|Ex-Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand is grateful to have survived his spinal injury. (AP)|
WOODBRIDGE, N.J. -- Eric LeGrand makes this face sometimes. He scrunches up his nose and mouth, wiggles them a bit, stretches them from side to side.
He's got an itch. He can't scratch it because he is paralyzed below the shoulders.
If his mom was close by, he'd rub his face against her chest, shoulder or arm. He does that with his girlfriend, too. He'll even do it to one his physical therapists now and again.
But when no one is close enough, he just makes that face.
"I miss the most being able to take care of myself," he says.
On Sunday, Oct. 16, it will be one year since the 21-year-old LeGrand played his last football game, made his last tackle.
The amazing thing now is, for a guy who still can't scratch his nose, LeGrand will tell you with a smile -- always with a smile -- why he has so many reasons to be grateful.
He survived an injury that not everyone survives.
He's breathing without a ventilator, something doctors had told his mother would be unlikely.
He spent five months as a patient at Kessler Institute in West Orange, N.J., where he saw people with spinal cord injuries who could not even eat. Now he's an outpatient there, rehabbing three days a week.
After missing most of his junior year, he's back to working on his degree at Rutgers. He takes classes three nights a week, using an online video conference to watch the lectures from home.
He greets his former teammates in the locker room before each Rutgers home game, then he goes to his new job.
Like most athletes do when they are done playing, LeGrand is now a sportscaster. He does analysis during pregame, postgame and halftime of Rutgers radio broadcasts. He's already done his first TV spot, too.
He hangs out with his friends and his girlfriend. He tweets - (at)BigE52-RU has more than 21,000 followers - and posts on his Facebook page thanks to a voice activated laptop.
He's often asked to speak at schools and churches, to talk about overcoming adversity by staying positive, never giving up hope, believing in God and yourself.
Believing is a big part of LeGrand's life.
In the two-bedroom apartment where he and his mother, Karen LeGrand, live in Woodbridge, about a mile away from the home where he grew up in Avenel - which is being rebuilt to accommodate him - there is a wood carving of BELIEVE on the TV stand.
The art work on the living room wall, BELIEVE.
On the front of his mom's black shirt, BELIEVE in red letters with LeGrand's number, 52.
Eric LeGrand believes he will walk again.
"When I get better ...."
He says that a lot. Never if. When.
Karen LeGrand would have it no other way.
"We have faith and we pray and we know in the long run - we don't know how long it's going to be - but in the long run he's going to be OK," she says. "He's going to be fine. He's going to walk and he's going to do great things. And he's going to do great things in the interim as well."
A day in the life of Eric LeGrand is, in a word, busy.
It takes Karen LeGrand, with the help of a nurse and a nurse's aide, about two hours to get Eric out of bed, dressed and into the $40,000 wheelchair that Eric adroitly controls with a mouthpiece.
After five months at Kessler, Karen figures she knows just as much as any caregiver about the proper way to take care for her son.
"I'm really hands on. I have to make sure they do it my way. I'm sure the nurses and the aides hate me."
On this unseasonably warm day, the first thing Eric wants to do is go outside. Because of his injuries Eric always feels cold, so on a fall day when the temperature is touching 80 degrees and the sun is shining brightly, he rolls out of the apartment and into the parking lot of the subdivision to bake in the rays.
"When I get better, I'm going to move to Florida," he said.
It's up to Karen to keep an eye on the clock. It's about a 45-minute drive to Kessler and Eric still has to have lunch.
Just like she used to do when Eric was little, and he'd be out playing from morning until sundown, Karen has to call her son in to eat and hope that he's close enough to hear.
Karen feeds Eric a grilled chicken sandwich and even before he's done he starts asking about cookies.
Before his injury Eric could and would eat just about anything he wanted. Burgers, barbecue, baked ziti - his grandma's is best, though his mom's will do - cookies and cake.
But after his injury, LeGrand's appetite went away and his weight dwindled to 196 pounds. He hadn't been that light since his freshman year of high school.
Karen was worried sick that her big baby boy was wasting away. Now she's worried that he's going to eat himself out of that wheelchair. He's up to 240 and looks like a football player again, thick in the chest and legs.
But he needs to keep his weight under 242 to be able to do certain rehabilitation exercises involving treadmills and harnesses.
So, yes, he can have a treat today, but it has to be one of those 100 calorie cookie packs.
"She gives me like one cookie every other day," he says. "I got to start fighting to get something out of her."
Done with lunch, Eric heads to the minivan and backs himself in perfectly. Karen declines an offer to help strap in the chair.
When they get to Kessler, a passer-by does a double-take as he walks by the minivan, stops, turns back and leans into the open door.
"I've been praying for you," the man says.
This happens a lot, the LeGrands say.
"I'm famous," Eric says with a smile as he rolls into Kessler.
Mom gets a break while Eric is at rehab. Karen goes to get lunch and maybe does some shopping or errands. Before she goes, she straightens his shirt, pushes back a couple of his dreadlocks and sends him on his way.
"I worry about her," he says.
At rehab, Eric LeGrand can move his arms. His physical therapists attache electrodes to his back, chest, biceps and triceps. The electrical charges take the place of the ones that can't get from his brain to his muscles because of the injury to his spinal cord.
With the electrodes in place, his hands are strapped to a hand bike and once the current gets flowing, Eric can start cranking until the spasms - a frequent side effect - kick in, his muscles tighten and he needs to stop.
He's got a similar bike at home, on which he can also work out his legs, with the help of those electrodes.
After about 30 minutes on the bike, he moves over to another station to do some weight training - again with the help of the electrodes. His arms are put in straps and held up to about shoulder level, weights keeping them in place. He does several sets of side-to-side movements, a few minutes each. He then he pushes down a few inches.
LeGrand used to be able to bench press more than 400 pounds, but this workout is as tough as any he's ever done.
"This is a killer," he says.
Rehab wraps up a few minutes early because LeGrand needs some adjustments to his chair and before he goes home for class, he has to stop by Rutgers to receive an award from a church group from Brooklyn.
LeGrand's appearance at the Hale Center, Rutgers' athletic facility, draws a small crowd. His former teammates stop to chat and make plans.
"The neat thing is he's still E," coach Greg Schiano says. "I love the way the players treat him. They treat him like the same guy. I think that's why he likes being around the team."
Karen needs to get Eric home in time for class and to cook dinner.
He requests grandma's baked ziti but it's too late for that. Karen says she'll put some hamburgers on the grill and to Eric, it's the best news he's heard all day.
"I love barbecued hamburgers," he says. Again, big smile.
Karen LeGrand worked for 20 years as an import/export specialist. She tried going back to work for a few days while Eric was at Kessler, but it just wasn't working.
"They say spinal cord injuries are financially crippling and they are," she says.
Between insurance she pays for, Rutgers' insurance and the NCAA's insurance, Eric's medical bills and all his equipment are covered for now. It's well into the six figures already.
"Of course," she says when asked if she's worried about paying the bills in the future.
"We'll have to deal with that when it happens. Right now Eric is my main concern."
Rutgers has established the Eric LeGrand Believe Fund to help. The parents of some of LeGrand's high school friends started the Eric LeGrand Patriot Saint Foundation. They've been selling Believe Wear shirts and sweats like the one Karen was wearing, to raise money for the LeGrands.
Jets linebacker Bart Scott sent a $36,000 check to the LeGrands, the proceeds from his "Can't Wait" T-shirts.
"There are so many good people out there and it helps because I don't know when I'm going to be able to work again," she says.
"I would like to say I'm going to be able to work in a year, but you know that I have to have confidence. I have to be able to trust the people taking care of him before I can leave them with him.
"If I can't trust them to take care of him properly, I can't leave him with them."
Karen and Eric aren't naive. They understand that the road ahead will not be easy. And they both admit having moments of frustration.
While there has been great progress in treating spinal cord injury patients, it is still almost impossible to predict recovery.
"Because the numbers may say there's only a 20 percent chance of walking, you really don't know that," said Dr. Monifa Brooks, who treated LeGrand at Kessler. "We kind of go in with open minds."
The only thing the LeGrands have closed their minds to is negativity.
That's why they don't get angry. Angry people are negative people and there is no place for negativity in the LeGrand home.
Eric says when he gets better, "I'm definitely going on five or six vacations."
Karen says, "Me, myself, I just want to go to an island and get lost."
But before Eric hits the road on his big trip, he wants to swing by the stadium where he played his last game and take care of some unfinished business.
"One thing I'm going to do when I get better, I'm going to go back out to the Giants' field. Where I got hurt, I'm going to lay down. I'm going to get up and run back off the field, right back to the sideline.
"So I can be like, 'I walked off the field."'