It is often said that adversity doesn’t build a person’s character, it reveals it. For Rutgers defensive tackle, Eric LeGrand, it was a life changing moment on the football field in October 2010 that revealed who he was and showed the strength and power of his character. LeGrand was on one of the grandest stages, MetLife Stadium, as he and his Rutgers teammates took on Army on October 16, 2010. LeGrand was on special teams looking to make a tone-setting tackle, and instead, suffered a spinal injury that left him fighting for his life and ultimately confined to a wheelchair. Those are the details of a single moment, but the impact LeGrand is having on thousands of lives is so much more than a single moment, it will last a lifetime.
LeGrand’s attitude, outlook and inner drive have already allowed him to defy odds and touch lives. He isn’t spending his energy and time feeling sorry for himself, instead he’s raising money and awareness and continuing to regain his strength in hopes of one day walking again.
I recently had a unique opportunity to sit down for an in-depth one-on-one interview with LeGrand to talk about how the incident in 2010 changed his life and to learn how one man’s strength and character can change the lives of everyone he meets.
NB: How did you end up doing the speaking engagement tonight for the MAPS Pain conference, and making this trip to Minneapolis?
EL: Well, I partnered with Pfizer, which is why I made the trip out here. I’ve been working with them side by side. Through Pfizer, I got to experience a lot and meet a lot of great people. It’s actually kinda cool meeting people that are working with spinal cord injuries and nerve pain. I’m trying to be the spokesperson for them and share my story along the way and things that I’ve learned and try to give people some hope while I’m out here.
NB: How long have you been working with Pfizer?
EL: I’ve been working with Pfizer for a year. This is our first event together.
NB: Could you walk me through the accident?
EL: I had a double team, two guys coming right at me when they kicked the ball up. I got by them, so I had about a 40-50 yard head start after that. So I’m coming full speed and when I got there I knew I wanted to hit him with my shoulder. That’s why I put my head down. I was gonna be on the side of his ribs. I was going to tackle him with my shoulder, but my teammate got there a half a second before me, and tripped him up and the guy’s body got spun around. And when his body got spun around, my head was down, and his shoulder blade hit right on the crown of my head. It wasn’t on the side of his ribs like I thought it was. And that’s what caused it.
NB: Obviously, it all happened so fast. What were you thinking?
EL: I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t move. But I wasn’t scared I couldn’t move, I was more scared I couldn’t catch my breath. I thought I was gonna die. Like, is this it? Is it over? I had all these doctors and the training staff coming out to me asking, “Is it your head or your neck?” I’m just like, “I can’t breathe!”
Coach Schiano came over, and just told me to pray. And that’s all I did. Somehow when they got me out on the cart and lifted me up, I caught a gasp of air for a second. I took one deep breath and I went to take more and nothing happened. I went to give a thumbs up to the crowd to let them know I was gonna be okay and nothing happened. Then I saw my mom in the corner end zone, and I just started crying. They put an oxygen mask on my face and I was thinking it was going to let me breathe. It didn’t and I just passed out. I really don’t remember too much then until Wednesday. It happened on a Saturday.
EL: What happened when you came to and couldn’t move? What were your thoughts?
NB: Well, when I came to I was still pinned to the bed. I had a neck brace on. I was just trying to tilt my head to the right or left. But then I saw all these posters and stuff around my room. Everybody was wishing me well. There was so many different posters from colleges, NFL coaches, NFL teams and all the Rutgers athletes. I saw all these posters and was just like, “Wow look at all this support I have.”
The biggest thing I found out two months later was my mom would not let anybody in my room with a negative attitude or who was upset or crying. So everyone who came into my room was so upbeat. So I’m thinking everything is going to be okay. I found out later that as soon as my friends would leave they would be balling their eyes out. Crying outside of the room. But that’s what got me going. That’s what motivated me right away.
NB: Do you think what your mom did set the standard right away to be positive?
EL: Yes, I think honestly that’s what it was. They had two visiting rooms at that hospital. And they said one day I had 80 people in there at once. We kinda took over the hospital.
NB: You’ve already overcome a lot of things doctors said you wouldn’t. What are those things?
EL: 1. Coming off of a ventilator: They told me I would be on that the rest of my life. I came off of that in five weeks.
2. Keeping a tube in my stomach: They told me I would never eat solid foods, and I’m eating plenty of them.
3. I would never live a normal life: You see me! I’m traveling all over the place. I travel more now that I ever did playing the game of football.
4. They told me I had 0-5% chance of getting any neurological function back: A few weeks later I was able to move my shoulders. Like this (shimmies)
NB: You look like you can dance!
EL: Shoot. Don’t catch me at the Jersey Shore!
NB: Right now, what do they say are the odds of you walking again? What do you think?
EL: They have no idea. They’ve seen all the progress I’ve made. I’m doing as much therapy as possible, because I’ve already come so far.
In my mind, I know I’m going to walk again. I wish I could tell you it’s gonna be tomorrow. I wish I could say it was yesterday. I just know that one day it’s going to happen one day in my lifetime.
NB: In the beginning, before the doctors got to know you, what did they tell you?
EL: In the beginning, they would tell my mom I might not make it through a surgery. They didn’t know about my sheer will power. They didn’t know how stubborn I am.
It was tough in the beginning, especially for my mom. That’s why I always say, the people around me had to deal with it more than I did because I really don’t remember much of anything from those first few days. My mom, my family and my friends had to hear everything the doctors were saying - I didn’t.
NB: What’s the most frustrated you’ve ever been? And have you ever felt like you wanted to give up?
EL: I never felt like I wanted to give up, but I have been frustrated. Especially when it’s late and my mom and I are arguing. I get in my modes where I’m like, “I need this, I need this, and I need this.” And she’s like, “I just want to go to sleep.” I wish I could just do it myself, you know? That’s the most frustrating.
NB: How has this affected your personal life?
EL: I’ve actually gained more of my childhood friends. They’ve really stepped up to the plate. I’ve always had friends everywhere I went. None of them have disappeared.
NB: Financially, does the NCAA help take care of you?
EL: Yep. That’s a big thing. I was very fortunate. I got hurt playing college football so I have lifetime NCAA insurance. They bought my van. They can buy certain equipment that my mom’s insurance turns down. It’s very unfortunate that somebody whose cleaning their gutters and falls down in their backyard won’t get that same insurance that I have.
NB: Tell me a little bit about your foundation, Team LeGrand.
EL: The main goal is to find a cure for paralysis. In the meantime, we can help people with their quality of life. Help them get more rehab centers.
This special tredmill I walk on everyday, it costs $90,000 to get those installed into centers! I want to raise money to get more of those into centers. You always see the Jimmy V Foundation and Dickie V Foundation. I’m hoping one day it can get to that top level.
NB: How much have you raised so far?
EL: We soft launched it in the spring. But when my jersey got retired at Rutgers in September that’s when I really announced it to the world. We’re close to $200,000 now.
NB: How did the ESPYS impact you? (Eric won the 2012 Jimmy V Perseverance Award during the ESPYS)
EL: I wish I had my foundation then! I wish when I got to speak at the ESPY’S I could’ve brought that up because that would have been huge! It was good to raise awareness about everything I’m fighting for.
It was hard for me to get to the after party because professional athletes were coming up to me. It wasn’t about them anymore. It was a pretty cool scene.
NB: Who was the athlete that you met that you have the most respect for?
EL: I can’t really pick just one. Justin Tucker, Eli Manning, Jeremy Linn and Tim Tebow. Greg Jennings even came running up to me to make sure he got my right Twitter handle. He came up to me three times. It was great!
NB: What do you think has to be done to eliminate some of these injuries in football?
EL: This speed is a high speed, collision game. It’s going to be tough to eliminate all the injuries. It even says on the helmet you put on, “WARNING.”
I would let my son play football and I’m here sitting in this wheelchair.
I believe football is the best teacher of life for you. 365 days of the year you’re busting your butt. You’re running those sprints after a two hour practice, and asking yourself, ‘Why am I doing this? ‘ But it’s those tough times that get you ready for life.
If you just lost your job. What are you gonna do? You fight through it. The life lessons of team work and when your down you gotta pick yourself up. Some people take these lessons for granted.
If you wanna keep the game of football, it’s hard to take out certain things. Too many people running all over the place at full speed. This is football. It was made this way. Everyone that’s playing knows the risk.
NB: How do you feel about Rutgers joining the Big Ten?
EL: Yeah! I can’t wait! I feel great about it! Looking at the schedule next year, it’s gonna be a tough one! Finally Rutgers stepped up to that level where they can compete. Every game is a going to be a tough game. I’m ready for them to crash some parties!
I wish I was still playing! Thinking of me coming out of the tunnel at Penn State or Michigan? Oh it would’ve been over! I would’ve gotten a penalty for too much celebration.
NB: What do you think of the Gophers?
EL: First eight win season since like 1968? That’s amazing. I’ve been following you guys. I hope Coach Kill gets better. Seizures are no joke. I’ve seen them up close. I don’t know exactly what he’s going through, but his prayers are with me.
NB: How are you able to say every day, “This is my life. And I’m going to deal with it.”
EL: How can you not? I can’t change it. I can’t sit in my room and pout all day. Things don’t get done like that. I’ve been very blessed to be able to go pretty much anywhere and meet so many great people. It’s really been an honor. There are so many people I see on a daily basis that are in ten times worse situation than I am. They would love to be sitting where I am. I always say, “What do I have to complain about?”
NB: What are your short and long term goals?
EL: My short-term goal is to finish school in December. (LeGrand announced he earned his degree on January 22, 2014) My long-term goal is to be able to walk up on my feet. This will also be my third year working with Rutgers Radio. When I graduate, I want to get more into broadcasting. I also want to become a better motivational speaker. I want to be able to deliver my story even better.
NB: What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
EL: I want to be known as someone who never gave up. I want people to know I faced adversity and handled it. I learned a new game - the game of patience. This is something I have to do. I want people to look at me and say, “Wow. If that guy can do it, why can’t I?”
Twitter: @NadineBabu www.twitter.com/nadinebabu
Nadine Babu is the CEO and Social Media Strategist at Babu Social Networks and completed her undergraduate degree and MBA at the Carlson School of Management. She manages and writes for GopherHole.com