July 22, 2011
With the start of the season just six weeks away, Eric LeGrand should be preparing for his senior year on the field at Rutgers. Instead, he's just trying to walk again.
That's how much life changed for LeGrand just over nine months ago, when the 20-year-old defensive lineman lay motionless on the turf following a collision on a fourth-quarter kickoff in Rutgers' win over Army on Oct. 16.
"It felt like I'd got the wind knocked out of me and I was just gasping for a breath," LeGrand said this week from his home in New Jersey. It soon become clear that something was very wrong, as he couldn't move his body and struggled to breath. As LeGrand lay on the field, he worried for his life, and spent the next several days under heavy sedation. "I got onto the stretcher, I saw my mom, I told her everything was going to be OK and then I got in the ambulance and I can't remember anything after that until [the following] Wednesday."
He had fractured his C-3 and C-4 vertebrae and had emergency surgery that night at the Hackensack University Medical Center. LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down and doctors deemed it a complete injury, giving him a zero to 5 percent chance of regaining motor function. They also predicted LeGrand would be on a ventilator to assist his breathing for the rest of his life.
His mother, Karen, kept the sobering news and statistics away from her son, not wanting it to dampen his spirit.
LeGrand was transferred to the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J., in November, moved in with his aunt in March and is now finally living back home in Avenel, N.J., located about 30 minutes outside New York City. Speaking now, his voice is gentle and quiet but determined as he talks about staying upbeat through it all and this being part of a bigger plan for him.
"Believe" has become a rallying cry for his family, friends and supporters, and LeGrand himself has the word inscribed on bracelets he wears. With that spirit, LeGrand has already defied the odds. Just five weeks after doctors said he might never be off a ventilator, LeGrand was breathing on his own.
He's currently regained partial feeling throughout his entire body and has some movement in his shoulders and arms. Last week, LeGrand sent out a picture from his Twitter account, BigE52_RU, that showed him standing in therapy, accompanied by the words, "Standing tall, we can't fall. Standing upright again."
Once he's able to stand for a half-hour, LeGrand will then be placed on a specialized treadmill to help train his brain relearn how to walk again even though he cannot move his legs yet.
LeGrand doesn't have a date he hopes to walk again and is instead taking it one step at a time — both literally and figuratively — but is convinced it will happen someday.
While his injury has raised questions about the safety of football and even prompted his coach, Greg Schiano, to propose eliminating kickoffs from the college game altogether, LeGrand views what happened to him as a freak accident and doesn't want the game to change as a result of it.
"It's the one thing I don't agree with coach Schiano about," LeGrand said of eliminating kickoffs. "I don't support it. Kickoffs are just a thing that happens.
"But I understand where he's coming from with this because he's like the father of our family. He sees one of his players go down, he feels responsible. So any way he can change that — if the situation can be avoided — I can see why he wants to change it."
What has been unanimous since LeGrand's injury is the outpouring of support on his behalf. Although the injury is being covered by several different insurances, there is no shortage of costs related to such a life-changing event. That's why Rutgers set up the "Eric LeGrand Believe Fund" in his name and a former coach of LeGrand's set up the "Eric LeGrand Patriot Saint Foundation" to raise money for him and his family.
The fundraisers organized for LeGrand have ranged from a comedy event hosted by Rutgers alum Bill Bellamy, of MTV fame, to a charity motorcycle bike ride to an upcoming benefit concert, 52 Fest, hosted by hip-hop DJ Funk Master Flex this weekend in Woodbridge, N.J. New York Jets linebacker Barton Scott donated the profits from the first run of a clothing line to LeGrand's recovery; New York Giants wide receiver David Tyree raised funds in April by taking on a 10-mile obstacle course designed by British Special Forces. New Jersey Nets guard Devin Harris and teammates pitched in to raise $75,000 shortly after the injury. Detroit Pistons star Tracy McGrady personally donated $20,000.
LeGrand has also been encouraged by speaking with former Penn State football player and fellow New Jersey native Adam Taliaferro, who was paralyzed during a 2000 game against Ohio State and was given just a 3 percent chance of walking again. Less than a year later, Taliaferro led the Nittany Lions onto the field at Beaver Stadium for Penn State's 2001 season opener.
"I talk to Adam a lot," LeGrand said. "I was actually with him a couple weeks ago. … He just tells me to keep the faith, keep the hope, things will come back. It just takes time."
LeGrand is now living his life as normal as possible. He resides at home and spends his time going to therapy and taking Rutgers courses twice a week online. His goal is to one day become a sportscaster and he's discussed being involved with SportsNet New York's broadcasts of Rutgers games this fall, although the details have yet to been ironed out. And while that dream may one day be realized as well, LeGrand is currently focused on a much bigger plan that's never far from his mind.
"Every day I dream about running back onto the field," LeGrand said. "I don't know when it's going to be but I'm going to do it. Every day I dream about running back onto that field with my team."
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Jim Weber is the founder of LostLettermen.com, a historical college football and men's basketball site that links the sports' past to the present.
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