Eric LeGrand, surrounded by some stout friends. (Getty Images)
There have been all kinds of undrafted free agent signings in the post-draft process, but we're pretty sure none of them will warm the heart like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers agreeing to terms with former Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand. If you don't know, LeGrand was paralyzed in a 2010 game when he was playing for then-head coach Greg Schiano, who now coaches the Bucs. It is unknown what LeGrand's role in the Buccaneers organization will be, but "inspirational leader" would be a pretty decent starting title.
"Leading up to the draft, I couldn't help but think that this should've been Eric's draft class," Schiano said in a statement. "This small gesture is the least we could do to recognize his character, spirit, and perseverance. The way Eric lives his life epitomizes what we are looking for in Buccaneer Men."
As LeGrand detailed in an October 2011 story for SI.com, he was in on a special teams play against Army on October 16, 2010 at Giants Stadium. LeGrand was hit in what he said felt like a "stinger" (neck collision); he only knew something was horribly wrong when he tried to get up from the turf and could not. He tried to give the "thumbs-up" signal and could not. He could not do anything, because he had broken the c-3 and c-4 vertebrae in his neck. LeGrand was rushed to emergency surgery, and his mother was told that he would be paralyzed from the neck down -- according to the doctors, he would most likely never get off the ventilator. Five weeks later, he proved the doctors wrong and started breathing on his own. Soon after, he was able to stand up with the help of a metal frame, and LeGrand firmly believes that he will someday walk again.
One year to the day after his injury, LeGrand led his Rutgers team onto the field in one of the more inspirational occurrences we've ever seen. He visited the New York Jets' training camp last August and blew the pros away with his spirit.
"He's been so strong through the process and life deals with certain things, and it's all about how we choose to deal with it," linebacker Bart Scott said. "I think that he's embraced it and he took the challenge on. I think he should be an inspiration to a lot of people."
Receiver Santonio Holmes agreed. "It was an amazing story, not wanting ever to give up. It's going to be an honor for him to come out and be a part of this team and feel loved, and the game that I know he loved to play and not take anything for granted."
Despite the difficulties inherent in his new life, LeGrand has stayed positive and refused to accept less than the best from himself. He resumed his studies at Rutgers in 2011 and plans to graduate soon with a degree in labor studies. He has also signed with IMG with the idea of a broadcasting career.
The Bucs are a rebuilding team right now, but they've scored well in free agency and the draft this year. If they can bring the culture personified by LeGrand, and the refusal to quit displayed in his words, they'll be a formidable force for a good, long time.
"I'm thankful that I was -- check that: I am -- an athlete. I was squatting 605 pounds at the time of my injury. There's no question that the muscle has helped in rehab. But even more important is the athlete's mentality. At Rutgers, Coach Schiano has a saying: one-eleventh. You're one of 11 guys, each with his own responsibility and skills. So focus on your job. That's what I'm doing now: focusing on my responsibility. Rehab is like my football training camp. This is my new life and I've adjusted. But I'm working my hardest to get out of it and get to the "regular season."
"I believe I will walk again. I do. When that happens, I already know what I'm going to do. I'll go to Giants Stadium and find the exact spot in the field where I went down. I'll lie there for a second. And then I'll get up on my own power and walk away."
It would be foolish to doubt him.
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