He sits in a wheelchair, with little movement in his upper body—but Eric LeGrand “keeps choppin.”
That was the battle cry when he played nose tackle forRutgersand it is certainly his mantra now as he inspires people everywhere—from the ESPN Espy Awards to local schools—to believe.
On February 2, LeGrand told his compelling story to a crowd of 440 men, teenagers, and boys at the Super Bowl Breakfast at Jacksonville Chapel in Lincoln Park, NJ.
“God put me here for a reason—to inspire millions of people,” he said. “One day, He will raise me up from this chair.”
In October of 2010, LeGrand raced down the field at full speed to cover a kickoff in the fourth quarter of a tie game against Army at MetLife Stadium. He had everything squared up for a tackle in the numbers, but when a teammate tripped up the ball carrier, LeGrand bounced off the opponent’s shoulder blade and fell lifeless to the turf after a loud, violent collision.
Unable to move and unable to breathe, LeGrand thought he might die right there on the field. As he was carried off on a stretcher, he wanted to give the crowd a thumbs up and let his mom know everything would be alright. All he remembers before blacking out was Coach Greg Schiano telling him to pray.
Schiano, who grew up inWyckoff,NJand played football atRamapoHigh School, is a man of faith. Before being named the head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011, he spent a decade rebuilding the program atRutgers, where he coined the phrase, “Keep Choppin.” The fiery coach likened the situation to someone trapped deep in the woods with only an axe in his hand. The only way out was to chop what’s in front of you.
At the breakfast, LeGrand recalled how his coach visited him every night, even though the hospital was a 45-minute drive from theRutgerscampus.
“He treats his players like he treats his kids,” he said. “He made sure I had the best doctors, cable in my room,” he said.
In addition to the support from his mother, Schiano, and his Scarlet Knights’ teammates, LeGrand was also encouraged by visits from his aunt, Cheryl Curet, who read him Bible verses. Curet is a member of Cathedral International inPerth Amboy.
Jeremiah 29:11 spoke volumes to him: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
Although he attended team Bible studies on occasion while playing, it wasn’t until after the accident that he made a bold commitment to the Lord.
“God was there for me in the hospital bed. He will never leave us or forsake us,” said LeGrand, author of the 2012 book, Believe: My Faith and the Tackle That Changed My Life. “He has given me hope and given me eternal life.”
“The power of prayer and positivity got me to where I am today.”
LeGrand was inspired by the cards and letters he received and how people and churches would let him know they were praying for him.Rutgersheld a prayer service. So did Cathedral International.
And the “Believe” movement was underway.
As a player, he was fired up by the word believe, especially since his initials (E.L.) follow the B. After he was injured, thousands of high school football players applied No. 52 decals (Eric’s number) to their helmets; the Rutgers football team had the phrase Believe emblazoned above their facemasks; and No. 52 “Believe” tee-shirts were a popular item at a local store and online.
And LeGrand needed every ounce of faith he could muster. He didn’t know it at the time, but doctors gave him little chance of ever coming off the ventilator or eating solid food.
His recovery has been nothing short of remarkable. He goes at rehab the same way he attacked the weight room as a player, with fierce intensity, four hours a day. During the breakfast at Jacksonville Chapel, he even grooved his upper body in his chair as a testimony to his progress.
“I give God all the glory for it,” he said. “Now I can sit up on my own. My back muscles are coming back.”
Although the road ahead is long, LeGrand is focused on being a role model, inspirational speaker, advocate for the disabled community, and a broadcaster.
“God has a plan,” said LeGrand.
In 2012, he received the Jimmy V Perseverance Award during the ESPY award show and also signed a free agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A symbolic gesture, but a real contract nonetheless, Schiano said Eric exemplified the kind of player that they wanted atTampaBay.
And this “retired” NFL player hopes to return to MetLife Stadium one day.
“I believe I will walk again,” LeGrand says. “And when I do, I will walk off that field (MetLife Stadium). Then I will say, ‘I finished the play.’”
Written by Tom Campisi, publisher of Tri-State Voice