Former Rutgers defensive lineman Eric LeGrand had his world turned around in a game against Army last Oct. 16. He suffered a severe spinal injury and was paralyzed from the neck down, but if you think that LeGrand is letting that tragedy beat him, his Thursday visit to a New York Jets practice would disabuse you of that notion.
After watching the Jets practice at their Florham Park, N.J., facility, LeGrand was summoned to the middle of the practice field. He rolled his motorized wheelchair in the direction of a Jets team that was very happy to see him — a Jets team that has been instrumental in his life since the accident. Former teammate Jamaal Westerman handed LeGrand a replica #52 Jets jersey with his last name on it, head coach Rex Ryan came over to talk with him for a time, and linebacker Bart Scott is donating the proceeds from the sales of his "Can't Wait!" T-shirts (that's a trademarked phrase for Mr. Scott, don't you know) to LeGrand's Patriots Saint Foundation, established to help with his medical bills.
"I am blessed to have people reaching out, random people who don't know me, but know the story," LeGrand told the New York Daily News."This is a financially crippling injury."
Having broken two vertebrae on a kick return in that Army game, LeGrand has already beaten the odds once by coming off a ventilator five weeks after doctors said he never would. Now, he looks to face a far greater challenge by walking again. LeGrand said that in the 10 months since the injury, he's progressed to the point where he's standing on a regular basis. "Everything is going well right now. The longest I stood up for is 45 minutes. I have to keep on standing up for at least a half-hour, so I can get on this locomotive training mat … It serves as a treadmill that they put these stems on. A therapist is behind you and you're in a harness and they just basically retrain your legs how to walk again."
Old friend Westerman isn't surprised by LeGrand's strength and persistence. "More than a good player, he was just a good guy. His mom's nice, everybody's nice, we're a family out at Rutgers. So it was hurtful what happened to him, but just to see his recovery and how he's taken it, and how he's taken it with a smile."
Bart Scott has been inspired as well. "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. 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."
The honor belonged to the Jets. LeGrand plans to attend every Rutgers game this season (hopefully home and road) as he continues on the road to recovery.
In his heart, he's still a football player.