Inspired to Walk Again

Eric LeGrand's football career ended in tragedy. Or at least that's what everybody thought.

- Posted on Dec 20, 2012

Eric LeGrand with former Rugers coach Greg Schiano

My dad is old school. When he wants to send me something important, he still uses the postal service. One day earlier this year, I opened an envelope to find a note neatly typed on his law-firm letterhead.

Enclosed find a recent Star Ledger article with regard to Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand that I thought may be of interest to you and Guideposts. Love, Dad.

I wasn’t surprised he’d sent a story about football. We both love the game and Dad’s the one who convinced me to try out for my high school team. I’ve written in Guideposts before about how proud he was of my accomplishments on the field.

At the top of the article was a photograph of Eric—a big, dreadlocked 21-year-old, strapped into some kind of workout apparatus, his left arm in a sling, hung by taut cords attached to a pulley above.

He looked determined; his eyes fixed intently on his arm, as if the power of his mind, not his muscles, would get it to move. That’s when I remembered: The Rutgers vs. Army football game at the New Meadowlands Stadium, October 16, 2010.

Rutgers had just tied it, 17-17, late in the fourth quarter. On the ensuing kickoff, the teams streaked toward one another. Eric went in for the tackle, smashing helmet first into the returner’s shoulder. Both players sprawled out on the turf near the 25-yard line.

The Army player rose, slowly. Eric didn’t. It seemed like the entire crowd held its breath, thinking, Get up. Jog back to the sideline. Trainers huddled around the motionless player, and the commentators spoke in hushed tones.

The collision had fractured Eric’s C3 and C4 vertebrae, paralyzing him from the neck down. Doctors estimated that Eric had less than a five-percent chance of regaining any motor function—much less be able to walk again.

I edit Mysterious Ways and am constantly on the lookout for miracle stories. But what miracle could there be for Eric? Two years after his injury, he’s bound to a wheelchair and depends on his mother and a nurse for his basic needs.

It can take up to two hours to get him out of bed, showered, dressed and into his wheelchair to start the morning. When his nose itches, he can’t even scratch it himself.

And yet, the article Dad sent told a different story. Here was Eric, looking indomitable in one photo, joyful in the next.

Pushing through experimental rehabilitation therapy. Commentating on a Rutgers game from the press booth. Talking to kids at schools across the country. Sending daily messages to more than 120,000 followers on Twitter.

He’d even been signed to a brief, but real NFL contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by Coach Greg Schiano, who’d coached him at Rutgers. “The way Eric lives his life epitomizes what we are looking for in Buccaneer Men,” Schiano said.

Dad was right, I was inspired. But I still wondered, how could Eric keep hoping for that impossible miracle: to walk again?

I reached out to Eric, but my call went straight to his voicemail.

“This is Eric LeGrand. I want to leave you with a quick message before you go. Never take anything for granted. Each day is a gift. It is a prize of its own. You have to go out there and receive it and enjoy it to the best of your abilities. That’s what I do every day of my life. And always remember: Believe.”

Eric called back a moment later. It was just before his Wednesday rehab session. It’s a serious workout. He straps into specially designed harnesses and electrodes that send the electrical impulses to his muscles his nervous system can’t.

He spends half an hour on a treadmill, then half an hour on a mat, working to balance himself and sit up. He wraps up with an hour on an arm bike, retraining his upper body to move. I asked him about his voicemail message, the word “believe.”

“I believe that everything happens for a reason,” Eric said. “That God is working a miracle through me. Because of all those times I was praying when I was on my deathbed. And the answers God gave me.”

In his first months at the hospital, a ventilator and a feeding tube kept him alive. Doctors said he’d never breathe again on his own. The noise of the machines kept Eric up, and he lay there at night wondering if he’d survive.

“Those months, I just prayed Psalm 23 with my aunt all the time,” Eric said. He found comfort in the messages he got from teammates, friends, fans, even perfect strangers. “I became determined to get off the ventilator,” he said.

Finally, Eric convinced his doctors to let him try to breathe without it. “They told me I wouldn’t last more than a few minutes,” Eric said. “First time I came off I lasted an hour and a half. I knew right then there’s a plan for this whole thing.”

The miracles Eric experienced next were like that—not parting-of-the-Red-Sea-huge, but no less significant. At first, doctors found no muscle response in Eric’s lower body. But in rehab, a needle-prick test caused Eric’s muscles to contract, showing the paralysis was not total.

He once couldn’t sit without toppling over, but he slowly built upper body strength and can now sit up for as long as 15 minutes. He can shrug his shoulders, twitch his biceps and triceps, and even move one of his fingers the tiniest bit.

In May, an electromyogram test showed, for the first time, that some nerves in his spine were sending signals below the level of his injury.

“I can see the progress,” Eric told me. “So how can I not believe miracles can happen?”

Delivering that message is what Eric believes God wants him to do. He wasn’t sure he could. But a visit to a middle school in Jersey City changed his mind.

“You know how middle school kids are; all laughing and jumping around,” Eric said. “But you could hear a pin drop when I spoke. I could tell I was making an impact.”

Afterward, a boy walked up to Eric. “I’m blind,” the boy said. “What advice do you have for somebody with a disability like me?”

A tough question. Recovery from paralysis is rare, but recovering sight, even rarer. How could Eric tell him to just “believe”?

Eric answered from the heart. “You still need to strive,” he said. “You still have a voice, you can still hear, you can still feel. You may not be able to see the world, but you can still affect it in many different ways.”

That’s what Eric has done. He hasn’t stopped pursuing his goals. He’s on track to earn his degree at Rutgers in labor studies in 2013. He always imagined a career in broadcasting after football, and now he hosts a daily radio program and works the pre-game show at Rutgers games.

He’s been contacted about opportunities with ESPN, Fox Sports, ABC and others. He is motivated by faith. That was the answer to my question, the reason my dad sent me the article through the mail.

“When you’re right in the middle of it, it’s hard to see things are going to work out,” Eric said. “But when I get to that light at the end of the tunnel, it’ll all be worth it to look back and say I never gave up.”

He sees his ultimate goal so clearly. He’s back at the Meadowlands, on a beautiful, warm day. In the stands, chanting his name, are his mother, Coach Schiano, friends, relatives, teammates, doctors, nurses, rehab therapists, all the people who supported him.

Eric emerges from the tunnel, standing tall. One foot in front of the other, he walks onto the field. The crowd roars.

Then he reaches that spot near the 25-yard line, the spot where it happened. He suddenly stops—and lies down on the grassy turf. Motionless. The crowd quiets, like they did on that October day.

Eric lies there and stares up at the blue sky. A sky he wasn’t sure he’d see again, when he was stuck in that hospital bed, the ventilator breathing for him. He thinks about the inches, the seconds, the twitches that he celebrated throughout his long rehabilitation. Tiny pieces that added up to a big miracle.

He takes a deep, sweet breath, remembering the power that kept him from giving up—a power greater than fear, than doubt, than the limits of the human body or even the breakthroughs of modern medicine. Then Eric smiles, stands up and jogs to the sideline.


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Eric LeGrand's memoir, Believe: My Faith and the Tackle That Changed My Life, and a young reader's edition, Believe: The Victorious Story of Eric LeGrand are both published by HarperCollins and available in bookstores now. "I hope Believe will not only help to inspire people who have disabilities, but will resonate with anyone who has suffered," Eric says.

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