No press is bad press when it comes to creating awareness and action around a disease as devastating as ALS. After the conclusion of the AFC championship, I was thrilled to see O.J. Brigance, a former linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, not only in the locker room to congratulate his former team and current employer, but to see his smile and hear his voice. Oh, and Brigance was diagnosed with ALS five years ago and now speaks through a computer.
His inspirational post-game speech may have come from an artificial voice, but there is no denying its origins are straight from the human spirit. This will mark the second Super Bowl in a row that will have an ALS storyline. Last year, Peter King of Sports Illustrated featured the courageous story of Steve Gleason, former New Orleans Saints player who single-handedly made the team's first home game after Katrina one of its most memorable.
I have obviously become very familiar with the stories behind each player. It is crystal clear that the two share far more than a heartbreaking diagnosis. Brigance and Gleason were both well-respected and admired by their teammates. Neither was the biggest or fastest on their team, but they were players who just seem to play with all heart.
Not only do I share the same diagnosis as these two men, I was just like them on the football field. Although I never made it to the NFL, or even the smallest of colleges, I did play football for nine consecutive years. I played from the time I was in the fourth grade until my senior year of high school. Growing up in Florida, high school football is just as much a religion as it is a sport. Although I did not see the field very often on Friday nights, I took most of my hits on Monday through Thursday.
As I watch football every Sunday, like so many others do, I am constantly reminded about how violent the game really is and always has been. Sure, technology has probably improved equipment, but it is probably far behind the size and speed of the average player. Every time I see a player carted off the field or get up off the ground shaking his head, I can't help but think about what permanent damage may have just occurred.
Do I think that head trauma directly causes ALS? No. But there is no doubt in my mind that it certainly is a major factor or trigger of the disease. In nine years of playing football, I'd never broken a bone. I had my bumps and bruises like every other player, but I also had at least three concussions that I know about. I want to reiterate that I was never an NFL player; in fact, I didn't even start on my high school team. But I know nine years of a physically demanding contact sport played a pivotal role in my diagnosis.
I have been asked many times if I am mad or upset that I played football. The answer, without hesitation, is no. While playing the game, I learned the importance of never giving up, playing with heart, and always playing until the whistle blows. I use those same simple lessons every day of my life.