Eric LeGrand brings his motivational story to Baltimore

Former Rutgers football player is determined to walk again after becoming paralyzed from the neck down making a tackle in 2010

Eric LeGrand

"I always tell people to believe in themselves and believe in the man above and anything is truly possible,'' former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand said in an interview from his hotel suite in Baltimore on Tuesday. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / May 7, 2013)

It wasn't so long ago that former Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand couldn't even move his shoulders, which is why it's hard not to marvel at his willingness to offer one of them to anybody facing a major life challenge.

If you don't know his story, you probably missed last year's ESPY Awards or walked past the aisle at Barnes and Noble where his two books are on display. He was the 20-year-old special teams player who suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a 2010 game against Army at MetLife Stadium that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

Now, he's the unstoppable motivational machine who continues to battle for every painstaking millimeter of new movement while touring the country delivering a message of hope and faith to listeners facing far less than he is working to overcome.

LeGrand was in Baltimore on Tuesday to speak about his ongoing rehabilitation program at the Select Medical Way National Leadership Conference and to represent the Kessler Institute For Rehabilitation of West Orange, N.J., but he tailors his inspirational talks to anyone with a personal mountain to climb.

His ultimate goal is to climb out of his motorized wheelchair and walk again — something he promised to do when he accepted the Jimmy V Award for perseverance at the 20th annual ESPYs last July — but his message is as much about the process as the outcome.

"I always tell people to believe in themselves and believe in the man above and anything is truly possible,'' LeGrand said. "No matter when you face adversity, whether at the age of 20 like I did, or at the age of 45 or even at the age of 5. Maybe you lose your father or mother or something. No matter what the situation you have to handle it face-on and don't let it get to you too much. There's always a grieving period, but then you have to find a way to get over it so life can go on."

Which brings the conversation back to that awful day at MetLife Stadium and the awful days afterward, when LeGrand was hooked up to a ventilator and was processing the news that his life had changed forever.

It was Oct. 16, 2010 and he was on kickoff coverage when a seemingly routine tackle took away all feeling below his neck. He fractured two cervical vertabrae and was not expected to ever breathe on his own again, but he quickly weaned himself off the ventilator and regained movement in his shoulders and sensation throughout his body.

"My grieving period wasn't too long, because when I came back to [consciousness] I was smacked in the face with all these positive messages and all these posters,'' he said. "I got a message from Bill Belichick and Joe Paterno and all these people I've looked up to and watched on ESPN. You wake up one day and you come out of everything that was happening and see all these posters and videos from Troy Polamalu and Eli Manning, Mark Sanchez. It was like 'Wow, did this really happen?' So I really didn't have a long grieving period at all, and I was very fortunate for that."

Karen LeGrand stood over her son that day and waited for him to open his eyes. When he did, his first instinct was to put her mind at ease, but he could only mouth the words.

"I'll be back,'' he said.

Since then, Karen LeGrand has never doubted a promise from her son, who proclaimed during the ESPYs that he would shock the world and walk again. That day still seems a long way off, but she believes with all her heart that it will come.

"Of course, he's promised the world,'' she said. "Everybody who knows Eric knows he means it, and we all have faith."

The LeGrand family also has never doubted the faith and support of the Rutgers community, starting with the personal involvement of then-coach Greg Schiano, who would move on to the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and — in a very moving sense — take LeGrand with him. The Bucs signed LeGrand to a symbolic contract and temporarily placed him on their roster so he could realize his dream of making it to the NFL.

"That was my dream to retire from the NFL and go into sports broadcasting,'' LeGrand said, "and I can actually say I went to the NFL. Coach Schiano picked me up and that was just a great gesture from everyone down there in that organization because they just thought about me and living my dream of going to the NFL."

LeGrand motors around his hotel suite wearing slippers that bear the number 52 on each of them. That was his number at Rutgers, but the connection to Baltimore is too obvious to miss because it is not a coincidence. He took that number because of his admiration for Ravens superstar Ray Lewis and the purple passion does not stop there, as — not surprisingly — he has a personal connection to former Rutgers running back Ray Rice.

"My favorite team growing up was the Denver Broncos and I always wore No. 30 when I was a running back and linebacker for Terrell Davis,'' he said. "When I got to college, I thought I was going to be playing linebacker so I'm like 'My other favorite player is Ray Lewis … I'm going to get his No. 52.' Even though they moved me to defensive tackle, I didn't change my number because all my life I've tried to act like him. I try to motivate my team and get them all pumped up like he did. I was pretty successful with it. Now, I look up to him and try to use him every day in my life and try to inspire people every day with some of his quotes."

It's hard not to be inspired by LeGrand, because — for all of the adversity that he has endured — it's impossible to wipe the smile off his face.

"I believe I've always been positive, my whole life,'' he said. "I've always wanted to help other people. I enjoy seeing other people happy. When this happened, I just had to change everything over to what I'm doing now. Everything I've learned over my short 20 years of living before I got hurt, I just transferred over to seeing the good out of things instead of the worst out of things."

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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