(Eds: Updates throughout with details, quotes.)By JOHN KEKISAP Sports Writer
Eric LeGrand has touched the lives of a lot of people, none more than the man he’ll forever be linked with.
”He’s made me go out there and believe you can do anything, never quit,” Malcolm Brown said. ”Never let somebody tell you you can’t do something. Obviously, he’s not. He’s improving every day. It’s amazing to see, especially when doctors said he wasn’t going to walk again.”
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It’s been just over a year since the 21-year-old LeGrand played his last football game and made his last tackle for Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights had just scored to tie the game and kicked off to Army with just over 5 minutes left at the new Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey. LeGrand, then a hulking 275-pound defensive lineman, made a helmet hit on the left shoulder of Brown, Army’s kick returner, then fell on his back at the 25-yard line and lay motionless as medics rushed to his side.
Members of both teams knelt on the sidelines as they watched. LeGrand, who was carted off the field on a stretcher after several minutes, remembers going down and being dazed, but he didn’t comprehend at the time how severely he was hurt.
Nor did Brown, who broke his collarbone in the violent collision.
”It wasn’t too bad right after the play because of all the adrenaline. I was really worried about him more than me,” Brown said. ”I didn’t think it was too bad. I was raising my arm, but after the game when I took my pads off, I knew it wasn’t good.”
It was crushing for LeGrand, who fractured two vertebrae and was paralyzed below the neck. The news was difficult to accept on both sides.
”I think it’s obviously unsettling,” Army head coach Rich Ellerson said. ”I can’t tell you exactly what’s going on in there (Brown’s mind) sometimes, but I know he feels bad. I know he knows he was close to a catastrophic event, but he is not culpable in any way. I don’t think he feels that way.
”I think it’s more just knowing you were that close to something that was so catastrophic. Why was that different than every other snap I take? That brings it home a little bit. He came back and played, but he was still not the same guy physically. How much of that was that other stuff – that emotional baggage – I can’t speak to.”
Sleep deprivation is a staple at West Point, but in the aftermath of LeGrand’s injury, Brown suffered more than usual.
”It was difficult, especially right after,” said Brown, who missed four games with the collarbone injury but is back at full speed this season, averaging 7 yards a carry in Army’s triple option. ”I was kind of worried about what really happened. The night after, it was difficult to go to sleep just knowing that he could be paralyzed. It really kind of put everything in perspective and made me think that it could be over just like that.”
Brown chose to write LeGrand a letter – and a lasting bond was formed.
”He wrote saying how he was praying for me and continuing to hope I get better. Stuff like that,” LeGrand said. ”I told him I’m doing fine, doing well. Everything happens for a reason.
”I’m not mad at what happened at all,” said LeGrand, who moves around in a motorized wheelchair. ”There’s no animosity between us. We were just playing a game we both love, and freak accidents happen. You can’t have animosity. It’s just the way the game is played. It happened just like that.”
The immediate thought had been to make a visit – the two campuses are less than 2 hours apart – but Twitter and Facebook had to suffice until Ellerson, Brown and some of his teammates visited this past summer.
”He was just like, `Don’t even worry about it. It’s the game of football. Things like that happen. Don’t feel bad about anything,”’ Brown said. ”It was amazing how positive he was and how much he believed that he was going to be able to walk again and step out on the field again. It really inspired me a lot.”
Today, LeGrand is breathing without a ventilator, something doctors had said would be unlikely, and is rehabbing three days a week as an outpatient at Kessler Institute in West Orange, N.J.
After missing most of his junior year, LeGrand also is back working on his degree at Rutgers, greets his former teammates in the locker room before each home game and then goes to his new job.
LeGrand does analysis during pregame, postgame and at halftime for Rutgers radio broadcasts, and he’ll be at Yankee Stadium on Saturday when Brown and the Black Knights meet the Scarlet Knights again.
”I’ll be ready like it’s time for me to go out there and play,” LeGrand said. ”I’ll probably say (to Brown), `Hey, what’s going on? How you doing?’ Just like a normal person would.”
It won’t be their last meeting. West Point has invited LeGrand to visit the campus.”They want to honor me up there with a whole bunch of cadets, not just the football team,” LeGrand said. ”I can’t wait. They’ve treated me very well.”
LeGrand expects to make the trip by the end of the year.
”We feel like we’ve got a relationship with him,” Ellerson said. ”We feel like we’ve got a connection with him. I don’t think he knows how special this place is and how much the guys here follow him – and not just our football players. The entire West Point community is aware of his struggle and we want to make sure we’re there for him. We understand guys get hurt.”
Brown, a junior from Long Island, is looking forward to it.
”This has changed my life, changed his life drastically,” Brown said. ”I learned a lot. It made me the man I am right now. We’re definitely going to keep in contact.”