NFL

Schiano comes through for LeGrand

Eric LeGrand, Greg Schiano
Greg Schiano has shown dedication to Eric LeGrand at every turn.
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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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In New Jersey, a lot of things have been said about Greg Schiano in recent months.

He’s been called a “deserter” for leaving the Rutgers football program high and dry when he agreed to become the new coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just before National Signing Day. He’s been called a “loser” for his inability to beat West Virginia and take Rutgers to a BCS bowl in his seven years as head coach.

But he’s also been called something else.

He’s been called a mensch. Time and time again.

Mensch is the Yiddish term for "a person of integrity and honor” and in New Jersey, the word is thrown around at coffee shops, sports bars, and pizzerias. The NFL and the nation as a whole got a glimpse of the type of guy — and mensch — Greg Schiano is on Wednesday morning, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced the signing of Eric LeGrand.

LeGrand broke two vertebrae and suffered a serious spinal cord injury on Oct. 16, 2010 during a kickoff return against Army. Paralyzed, he remained an integral part of the Rutgers football team, even leading the Scarlet Knights on to the field before an October, 2011 game. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano never let Eric LeGrand stop believing that he could achieve his dreams, and on Wednesday, he helped solidify his promise to do just that.

“He’s a father figure to me,” LeGrand told FOXSports.com on Wednesday. “He’s been there for me, always. Before the injury, after the injury, and now. We still talk once a week. We're communicating all the time. This is, wow, this is ... just amazing.”

During Schiano’s pre-draft preparation with the Bucs in April, he said he couldn’t stop thinking about LeGrand. The 21-year old Avenel, New Jersey native would have been a senior last season, and had he not had his playing career ended with the spinal injury, very well could have been drafted last weekend.

“Leading up to the draft, I couldn’t help but think that this should’ve been Eric’s draft class,” Schiano said in a statement on Wednesday. “This small gesture is the least we could do to recognize his character, spirit, and perseverance. The way Eric lives his life epitomizes what we are looking for in Buccaneer Men.”

LeGrand was told he'd be a Buccaneer on Tuesday evening. He wasn’t supposed to find out until Wednesday.

“Coach Schiano told my mother on Monday night and she was supposed to keep it secret,” he laughed. “I don’t think she could keep it from me, though. On Tuesday, Coach called me and said they were signing me to be a part of the rookie class. I was like, 'Coach, are you serious?’”

He was.

“They can't give me any money with the salary cap and all that, but it’s not about that, obviously," LeGrand said. "It's a symbolic gesture. But I’ll definitely be down there in August at training camp. I can’t wait for that. Coach didn't have to do this. It means a lot."

But this is nothing new for Schiano; nor is it some savvy PR move made during a week in which bounties, wiretapping, and concussions have dominated NFL headlines.

This is who Schiano is.

In the summer of 2004, Rutgers defensive end Rashawn “Rocky” Ricks was at a Fourth of July fair outside Giants Stadium, about 15 miles from his hometown of Paterson, N.J. Ricks left the fair after a fireworks display and hopped into his best friend’s car with his cousin and another buddy.

They were sober and it was raining. When their car, a Dodge Stratus, lost control in the pouring rain on New Jersey’s Route 20, three of the four men in the automobile lost their lives on the impact of a tragic crash.

Rashawn “Rocky” Ricks was the lone survivor of the accident.

He was told he’d never play football again. His doctors said there was a chance he’d never walk again.

Greg Schiano, the man who recruited Ricks to play at Rutgers less than 12 months earlier, didn’t once question what to do with Ricks’ place in the Scarlet Knights locker room. He knew Rashawn Ricks would never play football again. He knew he’d never let that break Ricks’ spirit.

Rashawn Ricks not only walked again, but he walked right into Greg Schiano’s office less than a year later and told his former coach that he couldn’t let football go. He’d never make another tackle, but he just couldn’t give up the game because of an injury. Schiano wouldn’t let him, anyway.

Ricks kept his full athletic scholarship and was brought on to the Rutgers coaching staff in a managerial role. He worked with the younger linebackers and defensive ends, shagged balls, lugged equipment, and graduated with a degree in four years at Rutgers.

“Without their strength, without the strength of these coaches, I don’t think I’d have made it,” Ricks would later tell the New York Times. “I can’t find the words to explain the state I was in.”

Schiano’s “symbolic gesture” for LeGrand on Wednesday wasn’t by design or strategically calculated. It was natural. It’s what the man does.

After LeGrand’s injury in 2010, Schiano would travel 90 minutes from Rutgers in Piscataway to Hackensack Hospital after practices to be by LeGrand’s bedside at night.

“He was always there,” said LeGrand. “He was always there, just giving me the will to believe. That’s his motto — 'Believe' — and he lives by it.”

Steve Politi covered Rutgers football for the Newark Star-Ledger for more than a decade. Reached Wednesday for comment, Politi explained, “Once Eric was healthy, Greg [Schiano] made sure he remained an important part of the program in every way. I've often thought that, after the doctors and his mother, Greg was more responsible for Eric’s successful recovery than anybody.”

Schiano’s a big reason to like what’s going on in Tampa Bay this offseason.

After giving up on their last coach, Raheem Morris, after the 2011 season, the Buccaneers were in search of a new leader to change things up. A shift in attitude and culture was needed.

They got all that in Schiano, a man most often portrayed with having a hard shell. In the team’s first offseason workout on April 17, he brought the wood, working the Bucs veterans out in 80 degree heat with a rapid tempo and pace.

“Football is about details and it starts here,” he shouted in the faces of veterans. “Toes on the edge (of the line), toes on the edge (of the line)."

The statement was made. There’d be no more casual approaches to Sundays; no more lax attitudes during the work week.

“They better be ready to work,” said LeGrand. “Coach Schiano doesn’t listen to many excuses or complaints. They'll be disciplined, for sure. They won't make many mental mistakes.”

As Schiano’s been molding a new culture and creating a fresh persona for one of the league’s franchises on the field, GM Mark Dominik has been filling out the roster with superb talent off of it. The Bucs struck gold (and spent quite a bit of it) this offseason with the signings of veteran free agents Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks, and Eric Wright. Over the weekend, critics everywhere raved about Tampa’s draft haul, in which they brought in three players — safety Mark Barron, running back Doug Martin, and linebacker Lavonte David — who could start on opening day.

On Wednesday, they signed LeGrand.

“It was a great moment. I still can’t believe it. Saw the jersey, the helmet. I'm a Buc. It's pretty cool,” said LeGrand.

But Wednesday’s news was just the beginning of what should be a busy few months for Eric LeGrand. In June, Schiano will be back in the Garden State, reading the speech when LeGrand is honored by the New Jersey Hall of Fame as its 2012 “Unsung Hero Award” recipient.

He has a book coming out in the fall. He’s also studying hard to finish up his credits and graduate in December. In April, he signed with sports broadcast agency powerhouse IMG, and he’s already had a few meetings about a career behind the microphone.

“I owe a lot to Coach Schiano,” said LeGrand. “He’s always been there, always pushing me to be my best. Always encouraging me to achieve my dreams.”

“I think what's telling for me is, in 11 years covering the team, I never once heard of a truly disgruntled player, including the ones who transferred,” adds Politi, the sportswriter. “Will this stuff transfer to the pros? Put it this way: I don't think there's a line of work where people don't want to respect their boss as a person.”

You can take the mensch out of Jersey, but you can’t take the mensch out of the man.

With Greg Schiano steering the ship, the Buccaneers appear to be in good hands.
 

Tagged: Buccaneers, Eric Wright, Carl Nicks

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