The legacy of No. 57 for the Ravens

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Long before the ALS ice bucket challenges dominated social media, the Baltimore Ravens have been reminded of the courage it takes to fight the devastating disease every time linebacker C.J. Mosley steps onto the field.

Mosley, the team's first-round pick, is wearing No. 57, a privilege not bestowed upon a Ravens player for the past six years.

It's more than a uniform number for the Ravens organization. It has become a symbol of O.J. Brigance, a member of the 2000 Super Bowl champions and the team's senior adviser of player development who has been battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for seven years.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh came up with the idea of letting Mosley wear No. 57 after the team selected him with the No. 17 overall pick in the draft.

"The time is right now because of what O.J. has meant to us here," Harbaugh said. "The timing was right to bring his legacy -- and he's living it still -- back to the forefront."

Harbaugh would only give that jersey number with Brigance's blessing and asked him about it in an email.

Wheelchair-bound and unable to use his voice, Brigance communicates through eye-recognition software, which allows him to choose a letter when he blinks at it.

"I was initially surprised when Coach Harbaugh asked about C. J. wearing 57," Brigance wrote. "It was such a great honor that he removed the number from circulation. Once he explained the character and tenacity of the man that he would like to wear it, I was honored to have him wear 57."

Brigance was an undersized but overachieving linebacker and special-teams player in the CFL and NFL. Wearing No. 57, he charged down the field on the opening kickoff to make first tackle in the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl win.

In May 2007, when he was the team's director of player development, he was diagnosed with ALS, a progressive and fatal disease that shuts down nerve cells responsible for movement but doesn't impair the brain or any of the senses.

Told he had five years to live, Brigance is outliving the prognosis with each passing day.

Brigance, who will celebrate his 45th birthday next month, frequently comes to the Ravens' facility. He attends the linebacker meetings, watches practice and remains connected with the organization.

He has dedicated himself to being a guiding hand to the Ravens' players, preaching to them that adversity makes you stronger.

"I think we can all learn something from O.J.," said linebacker Bart Scott when he wore No. 57 for the Ravens from 2002 to 2008. "If I can be half the man, player and husband he is, I think I will accomplish a lot in my life."

No Ravens player had worn No. 57 after Scott left the Ravens. Like three others -- Ray Lewis' No. 52, Jonathan Ogden's No. 75 and Ed Reed's No. 20 -- Brigance's jersey number had unofficially been retired.

Though all those numbers are associated with greatness, the No. 57 is an inspirational touchstone. It's important for everyone to see it, a tribute to Brigance and his ongoing work through his ALS research foundation, the Brigance Brigade.

It was also important that the number was given to the right person.

"It makes me very proud to see not just someone wearing 57, but somebody wearing 57 who is a humble leader, who will strive for excellence in all he does," Brigance wrote. "Being a NFL player is a difficult undertaking. Talent might get you in the door, but character, discipline and fortitude will keep you there. From what I have seen and heard of C.J., he will have a bright future and will honor the 5-7."

Mosley, a starting inside linebacker for the Ravens, immediately tweeted that it was an honor when he was given Brigance's number in May.

"When I realized what this number meant to this community and to this team, it made me feel special," said Mosley, who knew he wouldn't be allowed to wear his college No. 32 as an NFL linebacker. "It's keeping his legacy going on. It's my job to keep that legacy going up."