By Andy Loigu
Despite the fact that he has been paralyzed for five years after being injured in a football game, Eric LeGrand said if he had a son who wanted to play football, he would permit him to do so.
“I recommend playing football, I encourage it,” he said, “it is the best teacher for life.”
LeGrand uses a wheelchair after suffering a spinal cord injury upon making a tackle for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on a kick return in a game against West Point at MetLife Stadium. Instead of becoming bitter and despondent, his spirit has grown stronger and he has been positive and inspirational, serving as an analyst on the radio broadcasts of Rutgers games, a commentator on SNY, and making numerous public appearances in a variety of settings to speak about “the power of faith, hope and courage.”
He spoke on Friday, Feb. 5, before a full house of over 600 people, in the sanctuary at Trinity United Methodist Church, 213 Main St., Hackettstown.
“I will go back to that stadium and walk off that field, and finish that play,” he told the audience. “Things are coming back, slowly but surely. I’m breathing on my own without a respirator now, and it was a wonderful milestone when I was able to eat a full solid meal with my family. I’ve lifted my arm a little bit at therapy.”
He has regained movement in his shoulders and feeling in his body.
Radiant with optimism, he said amazing things are going on with medical technology, and he is very hopeful he will regain his ability to walk. He appreciates the “celebrity treatment” he’s been getting at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange. “I’m on a journey and will get back on my feet,” he declared. “The doctors tell me I’m making good progress. I keep the faith and keep working hard.”
He recalled that in the immediate aftermath of the collision, he found himself unable to get up and had great difficulty breathing. LeGrand fractured his C3 and C4 cervical vertebrae.
LeGrand played at Rutgers for head coach Greg Schiano, who visits LeGrand often and has embraced the family as his own, relieving Eric’s mother from many caretaking tasks.
“So many people reached out to me, including Tom Coughlin of the Giants and Andy Reid who was with the Eagles at the time,” he continued. “This injury hit my teammates hard, but I told them this happened for a reason, that I was meant for other things than football.”
He described himself as someone who grew up with empathy for others. “I’ve always been a positive upbeat guy who likes to help people,” he said.
Through the Eric LeGrand Patriot Saint Foundation, he raises funds and advocates on behalf of people with spinal cord injuries.
Rutgers has established the Eric LeGrand Believe Fund to support Eric and his family.
Among his numerous awards is the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance, which was presented to him at the ESPYs in 2012.
“I don’t know if I can say I’d want to change what happened. Of course, you’d rather not be paralyzed, but the way it is, I’ve had so many positive relationships the last five years, and been given the opportunity to do things others would envy.”
He said getting to attend the Super Bowl in his home state of New Jersey two years ago “was a dream come true.”
Another great opportunity came in broadcasting. “Chris Carlin has been my mentor for everything. I’ve always been a talker, someone who expresses myself, but there was a lot to learn about handling a game broadcast,” he said, adding that it’s been a gratifying activity for him, to help the fans understand what is going on and enjoy the games, to connect with all the great Rutgers fans out there who are supporting him.
“I have a special relationship with God, lots of things make me realize I’m doing good for people. No matter how bad you have it in this world, somebody has it worse. It is how we handle it that defines us,” he said. “So many people have given to me, now it is my time to give. The definition of success is the peace of mind that comes with knowing you did the best you could,” he told the audience.
In a question and answer session with the audience, he was asked about his relationship with Malcom Brown, the Army player in the fateful collision. “I have no animosity toward him,” LeGrand replied. “I’m the one who made the tackle on him. I have so much respect for what they do at Army. They are training to protect our country.”
LeGrand was given standing ovations when he came onto the platform and exited. Also, his mother was given a standing ovation when LeGrand called on her to say hello to a very appreciative audience.
LeGrand’s visit was arranged by Marty Yudichak of Hackettstown, who has served the community as a player, coach, and broadcaster. He got to know and appreciate LeGrand when he coached in an all-star game in which LeGrand played as a rising star from Colonia High School. “He was an inside linebacker,” Yudichak recalled. “We all have our lot in life, but none more than this. It would have been easy for him to give up, but he didn’t.”
LeGrand impressed this observer with his humanity. He did not sound boastful or resentful in any way. He was sincere in sharing with the audience that his faith bears, hopes, and endures all things. He seemed to deeply desire everything that is good for the people who cared enough to come. The way we respond to the things that happen in our lives cause us to either love more or love less.
LeGrand left no doubt he has chosen to love more.
And, he was lighthearted and in the moment, a football fan, just one of us.
“I’ve always been a Denver Broncos fan and I wore number 30 in high school because of Terrell Davis [Denver’s all-time rushing leader]. Sunday’s going to be a big day for me,” LeGrand said, looking ahead to seeing his favorite team play in one more Super Bowl. He was not disappointed, as the Broncos won the championship.
Considering what he has been through, the enthusiasm he still has for the sport of football is remarkable to say the least, and his positive outlook on life is inspirational. “I believe this happened for a reason. I’m doing amazing things,” he said. “My message to anyone who feels they are struggling with hardship would simply be believe.”
Rutgers has honored him by retiring his number. The number 52 will never again be worn by a Scarlet Knight, with the exception of Eric LeGrand when he takes part in ceremonies at Rutgers home games.
His audience included 60 youths in grades six to 12 who stayed at the church for 24 hours and fasted as part of an educational/service ministry. They learned about the issues of hunger, poverty, and injustice. As part of their experience, they solicited pledges for their fast and all proceeds supported a home repair program called A Future with Hope, a ministry of rebuilding the homes of poor, disabled, and elderly persons who were devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.