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True Believer

When Scarlet Knights football player Eric LeGrand was paralyzed below the shoulders more than two years ago, the prognosis was grim. But through his unwavering belief in his inevitable recovery, and in those at Rutgers and far beyond who have been touched by his story, LeGrand sees his arduous road back as a blessing.

By Christopher Hann

Eric LeGrand and mother Karen LeGrand
Karen LeGrand photographed with her son, Eric LeGrand, in their Woodbridge, New Jersey, home. Photography by John Emerson

Eric LeGrand is just beginning his daily workout inside the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, New Jersey. He’s standing on a high-tech treadmill, an overhead harness strapped around his torso. Baby-blue cloth straps bind his wrists to waist-high railings on his left and right. His physical therapist, Sandra Wojciehowski, a spark plug better known as Buffy, is seated at his right knee. A locomotor training technician named Lindsay McIntyre is seated at his left knee, and directly behind him, another technician, Roxanne Franco, holds onto the belt of the harness. Once the treadmill is turned on, the three women begin what Wojciehowski calls “the act of walking the patient.”

As LeGrand’s right leg glides back on the treadmill, Wojciehowski places her left hand on his anterior tibialis, the muscle behind the right ankle. Simultaneously she places her right hand on the hamstring tendon behind his right knee, and then with both hands she lifts and pulls the leg toward her. As the leg moves forward, Wojciehowski brings her right hand to the front of LeGrand’s right knee, pushing on the patellar tendon, just below the kneecap, which straightens the leg, allowing it to glide back again, whereupon she repeats the process, pulling and pushing with each step. McIntyre goes through corresponding motions on LeGrand’s left leg, while Franco CC’09, holding onto the belt, struggles to keep her 240-pound patient from slumping forward. The idea is to recreate LeGrand’s normal gait and, ideally, to help him maintain the muscle strength that could one day enable him to walk on his own.

It is October 16, 2012, two years to the day since LeGrand’s violent collision with Army kick-returner Malcolm Brown. The impact created a loud crack that shot through New Meadowlands Stadium (now MetLife Stadium). Brown, his collarbone broken, struggled to his feet. LeGrand, of course, did not. He laid still on the artificial turf, barely able to breathe, the upper region of his spine broken in two places, between the C3 and C4 vertebrae and the C4 and C5 vertebrae. Trainers rushed to his side: “Your head or your neck? Your head or your neck?” Head coach Greg Schiano, on his knees, pressed his face to LeGrand’s faceguard: “Just pray, Eric. Just pray.” Medical personnel eased LeGrand onto a backboard and took him to a waiting ambulance. He tried to give the thumbs-up sign to the crowd, to assure the 41,292 fans in the stadium that he was OK. But his body would not cooperate. Since that day two years ago, LeGrand has remained paralyzed below his shoulders.

Someone mentions the anniversary. “Maybe,” Wojciehowski says to LeGrand, “you could celebrate all the lives you’ve touched in the last two years.”

A Celebration Like No Other
That would make for quite a celebration. Over the preceding 24 months, LeGrand has indeed touched countless lives, rebounding from his unspeakable injury to craft one of the most widely consumed feel-good stories in the nation. He’s become an inspirational speaker, an advocate for spinal cord research, and a nationally known celebrity. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, sat with Anderson Cooper, and pitched Subway sandwiches on TV. For the past two seasons, he’s provided analysis on radio broadcasts of Rutgers football games. Last June he flew to Los Angeles to receive the Guysman Trophy, bestowed upon “the manliest of men,” from actor Ray Liotta during the Spike TV Guys’ Choice Awards. Decked out in a jet-black suit and white tie, LeGrand entered the stage at Sony Pictures Studio in Culver City to a standing ovation. As Liotta held the microphone, LeGrand recalled his doctors telling him that he might always need a ventilator to breathe, that he might never walk again. “I will rise up from this chair,” he told the crowd, “and I will walk again.”

Almost from that awful moment when he went down, LeGrand’s story has aroused a surge of public support—not only from teammates and students across the Rutgers campuses, but also from strangers across the country. “You always dream about everyone knowing who you are, knowing your name, people yelling for you, but not in that kind of situation,” LeGrand says. “That’s what made me smile. I had so many people writing me letters. I have bags and bags of fan letters. I’m, like, ‘This is me? All these people are looking out for me?’”

Eric Legrand in bedroom with memorabilia
A vivid biography of the last two years of Eric LeGrand’s life is contained on the bedroom walls and bookshelves at his home in Woodbridge, New Jersey: posters and photographs, football helmets and signed footballs, gleaming trophies and awards. In the spring, LeGrand and his mother will move to a new home, constructed with an outpouring of donated materials, labor, and money, that is being custom designed and equipped to handle his physical needs. Photography by John Emerson

Motivated by LeGrand’s insistence that he will one day walk under his own power, his supporters rallied behind a single word. Believe. Rutgers football players wore the word on their helmets, and Scarlet Knights T-shirts and football jerseys inscribed with Believe—and LeGrand’s uniform number, 52—sold by the bushels. Steve Ostergren ENG’88, the owner of Scarlet Fever, a Rutgers clothing store in downtown New Brunswick, says he sold about 10,000 Believe shirts, donating proceeds of nearly $100,000 to the Eric LeGrand Believe Fund, which the Rutgers athletic department created to assist the LeGrand family. Last September William Morrow published LeGrand’s memoir, written with Mike Yorkey, Believe: My Faith and the Tackle That Changed My Life.

LeGrand drew sustenance from the word even before he came to Rutgers. When he was an all-state football player at Colonia High School in Woodbridge, New Jersey, a banner hung over the doorway of the team’s locker room. Believe, it read. And each time he passed beneath it, LeGrand made sure to reach up and touch the adjoining E and L—his initials—for good luck.

Nowhere has the support for LeGrand meant more than in his hometown, where his former Pop Warner coach created the Eric LeGrand Patriot Saint Foundation, and where a local construction company, American Properties, demolished the LeGrand home and began construction on a 2,700-square-foot, handicap-accessible house. Dozens of vendors and contractors donated tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of materials and labor. LeGrand and his mother, Karen, hope to move in by March 1.

The Eternal Optimist
Throughout the past two years, LeGrand has maintained an almost preternatural optimism about his fate. His friends say he’s the same happy-go-lucky goofball they’ve known since grade school: the same energy, the same dreadlocks, the same thousand-watt smile. Brandon Hall, a former classmate who has known LeGrand since sixth grade, calls him a “huge teddy bear.” Although not a regular churchgoer, LeGrand says he believes in “the man upstairs,” and that belief fires his resolve to walk again. He describes his injury as divinely inspired, saying he believes God chose him to carry such a burden because He knew he could. Determined to use his stature as a public figure to help others with spinal cord injuries, he recently started Team LeGrand, which will operate under the auspices of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. His injury seems to have informed LeGrand with wisdom beyond his years. More than most 22-year-olds, he understands that life can change forever in the snap of a finger. So maybe it’s no surprise to hear him say that the last two years have been the best two years of his life.

“Just think: two years ago I was running down the field making the tackle, and now I’m here,” he says, gesturing toward the wheelchair. “But what I’ve done in these past two years for myself and for so many other people has been truly a blessing. I know that God has a plan for everything, and that I’m not just going through this just to go through it. I’m really affecting a lot of people’s lives through this, and I’m waiting for that day when I can show that miracles do happen.”

Being paralyzed and in a wheelchair complicates just about every daily function. Most days begin with a nurse and an aide helping LeGrand out of his hospital bed to get washed and dressed, a process that typically takes up to three hours. At night, when it’s time for bed, Karen LeGrand, using a machine called a Hoyer lift, places a large sling beneath Eric while he’s seated in the wheelchair. The sling raises him from the chair and Karen rolls the lift toward the bed, then lowers Eric onto the mattress and detaches the sling. “When we travel,” she says, “it’s just me and the nurse. So I’m the aide. It’s work.”

LeGrand keynote speaker at Rutgers Homecoming 2012
For more than two years, Eric LeGrand has managed to maintain a very busy schedule, despite the time it takes to get ready for, and conclude, his day. He has made numerous public appearances to receive awards honoring him, attended classes regularly to work toward his degree at Rutgers, served as a broadcaster for Rutgers home football games, and undergone four hours of physical therapy five days a week. During Homecoming Weekend on the New Brunswick Campus, LeGrand was the keynote speaker at the Rutgers University Alumni Association’s Fourth Annual Alumni Leaders Conference, speaking October 27 at the Rutgers Visitor Center. He is also the coauthor of the book Believe: My Faith and the Tackle That Changed My Life (and a version for young readers, Believe: The Victorious Story of Eric LeGrand). Left, LeGrand offers color commentary during a 2011 Rutgers game against North Carolina Central, working alongside Marc Malusis of SNY/WFAN. Photography by Nick Romanenko 

Once dressed, LeGrand spends many mornings attending classes via Skype. A student, often a teammate, will film the professor with a small camera, while another student takes notes that are scanned and emailed to LeGrand. He also uses computer software that displays the pages from his textbooks on the screen and reads them aloud. A labor studies major, LeGrand resumed his schoolwork in January 2011, just three months after his injury, taking a single class, “Blacks and Economic Structures,” to test his readiness for academic rigor. It turns out he was plenty ready. Last fall he took three classes, nearly a full load. He hopes to complete his degree requirements in the fall and graduate next January. “Eric really wants his degree,” says Jenna Beverly, his academic adviser. “So he wanted to get back and get at this. That’s how he tackles a lot of things.”

By noon, LeGrand is in the family’s Volkswagen minivan with the Rutgers block R on the rear bumper, en route to Kessler for his physical therapy session. LeGrand goes through the four-hour sessions five days a week, and they’ve helped him make marked strides. Today he can sit unassisted for 15 minutes, a feat that would have been unthinkable when he started outpatient therapy at Kessler in April 2011. He can move his head freely from side to side and shrug his shoulders. “Things we’ve seen improving are, I think, beyond what we expected,” Wojciehowski says. “At this point, I think we’re just sort of interested to see what he’ll do next.”

A Special Relationship
On most days Karen LeGrand drives her only son to his therapy session. They have always been close, but the injury has strengthened their bond in a way that perhaps no other circumstance could. Karen rarely left Eric’s side during the three weeks he spent at Hackensack University Medical Center, only reluctantly agreeing to get some occasional sleep at a hotel around the corner. When the full extent of her son’s injury and subsequent recovery became evident, she quit her office job so she could tend to Eric around the clock. It was to his mother that Eric dedicated his book. “You’ve been there every step of the way throughout this incredible journey,” he wrote.

“This type of injury really can either bring you closer together as a family or it’s going to split you apart,” Karen says. “And I’ve seen, too close, how families get split apart, where parents don’t visit their children, mothers aren’t there for their kids, and it kind of just made me think: I’m never going to do that. I’m going to be there for him, no matter what.”

Yet for all the hardship she has endured trying to care for her son, a once-gifted athlete who is now unable to feed or clothe himself, unable to tie his shoes or scratch an itch, Karen LeGrand has been humbled by the support she has received from friends and neighbors and complete strangers. The idea that a new home is being built for her and Eric fills her with a gratitude that she can barely express. “I don’t even know what to say about something like this,” she says. “This is a house we’re talking about. I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s like, wow, I can’t even believe this is happening.”

Project manager John Csik says American Properties consulted the Kessler Institute on the design of the house. “I would never want to put myself in his position, but you sort of have to when you’re building a house for somebody in his condition,” Csik says. “You really have to have a sense of where he’s coming from.”

At the back of the new three-bedroom house, a covered breezeway will connect a garage and elevator. The elevator will take LeGrand to a second-floor suite consisting of a bedroom, bathroom, exercise room, and a loft with a balcony. Through a command board on his $40,000 wheelchair, he’ll be able to turn lights on and off, lock and unlock doors, activate the heating and air-conditioning systems, even see who’s ringing the doorbell. “This is where Eric picks up a lot more independence than he has been used to over the last couple years,” Csik says. “It takes pressure off of not only Eric, but his mother as well.”

For now Karen and Eric LeGrand share a modest two-bedroom unit in an apartment complex less than a mile from their house. When he’s there, Eric spends much of his time in his bedroom, which could double as the headquarters of the Rutgers Booster Club. You could learn a lot about the last two years of LeGrand’s life just by hanging out in his bedroom. He controls the flat-screen television (and his cell phone and laptop) with voice commands. A life-size cutout poster of LeGrand in a white Rutgers uniform hangs on a wall. A poster declaring “Believe!” contains a collage of coming-of-age images—prom night at Colonia High, high school graduation, suited up for the Scarlet Knights. There’s a framed photograph of the Rutgers marching band in a 52 formation. A rack on another wall contains signed footballs from college teams such as Pittsburgh, Kentucky, Virginia, Princeton, Penn State, and North Carolina, and pro teams such as the Dallas Cowboys, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and his beloved Denver Broncos. A desk holds the Guysman Trophy, an Espy Award, and the Emmy Award won by NBC sportscaster Bruce Beck, who conducted the first television interview with LeGrand following his injury and then gave him the Emmy.

A shelf on another wall holds signed football helmets from, among other teams, the New York Jets and Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers helmet holds special meaning for LeGrand. Schiano had become especially close with Karen and Eric LeGrand before leaving Rutgers to coach Tampa Bay in January 2012. In LeGrand’s darkest hours, the days and weeks immediately following his injury, Schiano was a constant visitor to his bedside. As the football team floundered in the aftermath of LeGrand’s injury, losing the final six games of the 2010 season, Schiano frequently traveled to Hackensack after practice. LeGrand would wake up in his hospital bed in the wee hours of the night to see Schiano slumped in a plastic chair, fast asleep. “He would relieve my mom, and let her go to the hotel and get some sleep,” LeGrand says. “It became a routine. I knew that he was going to be there.”

A Unique Free Agent
Last May, just days after the National Football League (NFL) draft, LeGrand received a phone call from his former coach. Schiano told LeGrand he wanted to sign him to a free-agent contract with the Buccaneers. Had LeGrand stayed healthy, Schiano believes he would have been drafted in 2012, after what would have been his senior season. “No doubt in my mind,” the coach says. His signing, LeGrand knew, was a symbolic gesture. He would receive no salary, and he officially retired from the Buccaneers in July, allowing the team to fill its allotted 90-man roster. But Tampa Bay sent LeGrand a team jersey—number 52—and the helmet that now sits on the shelf in his bedroom. And the team has welcomed him into the organization. In June he flew to Tampa Bay and gave an inspirational talk to his new teammates. “In this room full of pro athletes, who have accomplished quite a bit, every eye was glued on him while he was speaking,” Schiano says. “I thought it was really cool.”

LeGrand conveyed the same message he often imparts when called upon to speak in public. Don’t take anything for granted. Count each day as a blessing. “It just carries so much more weight when it comes from him,” Schiano says.

LeGrand returned to Tampa in September to watch the season-opening win against the Carolina Panthers. In November, with Brandon Hall and Nate Brown, another hometown friend, he soaked up the pregame warm-ups on the field at Raymond James Stadium, and then the three of them watched the game against the Atlanta Falcons from a private suite. For LeGrand, who started playing football when he was five years old and who had long dreamt of playing in the NFL, Schiano’s contract offer proved that sometimes dreams do come true. All you have to do is believe. •