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Believe it: Paralyzed Rutgers lineman on road to recovery

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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NEWPORT, R.I. -- Eric LeGrand lay motionless, his body stretched across the 25-yard line. The Rutgers junior defensive tackle was paralyzed from the neck down after making a tackle when his helmet collided with the left shoulder pad of Army kick returner Malcolm Brown.

Carted off the New Meadowlands Stadium turf that Oct. 16 afternoon last year, LeGrand said he remembers the hit, but blacked out in the ambulance. He wouldn't wake up until four days later in the hospital.

LeGrand: 'I always dream, but in my dreams I'm not in a chair. I'm always walking around ... ' (AP)  
LeGrand: 'I always dream, but in my dreams I'm not in a chair. I'm always walking around ... ' (AP)  
Because LeGrand's injury occurred while covering a kickoff -- and the danger involved in players sprinting 30 to 50 yards into head-on collisions -- Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said he wants to eliminate kickoffs for safety reasons.

LeGrand fractured his C3 and C4 vertebra and is confined to a wheelchair -- he vows, though, he will walk again one day -- as a result of the injury, but he disagrees with his coach.

"Honestly I think the game is fine the way it is," LeGrand told CBSSports.com. "I don't think you should take kickoffs out [of the game]. I understand why he [Schiano] thinks that way, especially when he sees one of his players go down, he wants to avoid that ever happening again.

"That's how I made my life. I was always running down on kickoffs making tackles. A lot of [NFL] players make their money on special teams. I don't think it should change. It's just the way I'm used to playing."

"My accident was a freak accident. It was one out of five million hits."

Those odds are still too high for Schiano, who likely will be asked about his unique proposal during the Big East's media days Monday and Tuesday in Newport. Among Schiano's ideas are that kickoffs are replaced with punts and he also wants onside kickoffs to be banned.

Since the injury, LeGrand has become an inspiration for others. "Believe" is his motto, his rallying cry and it's no coincidence his initials -- E.L. -- are found side-by-side in bELieve.

"Each day I wake up, I try to do something different," LeGrand said.

When LeGrand was injured the doctors and specialists initially said there was a "zero to 5 percent" chance he would regain neurologic function. Yet, on July 13, LeGrand stood up for the first time with the aid of a hydraulic lift and posted a couple of photographs of his progress on his Twitter page.

Even though that fourth-quarter kickoff against Army changed his life forever, LeGrand has no trouble watching replays of it. In fact, LeGrand "enjoys" watching the play.

"I've watched the replay numerous times," LeGrand said. "I'm trying to analyze it.

"I enjoy watching it because it was the last play that I played football."

When LeGrand was younger he thought he would play football forever. He started playing when he was 5. At first his coaches wanted to make LeGrand a lineman, but then they realized how fast he was and he was moved to quarterback.

LeGrand was bigger and faster than most kids his age. He was unstoppable.

"They saw all the speed I had," LeGrand laughed. "I just took the snap and ran around outside the end every time."

Those days of playing youth football in Avenel, N.J., are now a distant memory. Instead of the past, LeGrand is focused on the future.

These days, all LeGrand thinks about is what it will be like to return to High Point Solutions Stadium without his chair.

"I can't wait to run out the tunnel with 'my' team," LeGrand said. "I can't control it, I have to play the waiting game and pray to God every night, every day. He's blessed me so far. I have to believe He will continue to do so."

Every single day, LeGrand said he thinks about running out of the tunnel again.

"All the time, I can't wait," LeGrand. "I know the stadium will go crazy."

Until then, LeGrand relies on his dreams.

"I always dream, but in my dreams I'm not in a chair," LeGrand said. "I'm always walking around, moving around like the life I used to have: hanging out with friends, joking around, playing basketball and not being in a chair."

LeGrand admitted it's difficult to watch "his" team practice or play without him.

"It's something I have to get used to," LeGrand said. "I miss it every day but this is my life now. You have to adjust."

LeGrand's life has been in constant flux since the injury. He said even the house he has lived in his entire life is in the process of being torn down and rebuilt to accommodate his new needs.

It has been nearly 10 months since LeGrand was carted off the New Meadowlands Stadium turf. Back then he couldn't even lift his thumb and give the "thumbs up" sign because "it felt like there were 1,000 pounds of pressure" on his entire body.

Initially LeGrand thought he only suffered a "full body stinger" and had the wind knocked out of him. He actually thought he would return to action in a week or two. Then reality set in of what had occurred.

It only made LeGrand more determined.

"I knew I would have to take the same focus -- everything I did for football -- I would have to put into my rehab to be able to walk again," LeGrand said. "I believe in God, there's no other way I'll get through this. I'm still 20 years old. I have time on my hands."

LeGrand said he doesn't blame Brown, now a junior running back at Army, for the injury. "He [Brown] was tripped up, he was about to fall down," LeGrand said. "He couldn't control that. It's not like he was trying to run me over."

Since the injury, Army's entire coaching staff and several players have reached out to LeGrand. They invited him to attend Army's spring game, but LeGrand was not able to go.

LeGrand also said he communicates frequently with Brown on Facebook and Brown also has written LeGrand several letters.

In those letters, Brown told LeGrand he's always praying for him and a day doesn't go by that he doesn't think about what happened, LeGrand said.

LeGrand said he has been simply overwhelmed by the support he has received.

"It's definitely neat that everyone has come together for this situation," LeGrand said. "It's crazy trying to inspire a nation. The support has been tremendous. It's hard to put in words.

"I became famous off this injury. I have such an appreciation for what everyone has done."

LeGrand then makes a promise.

"When I get my hands back," he said. "I will shake everyone's hands to thank them."

And you know he will. Because Eric LeGrand makes you believe.

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