of us. He is a walking testimony to the power a man can have."

On Thursday night, after a 16-15 preseason victory at New England, the players and coaches gathered in the locker room and linebacker Ray Lewis handed Harbaugh a game ball.

As Lewis handed the ball to Harbaugh, he said: "Coach, from all the men to a real man, thanks for getting us ready."

In turn, Harbaugh said to the players, "I'm going to take this one step further. I'm going to give it to O.J."

While it's early in Harbaugh's tenure, the moment was special.

"It was one of the most meaningful things in my whole life because I felt like it was really sincere and that it was coming on behalf of the whole team," said Harbaugh, whose hiring was criticized in some NFL inner circles because his primary background as an assistant was in special teams. The history of special teams coaches becoming head coaches is checkered with failure, including Frank Gansz's 8-22-1 record with the Chiefs from 1987-1988.

"There are still guys on the team where I have issues with them and they have issues with me and we're working through some things," Harbaugh acknowledged, "so that was really meaningful for me … It was Ray's way of saying that we're understanding one another."

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Harbaugh and the Ravens during a camp practice.
(USPresswire/Chris gardner)

There's a lot more to understand under Harbaugh. He has imposed rules that the Ravens didn't have to deal with under former coach Brian Billick. Veteran players now have to stay at the team hotel near McDaniel College rather than return home each night (most players live roughly 20 minutes away). There's also an 11 p.m. curfew and bed checks.

Throughout Thursday's game, Harbaugh required that players wear their shoulder pads and have their jerseys tucked in. Players are supposed to do that, even in the preseason, but it's often overlooked this time of the year.

Yet, that doesn't mean Harbaugh is opposed to suggestions.

"Ray (Lewis) made a good point. He said, 'Coach, what about the cleats?' You stand in those cleats for three hours, they don't have support, they're uncomfortable," Harbaugh said. "It's not good on the knees and joints. So I said, 'I never thought about that, that's a good point.' So when they came out, we let them wear sneakers the rest of the game. And he is right, it's better. I know it may not sound like much, but it's a little thing."

A little thing that shows while Harbaugh is tough, he will listen. In fact, Harbaugh has a deep belief in encouraging what he calls "positive conflict." That's important on a team that features strong veterans such as Lewis, entering his 13th season, and Ed Reed (seventh).

AccuScore on the Ravens

Injuries and an alarming number of turnovers by Ravens QBs wreaked havoc on Baltimore's vaunted defense, especially its pass defense. With sack leader Trevor Pryce and starting CBs Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister missing significant time, the team allowed 24 points per game in 2008. If the defense is healthy, AccuScore expects Baltimore's defense to allow just 20 points per game. The offense is not going to be good due to the weakness and inexperience at QB, but the solid running game, a healthy Todd Heap, and fewer turnovers should translate to a +1.5 point improvement in points per game. The Ravens are forecasted to be under .500, but they are showing a 2-game improvement in total wins.

Based on early camp reports, Troy Smith is pegged as the primary starter in simulations. However, rookie Joe Flacco is the QB of the future. Optimists in Baltimore might wonder how good would the Ravens will be if Flacco put up similar stats to Ben Roethlisberger in his rookie year? Instead of completing under 55 percent of his passes, which AccuScore expects, this would mean Flacco completes over 62 percent like Roethlisberger did along with a nearly 2-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio. If Flacco were that good, the Ravens would have a 40-percent chance of making the playoffs with an average record of 9-7.

Projected Record: 7-9
Playoff Probability: 20%
AccuScore

Other coaches have looked at situations like this and gone the other way. In 1996 in Miami, Jimmy Johnson let go of veterans like Bryan Cox, Troy Vincent and Marco Coleman, saying he didn't want "a lot of guys with a lot of opinions" on his team.

"I think our philosophy is opposite of that," Harbaugh said. "It takes strong men in this league. Not just strong physically, but strong mentally. We want strong personalities and strong opinions. We want to foster that and be a strong-willed football team."

Harbaugh helped cement that philosophy and approach by keeping important members of the coaching staff, such as defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and defensive line coach Clarence Brooks. He kept Ryan, even though the coordinator also interviewed for the Ravens' head coaching job. A less secure coach might have jettisoned assistants who could be considered a threat.

"I don't understand that … it's easy to recognize that the stronger the coaches, the stronger the players, the stronger the people you surround yourself with, the stronger team you're going to be," Harbaugh said. "That's obvious to me."

To Lewis and others the message is simple.

"John is not about that kind of ego stuff," Lewis said. "He's about explaining to guys on this team what needs to be done to make us a better team. You see the plan in place, where we're going and how we're going to get there. As a player, you can't ask for anything else."

The Ravens are not deluding themselves into thinking that the strength of human emotion will turn around their results (5-11) of a year ago. This is still a team trying to find its way offensively, particularly at quarterback.

Veteran Kyle Boller is the starter for now, but second-year man Troy Smith figures to get a chance. Ultimately though, the real hope for greatness rests on the shoulders of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, the team's first-round pick. Flacco figures to be brought along slowly as he makes the transition from the University of Delaware to the NFL.

The Ravens also added depth at running back with rookie Ray Rice. But huge question marks at offensive line, where injured second-year man Jared Gaither is trying to replace Jonathan Ogden at left tackle, and the lack of an explosive wide receiver figures to slow any significant progress for this year.

Even with a dominating defense, this year is going to be a struggle. But in the big picture, struggle can be good. Moreover, there is no pain that can match the angst of watching a man such as Brigance struggle with the final days of his life. "O.J. is the embodiment of the whole message that this program is all about," Harbaugh said. "A lot of what the world sees as weakness – faith, God, vulnerability – are really strengths. That 'me' stuff, self-promotion, that's weakness. That's insecurity. What God sees as strength is what the world sees as weakness.

"O.J. is the embodiment because he is the strongest man in this organization. He has real strength and all we have to do is look at him."