LeGrand stays focused on future
Hope comes by car two hours before game time, the silver van finally appearing in the bunched-up homecoming crowd, weaving between fans clad in red, finally pulling to a painfully slow halt in front of High Point Solutions Stadium.
Doors fly open, men with walkie-talkies approach quickly as they send through the airwaves messages that he is here. Among the sudden crowd closing in on the backseat is a 52-year-old woman who rushes to the back door. The mother wears a red jersey that reads:
Eric LeGrand speaks too quietly to be heard. He’s in a $40,000 wheelchair, clad in white-and-black Jordan shoes he can wear but not use and a gray Rutgers sweater and sweatpants. When the van lowers him to the ground, he wets his lips and then uses them to steer the chair with a joystick. He points himself toward the stadium and, as quickly as he can, goes through the crowd and into the concourse. His team, the one he played for last year before being paralyzed in an Oct. 16 game at the New Meadowlands Stadium, is waiting for him in the locker room.
This is when people begin to see him.
A man yells, emotionally, “LeGrand!”
Another bellows, “Hey, big guy, keep chopping wood!”
The 21-year-old former football player rolls past them, smiling when he hears them and concentrating on the joystick when he does not. As he goes, people in the concourse and those on the other side of the chain-link fence stop and stare at his presence.
People keep shouting his name, and when they notice him, they exude respect. Their eyes follow him, and once he’s passed, they look to one another with an expression of utter sadness. In these moments, glances are exchanged that hold a mixture of respect with a sense the world is utterly unfair — a strong countenance of mixed emotion.
In this quiet tumult, a man steps quickly to the wheelchair. “How you doing buddy,” he asks Eric, and before he can think the man extends his hand. All Eric can do is look and wait. The man, suddenly understanding, does not know what to do. The hand that cannot be shaken freezes in midair.
Eric thanks him and moves on, rolling onward, every so often an opening of stairs in the concourse to his right giving way to the football field below. When the field is visible it is a fresh mosaic of color against the dull gray of concrete — greens and reds and white, the light hitting the colors just right, the sight beautiful.
It is also a stark reminder of Eric LeGrand one year later — as much a reminder to him of what has been lost as to us about what heart, guts and courage really look like.
Many would give up. Many would simply fall into despair. In rehab, LeGrand made two friends who he said did just that. One died after, Eric believes, not having the support he had. The other committed suicide.
“I knew I wasn’t going to do that,” he said. “I felt so sad for them.”
For Eric, the facts are these: On Oct. 16, 2010, the 6-foot-2, 275-pound defensive player collided with an opponent while trying to make a tackle on a kickoff return against Army. It felt like the wind had been knocked out of him. He could only move his head. He had fractured his C3 and C4 vertebrae. He was told he’d be on a ventilator for the rest of his life, and that his paralysis would mean he would not move anything beneath his neck ever again.
For Eric, the truth behind the facts is this: He said he would walk, believed it, meant it. Five weeks later he came off the ventilator. This past summer he moved his arms. His therapy progresses. Soon he’ll be on a treadmill that will simulate walking. He has already beaten so many odds that he has no doubt he will beat the rest of them. While he waits to walk again — and when he can, he will go out to the Meadowlands and lay where the accident happened and then stand and run off the field — he has taken up broadcasting spots during Rutgers game.
Being a sports broadcaster, along with walking again, is his dream. No matter that every home game returns him to a place that many couldn’t face, an ultimate reminder of what’s been lost.
Eric refuses to see it that way. It’s his hope, his future. Rutgers has allowed him to do pregame, halftime and postgame radio spots. It's a big break for a young man who hopes to go into sports broadcasting.
“I can’t be angry at the world,” he says. “Things in life happen for a reason. You take it as it comes.”
For those around Eric, the facts and the truths behind them were just the start: They see in his boundless optimism, in his easy charm, and in his grace under a situation many of us would wither from something truly special, something rare.
It is something to see, this paralyzed young man moving about a stadium and drawing more than just sympathy — pulling from people a visceral sense of hope, of admiration, a reminder somehow of not just how blessed most of us are, but of how strong and good we can be because we see such strength, goodness and courage in him.
As Eric wheels past people, several cry.
Outside the locker room, a walkie-talkie crackles to life: “We have 200 kids here who really want to meet him.”
A short time later, Eric emerges. Whatever he’s said to his former teammates is private. Time to move on. He navigates down the hallways, up a ramp, out the door and back onto the concourse. He turns left. A crowd waits.
When they see him, they break into applause. Children stand in the front. Their parents behind them, raising cameras and phones and video recorders to capture indefinitely this man and how he makes them feel. Lights snap as Eric goes into their midst.
John-Paul Beebe steps forward. He’s a coach of one of the two youth football teams who raised $5,000 for Eric.
“How you handled everything, it’s just — it’s just been inspiring,” Beebe says, the words catching in his throat.
They pass on the check. About to choke up, Beebe says, “Thank you, Eric.”
And then the crowd takes it up — “Thank you, Eric! . . . Thank you, Eric! . . . Thank you!” — and Eric smiles and nods. He moves forward, his chair going slowly as people push around him, several reaching out as if touching him will somehow help . . . somehow help not the paralyzed person, but those who come near him.
That’s the strange world Eric inhabits now. He is paralyzed, he is fearless in the face of that fact, and somehow it is communicated so clearly by his mere presence that it moves people who are giving him $5,000 to thank him instead of the other way around.
“People just come up to me and say I affected their lives just by being who I am,” Eric says. “I don’t have to fake anything. I’m changing people’s lives just by being who I am.”
Once he finally emerges from the crowd, a large contingent of concession workers break into raucous applause.
Eric wheels his way into the radio booth, a cramped room full of chairs and men and equipment. He comes to this spot week after week, and week after week stares down at the field and can’t help but remember what it was like to be out there.
“I do miss it, no doubt,” he says quietly.
Announcer Marc Malusis welcomes him in, and so very quickly Eric rolls up to the window, a headset is placed on his head and the questions begin — Eric’s answers going out across the airwaves to Rutgers fans everywhere, his voice instead of his legs now his hope to have a future in football.
“I always wanted to go to the NFL and be a broadcaster,” he says. “I’ve wanted that my whole life. I got this opportunity from some people, and I’m going to hop all over it, take care of it and do my best.”
This is no easy thing, to do radio. It is not, as some would guess, as simple as sitting down and talking. You must know the material, have or find an ease with the rhythm of radio, have chemistry with your co-host and project a sense of confidence and conversational talking that takes time to find the first few times around.
Still, in three spots over the next several hours, Eric digs in. He’s still learning, still striving, still getting used to it. He brings the same optimism to learning this new craft as he has his new life.
“. . . They’ve go to shut down the fullback; that’s the No. 1 thing right there. . . .”
“. . . I really believe, with that wide-receiver corps, when they get it together, they’re going to be unstoppable. . . ”
“. . . You can tell they’re shooting themselves in their own foot. They could easily be up 21-0. . . ”
“. . . You gotta hold onto the ball. The ball is the program. . . .”
“. . . If you’re in there, you’re not a puppy dog anymore. You gotta grow up and be a dog. . . .”
Between these dispatches, Eric goes to a private suite with a curator, some VIPs and his family. They joke. They laugh. Eric watches the game and calls out (correctly) what’s about to happen throughout. Often, though, a break in the action brings a pause in which Eric stares for a long time at the field and says nothing at all.
All day long, going back and forth between the radio booth and the suite and on the concourse below, before and after the game, people cheer, shout his name, hold back tears, go to shake his hand and then do not know what to do. They ask him how he’s doing, and he talks about football — about something that he loved that took away his legs. And he tells everyone that he will walk, that he will recover, that he will not dwell on the bad things but focus on what’s ahead.
This is bravery.
It is brave to show up here and be reminded.
It is brave to stay yourself when fate or bad luck or whatever it is has conspired so ruthlessly to change you.
It is brave to have someone else place that headset on your head and chase a dream others would have given up on, a dream others would have let sour and found the bitterness in, because in the end it makes the football field a part of his future despite what it did to him in his past.
It is simply brave, and to those whom meet Eric that bravery is as clear as the fact he’s in a wheelchair. They see it, and they are better, and that is something about Eric LeGrand that it turns out nothing can take away.
After the Scarlet Knights beat Navy 21-20, and after they improve to 5-1, and after Eric does his final broadcast, he and his family head to the lower level and toward the parking lot.
“Eric!” his mother shouts to him, “wait for Xavier! He’s going to ride on you.”
His nephew jumps onto Eric’s lap, Eric’s sister and brothers and cousins and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews all smile as Eric and Xavier scoot off toward the elevator.
Down they all go, a family, together, each one taking a moment to look at their beloved Eric. They cannot mask their pride, but he seems as oblivious to their love and admiration, as he has been at times to the gushing emotions brought to strangers when he wheels past them.
In the parking lot, before the van lifts him and his chair back into place, they talk football, talk about his broadcasts, talk about life. It has been another great day — Eric LeGrand isn’t just alive, or thriving, or happy.
He’s a reminder of how the best of us can hold onto the best parts of ourselves no matter what happens. So when his van leaves, taking him through the crowd toward his future, it is easy to believe that he’s right: That he will walk again.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.