Thursday November 10, 2011, 9:23 PM
By TARA SULLIVAN
PISCATAWAY – Tucked among the large collection of sports memorabilia Eric LeGrand has received from supporters far and wide, there is this one football jersey, an opponent’s uniform that means as much to him as anything he’s gotten across the last 13 months.
CHRIS PEDOTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
“They have done so much to maintain a relationship with me,” Eric LeGrand said Wednesday at the Hale Center adjacent to High Point Solutions Stadium, his trademark smile and bobbing shoulders displaying a vibrancy paralysis cannot steal. LeGrand sustained a broken vertebrae while making a special teams tackle on Army player Malcolm Brown last Oct. 16, an injury that caused him to be paralyzed from the shoulders down. As much as that day has defined LeGrand and Rutgers, it also impacted the West Point program in a deep, enduring way, bringing these two programs together forever.
LeGrand was presented with it this past summer, when a large contingent of Army football players came to New Jersey to take him out to lunch. The 2010 bowl game edition of Army’s jersey is in LeGrand’s own words “hot,” and thus destined to find a prominent place when he chooses a room in his under-renovation house to display his ever-growing collection of gifts.
Army wasn’t wearing that particular jersey on the fateful afternoon last October when its football team met LeGrand’s Rutgers squad in the Meadowlands, won’t be wearing it this Saturday when the teams meet again at Yankee Stadium. Yet when LeGrand steers his wheelchair to midfield to call the opening coin toss Saturday, the connection he feels to the young men in black and gold will practically vibrate through the Bronx air.
“They have done so much to maintain a relationship with me,” LeGrand said Wednesday at the Hale Center adjacent to High Point Solutions Stadium, his trademark smile and bobbing shoulders displaying a vibrancy paralysis cannot steal. LeGrand sustained a broken vertebrae while making a special teams tackle on Army player Malcolm Brown last Oct. 16, an injury that caused him to be paralyzed from the shoulders down. As much as that day has defined LeGrand and Rutgers, it also impacted the West Point program in a deep, enduring way, bringing these two programs together forever.
“We share that moment, that horrible moment and that’s created a bond,” Army coach Rich Ellerson said this week by phone from his office. “We’re united in overcoming and dealing with this and fighting through the aftermath of that moment. We know it’s a fight and we want to be in it. Here at West Point, we are an army at war. We have a Wounded Warrior Project. We understand what coming back from catastrophic injury feels like. We want to be here for the long haul, down the road for Eric and his mom.”
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano and Ellerson had barely shared a personal conversation prior to last year’s game, but when Schiano was at his lowest, most frightened moment, when he was kneeling on the MetLife Stadium turf looking at LeGrand’s motionless body, Ellerson was there.
“I felt a hand on my back and I turned around and it was him,” Schiano said. “From that point on, everything he has done, and allowed his players to do, encouraged his players to do, the support has been amazing.”
Ellerson has issued a standing invitation to Eric and his mom, Karen, to visit West Point’s entire corps of cadets, a rare honor. “We want to make a fuss of him,” Ellerson said. “We want them to hear us, to feel what we feel for hem, to connect with us to fight the fight. There is a tremendous reservoir of strength here.”
No one displays that more than Brown, the player on the other end of the tackle. He sustained his own injury on the play, a broken collarbone, and might well have disappeared as a forgotten piece of collateral damage, a young man scarred by guilt or by fear. Instead, these two players get each other in ways very few people understand, alternately offering forgiveness and understanding, always offering friendship.
“[Eric] has motivated me to go out there and believe you can do anything and never quit – never let anyone tell you you can’t do something,” Brown said recently. “Obviously, he’s not stepping down to anybody. He’s improving every day, and it’s amazing to see that especially when doctors said he wouldn’t be able to walk again or anything.”
By now we all understand how deeply LeGrand refuses to be defined by this tragedy, we have seen how he captivates our sporting nation with his ebullient outlook, his abject optimism, and his unwavering belief he will walk again. He won’t be focused Saturday on seeing the team that was on the field the day his life changed forever – “It’s not emotional for me,” he said, “people take more emotion than I do. I see it as another game,” – intent instead on working his job as a member of the Rutgers Radio Network, delighted instead to share his latest progress.
He’s taken to a treadmill this week for the first time, two physical therapists working his legs while another supports his waist and hips from behind. Working in concert, they make his body walk. Quite a sight, and quite a feeling.
“At first I was walking all goofy, but it sure felt good to see my legs moving again,” he said. “And I am sore, which is great. Before I couldn’t feel the soreness. Now my legs are burning.”
And now, his stomach is growling. Having already completed a session with his tutor – he is taking two classes this semester – he is looking forward to lunch upstairs in the players lounge. He gets in a joking argument with his mom over who is going to go up and make him a plate of steak and noodles. Karen smiles, telling him they have enough time to go together before heading up to Kessler Institute in West Orange for part of his 10-plus hours of physical therapy a week.
“Every day it’s more progress – I see it coming every day,” he said.
When he looks to either side of him Saturday, to his Rutgers uniforms one way and his Army jerseys the other, he’ll barely see the difference. They’re all his brothers.