Paralyzed Ex-Rutgers Player Shares Message of Hope in Westfield
Eric LeGrand tells Westfield High School students that 'Miracles Can Happen'.
Eric LeGrand may have been knocked down but he is by no means out. The defensive tackle, who suffered paralyzing injuries after colliding with an opponent in October of 2010 while playing for Rutgers, believes he is destined for greater things than simply playing football.
Though confined to a wheelchair, LeGrand's inspirational spirit soared over the crowd of Westfield High School students Friday morning as he shared his message of hope, faith and determination in the face of adversity.
The motivational speaker took students back to the fall day that has forever changed his life. The score was tied 17-17 in the fourth quarter, LeGrand explained, when he tackled Army’s kickoff returner, Malcolm Brown, and sustained a spinal cord injury that left him unable to move or even breathe.
LeGrand recalled his coach, Greg Schiano, telling him to pray and seeing his mother crying as he was loaded into an ambulance. He said he tried to give her and the rest of the crowd "a thumbs up" but was unable to do so.
"It felt like I had a 1,000-pound cinderblock pressing down on me," he said.
Though the injury happened on a Saturday, LeGrand said he didn't awake again until Wednesday and when he did, he was surrounded by family, friends and plenty of positivity. He credits all of these with giving him the strength to face his new opponent: paralysis.
While LeGrand said he dreamt of playing football since he was 5 years old, he believes that the injury that ended his career at the age of 20 happened for a reason.
"I'm doing so much more than I would have on a football field," he told WHS students and faculty.
His belief that "the sky is the limit" was solidified when he defied his doctors' prognosis and came off his ventilator within just five weeks of entering his rehabilitation facility, despite their opinions that he'd never breathe on his own again.
"Once I did that, I knew that anything is possible," he said. "They didn't know my heart, my will and my determination."
The 6'2", 275-pound 22-year-old has been touring the country sharing his message that miracles can happen and that when faced with challenges, it is important to meet them "face on."
"I'm defeating the odds," he told the rapt audience. "I'm going to keep on fighting and set standards high. I believe that I will walk again and when I do, I'm going to lay back on that field in the position that I was in but this time I'm going to get up and walk off that field. I'm going to finish that play."
LeGrand's most recent sign that anything is possible has been the twitching in his thumb.
"It was a great moment," he said. "It happened in therapy. That means the signal got through. It's just a matter of time before I walk again and when I do there's going to be a huge party all over New Jersey."
LeGrand received back-to-back standing ovations after sharing his story. Principal Peter Renwick, who welcomed LeGrand with the help of student government president Alex Jeffrey, said it was an honor to host the football hero and urged the high schoolers to take LeGrand's "awe-inspiring" message out into the world and share it with others.
Jeffrey joked that when WHS Health Teacher Michelle Spreitzer mentioned that she might be able to arrange for LeGrand to visit, his initial thought was "LOL. What?" but because Spreitzer's brother is a friend of LeGrand's, she was able to make it happen.
Liz Schultz, who serves as co-student advisor with Spreitzer, said she hopes LeGrand's appearance will help raise awareness for his Believe Foundation as well as for his books: 'Believe: My Faith and the Tackle That Changed My Life,' an adult memoir, and 'Believe: the Victorious Story of Eric LeGrand,' the young readers’ edition.
Introducing LeGrand was WHS's own hero, Patrick Higgins, who noted that he has known LeGrand for three years and said he is a "really inspiring man who fights through every day."
"He delivers such a powerful message," said WHS teacher and football coach James DeSarno following the first of two assemblies. "There were 800 students in here and you could hear a pin drop. He is such a powerful figure and for him to come here is such an honor."
Freshman Cal Dwyer said he knows other people living with disabilities and said knowing what they and LeGrand go through each day makes him want to go out and do the best he can every day.
"I was really inspired by his message," agreed freshman Chris Hoerle.
LeGrand is finishing his degree in labor studies at Rutgers and plans to continue inspiring others with his story.
"Be the best you can be," he told students, "no matter what it is, give it your all. You don't know how much you can inspire people."
To learn more about LeGrand's Believe Foundation, visit http://www.scarletknights.com/believe/.