LeGrand keynote speaker at local fundraiser

Eric LeGrand says he has never wondered, "Why me?"

Not when he was lying motionless on the field after making a tackle for Rutgers against Army, unable to move or even breathe.

Not during his subsequent five-month hospital stay when the reality set in that he had no sensation from the shoulders down and was unlikely ever to walk again.

Not during the past two years, when he has had to rely on others more than he ever imagined but has gone on with his life and become an inspirational figure.

"I never had the "Why me?" attitude," LeGrand said in a phone interview. "I was trained in college [football] to overcome adversity. That transferred over to the game of life.

"It all happens for a reason."

LeGrand will be they keynote speaker Saturday at the True Heroes Part 2 Gala at Martin's Westminster, a fundraiser for North Carroll Community School.

"I'm just going to tell my story, everything I had to go through to get to where I am today," he said. "You have to be prepared for when adversity comes, and when it does, you don't give up."

LeGrand was a two-way high school football star in New Jersey who accepted a scholarship to play for coach Greg Schiano at Rutgers. By his junior year in 2010, he was getting significant playing time at defensive end and on special teams. His life changed in the sixth game of that season, against Army.

LeGrand raced down the middle of the field and tackled Cadet Malcolm Brown on kickoff coverage. He lowered his head into Brown's shoulder for a full-speed collision.

The tackle left him with two fractured cervical vertebrae. He had no movement below his neck. He was put on a respirator and initially doctors feared he might never breathe on his own again.

But LeGrand did begin breathing on his own and he has made strides in his recovery on a regular basis ever since.

LeGrand has talked to Brown several times since and says he tried to put Brown's mind at ease.

"He's a cool guy. I wanted to make sure he had no sense of remorse," LeGrand said. "I was the one trying to tackle him. I just wanted to take the weight off his chest."

Through medical advancements and LeGrand's hard work - he says he does 3½ hours of physical therapy every day - he has regained some sensation and movement. He can be seen wiggling his thumb on YouTube and he says he has limited movement of other fingers, too.

He called it "cool" to see his fingers move and he won't place any limits on how far he can go in his recovery.

"Who knows what can happen?" he said.

Just as LeGrand doesn't blame Brown for his injury, nor does he blame football. In fact, he recommends to kids that they should play the sport.

"One hundred percent. Football is the best. It teaches you the game of life," he said, again mentioning that going through the adversity of football practices helped get him ready for physical adversity. "The training we did on the field. Running sprints in the middle of the summer on a 110-degree day, after a 2½ hours practice ... you work so hard. Working hard is the best training for life."

LeGrand is still taking classes through Rutgers and plans to graduate in the fall. He is studying employment law and he says he has great interest in Americans with Disabilities Act regulations.

But he remains quite interested in sports and is hoping for a career as a sports broadcaster. He has already served as a commentator on Rutgers games.

He has already had an NFL career. Last summer, he signed a free agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the behest of his former college coach, Schiano, now in charge of the Bucs.

LeGrand said Schiano has been there for him throughout, from making sure he had the best of everything during his hospital stay to getting him to the NFL.

"It was a great moment. It made my dream come true to become a part of the NFL," LeGrand said.

LeGrand is honest when talking about his life. He says it isn't easy being 22 and having to rely on others to help him do things he once took for granted. But he maintains a positive outlook and has found ways to inspire others.

In addition to his motivational speeches, LeGrand also wrote a book titled "Believe" about his experiences. He is told frequently about what an impact he has made on others.

"It means a lot to me, just how I can tell my story and help others," he said. "I never thought I would have a book out, sharing my life story. But I want people to know, if I can handle something like this, everyone else can, too."