TAMPA, Fla. — A 24-word message from the soul to a football family close at heart spread to 130,000 Twitter followers Wednesday night.
Eric LeGrand never met Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer, who died on Wednesday at age 85, but he knew the billionaire allowed his dream to gain sweet life two years ago.
That’s the thing about dreams that come true: There isn’t an expiration date.
On May 2, 2012, the Bucs symbolically signed LeGrand, the former Rutgers defensive tackle who became paralyzed from the neck down on Oct. 16, 2010, after sustaining fractures of two vertebrae and a spinal cord injury in a game against Army. On July 26, 2012, LeGrand retired in a selfless act so he wouldn’t occupy a roster spot for a player trying to make the team in training camp.
LeGrand has called himself a "Buc for life." So this week, he did what a Buc for life would do: When he learned of Glazer’s death Wednesday afternoon, while watching television at home in New Jersey, he felt compelled to spread his thanks to the world.
RIP to Malcolm Glazer thank you and your family for agreeing with Coach Schiano and letting me sign an NFL contract with the @TBBuccaneers
"I know when Coach (Greg) Schiano came up with the idea, he had to run it through the whole (Glazer) family," LeGrand told FOXSportsFlorida.com on Thursday night. "I remember when he told me when they were all onboard for it, and they thought it was a great idea. So that’s what my tweet really stemmed from. You know what I mean? Because I remember him telling me that the family agreed when he came up with the idea, and they just thought it was a tremendous idea.
"I truly did mean ‘Thank you.’ Like I said, without their approval — the Glazer family — the whole thing would never have happened with Coach Schiano’s idea."
LeGrand’s presence with the Bucs was a moment that felt right in every way. Say what you will about the dead ends of the two-year Schiano Era: the 11-21 record, the MRSA outbreaks, the Josh Freeman fallout. Folly after folly. LeGrand’s influence became a beacon in the fog, a treasure to be valued then and to this day.
LeGrand’s No. 52 jersey was sold through the team store with proceeds benefitting spinal cord research. He gave an impassioned locker-room speech that June, the central message being "Don’t give up," that running back Doug Martin called "touching." LeGrand guesses that he has made 10 trips to Tampa Bay’s facility over the past two years, forming bonds with players like Freeman (they both like Jordan sneakers) and linebacker Jonathan Casillas, a fellow Garden State native.
LeGrand lived a reality he had chased since boyhood. The destination was every bit the breath of life and emotional lift he had imagined.
"That moment was incredible," LeGrand said. "It was a moment that I’ll never forget. … I got to see the team, the family, going out to practice, going through the facilities, getting some gear. I was a legit part of the team. Every time I came, you saw me talking to the players. I became friends with them. It was just an incredible moment for me to sign with them."
Faces come and go in the NFL. It’s rare to see deep, meaningful connections formed between players and ownership. There’s a perceived wall between the men who entertain on the field and the ones lounging in the luxury boxes who make the league’s gears turn.
There are business realities in this fragile and sometimes contentious partnership, of course. Everyone has varied interests. Everyone has an agenda, a life inside and outside the game, to consider.
There’s nothing wrong with that dynamic. It’s the guts of America’s largest sports beast, its life. But there’s also room for humanity. There’s room tomorrow and the day after, next year and always.
Although their lives were separated by decades and circumstance, Malcolm’s influence on LeGrand shouldn’t be lost. The man at the height of pewter-and-red power — in ailing health since two strokes in April 2006 and rarely seen in recent years — meant something to LeGrand even if the aging owner remained a figure in the distance.
"I’m definitely going to continue to follow them," LeGrand said of the Bucs. "That’s the team I got picked up by. I always admitted it — I admitted to the Buccaneers — I’m a die-hard Denver Broncos fan. So I will always root for the Broncos. But Tampa Bay, I will always root for them, too, no matter what their situation is. Coach (Schiano) isn’t there, (but) I still got to sign with them and got to be a part of everything, so I will always root for them."
From his soul to the world, this "Buc for life" will never forget a man who made it possible.
"I give my condolences to their family," LeGrand continued later. "I pray for them, of course. Just thank you again for the opportunity to be a part of something special and making my dream come true. I’ll never forget that. I’ll always remember that kind gesture that they did for me."