LeGrand makes grand entrance at Bucs camp
TAMPA, Fla. — Eric LeGrand had only been at One Buc Place for a few hours Tuesday morning. But sitting in his wheelchair, watching practice for the first time and mingling with his new Tampa Bay teammates, his presence was felt more powerfully than anyone on the field this day.
For LeGrand, it was a grand entrance indeed. A month after being officially signed by the Buccaneers and reunited with Greg Schiano, his old head coach from Rutgers, the former Scarlet Knights star defensive tackle finally made his way to the NFL.
Twenty months after his world was forever changed — the result of a football injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down — LeGrand showed up to take in an offseason training workout and spend some time chatting with his fellow Bucs after a lightning-shortened practice session.
Later, he and Schiano sat side by side at a table on a podium inside headquarters, facing a room filled with reporters and TV cameras, along with well-wishers from the organization. He wore a Bucs jersey emblazoned with 52 – LeGrand's number from college before his dream of playing in the NFL vanished while making a tackle at Giants Stadium on Oct. 16, 2010.
Now here he was, fulfilling that dream in a different way, and one that left everyone in his path Tuesday feeling uplifted by his unwavering spirit.
"I want to start by just thanking coach and the whole Tampa Bay organization for even just thinking about this whole idea of picking me up and making my dream come true," he said. "I've been playing this game since I was 5 years old, and my whole goal was to get to the NFL and to be able to support my family with an NFL career and play the game that I love.
"You know, when that accident happened in 2010, it all just stopped there. I didn't know what was going to happen. Laying there on the field, I didn't know if I was going to die right there or what I had coming before me. But you know, it really shows that good things happen to good people. And me just being the person that I am, I wasn't going to let doctors tell me that this wasn't going to happen or just a bunch of negative stuff."
Initially, in fact, LeGrand was told he would need a ventilator permanently and that he would never be able to walk again. But five weeks after the accident, he no longer needed the ventilator and soon was able to stand with the help of a special frame.
And he continues to defy obstacles, pushing toward a dream filled with symbolism and steeped in his trademark determination. He plans one day to walk on his own power and visit the spot at Giants Stadium where he was hurt, lying down there and then getting back on his feet and walking away.
Of course, the impact the 21-year-old had Tuesday was remarkable in itself. He spoke to the gathering about a new initiative centered around selling his Buccaneer jersey (available for order at http://buccaneers.com) as a means of generating revenue to his Eric LeGrand Foundation.
"It's going to help spinal cord research and also help people who don't have the right insurance or right equipment that they need in order to improve in their recovery," he said. "It's stuff I was fortunate to have through my insurance. That's what my whole foundation's about."
He also plans to start a brothers and sisters organization to bring kids to Bucs and Rutgers football games and let him watch as he helps out on Buccaneer radio broadcasts.
Judging from the impression he made on his visit, LeGrand could also make a tangible difference to the team itself. Players who spoke with him came away with a new perspective on their own situations.
"I just met him – he's a great guy," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "He had a chance to address the team and if you never found any type of motivation before, listening to him talk is definitely a confidence and motivation builder, 'cause he's a strong-willed guy and he's a great person.
McCoy has suffered torn biceps in each arm the past two seasons, but talking with LeGrand made him realize how fortunate he is to be healthy and back to 100 percent.
"We always complain about a bunch of nothing," McCoy said. "For a guy to have the sport he loves taken away from him completely, to be as happy as he's ever been, what can we really complain about?"
Added All-Pro guard Carl Nicks: "It's hard not to get emotional about that. A guy that positive, it's crazy. Every time you want to gripe and complain about how hard life is, really, you can walk and move your fingers. This guy is smiling all the time. So any time we're out there and it's hot and you don't want to be out there, I'll just think about him no matter what."
Second-year linebacker Mason Foster echoed the sentiment after meeting LeGrand.
"It had a big impact on me personally," he said. "To see him from when it first happened and what his outlook on life is now really makes it so you can't complain about anything."
Schiano wasn't surprised to hear the reactions from his players.
"I think Eric's had that kind of impact on a lot of people," he said. "I can't tell you the number of letters and text messages from people across the country that I don't even know that his attitude has inspired them in their own issues. I'm really proud of the way he goes around and represents and lives his life. I think I speak for a lot of us – I don't know if I could do that."
Schiano went out of his way to thank the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, and general manager Mark Dominik. They made it possible to sign LeGrand and did so in the same year he would have been drafted – a poignant and meaningful move, even though his roster spot will inevitably have to give way to another player at some point.
Schiano told his team Tuesday that long before the notoriety LeGrand has received since his injury, he was always a special player and person.
"This was a guy who came every day to our football building and had just a tremendous attitude," Schiano said. "He was the Energizer Bunny, no matter how things were going – hot, cold, good, bad – this guy was always upbeat. And through this whole time, I got to know his mother really well, Karen LeGrand, and she's as tough a lady as you've ever met. And you can see that this is her son.
"I remember being there in the hospital with Eric, and the things he would say to me would blow me away – the kind of selfless guy he is, worried about me, worried about his mom. Meanwhile, he's laying in the bed with tubes coming out of his mouth, can't move. And still to this day, as he works painstakingly to recover, tells me and tells those people he's influencing that this all happened for a reason. So, he can have an affect on other people and be an inspiration to other people."
LeGrand is intent on doing anything he can to help others facing difficult journeys in their own lives.
"I try to help them get through tough times, talking to people in therapy, just trying to have a good time and loosen everybody up – motivating each other and challenging each other to get better every single day," he said. "That's how I continue to live my life."
He was gratified by the reaction he got from his Bucs teammates.
"It was great to talk to those guys and see how intent they were to actually listen to me talk," he said. "These are NFL guys, making money and playing the game they love, and they were just so in tune with meeting me. And seeing them kept me going."
His current therapy includes a treadmill program, geared to helping him learn to walk with assistance.
"We're trying to shock the nervous system in any type of way, from the brain down to the muscles and back up," he said. "And I'm starting to get twitches in my fingers every now and then, and my triceps and biceps. So, things that my doctors said are not supposed to happen are happening. Now there's just this whole process that's going to take time."
LeGrand says his doctors can't explain how it's happening.
"They've never seen anything like it before," he said. "And that's why I say it's just a miracle."
The same way he feels about the events of Tuesday – physically becoming part of and NFL roster and making his debut as No. 52 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.