Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Eric LeGrand's new book "Believe." Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers.
The 2012 NFL Draft was held over a long weekend in late April at Radio City Music Hall in New York City -- practically in my backyard. There was a lot of hoopla and excitement associated with the draft, but I couldn't help but feel a little glum as I watched the proceedings on ESPN.
You see, 2012 would have been my draft year, and playing in the NFL had been my dream since my Pop Warner days in Avenel. I imagined hearing my name announced and walking out of the greenroom and being handed a team hat and receiving a bear hug from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
But that wasn't going to happen. As I watched player after player stride onto the Radio City Music Hall stage for a grip-and-grin with the commissioner, I became really homesick for football. I missed playing a game I had grown to love.
I was convinced I would have been good enough to play in the NFL. Nothing was going to stop me from getting there. I was primed to play well during the second half of my junior year and raise my game to another level for my final season of college football. I believe I could have proved myself worthy of the NFL.
I would never get my chance, but at least Coach Schiano would get a chance to prove himself as an NFL coach.
I was particularly interested in what moves Coach would make during the draft. The Bucs had finished the 2011 season with the NFL's longest losing streak, so there were holes in the roster. Coach and his assistants did a lot of maneuvering, making three trades in the first two rounds to get safety Mark Barron from Alabama and running back Doug Martin from Boise State in the first round and outside linebacker Lavonte David from Nebraska in round two.
Coach called a few days later and was his usual upbeat self. I had great fun talking about the draft with Coach, but there was a lump in my throat. Would Coach Schiano have taken a chance on me? Could I have played for him at Tampa Bay?
I knew those questions could never be answered. Nor could I ask since it wouldn't be fair to him. My dreams had died on a fall afternoon at the New Meadowlands Stadium.
About ten days after the draft, Mom got a phone call from Coach. She was outside Kessler, waiting in the van while I underwent physical therapy.
After exchanging pleasantries, Coach explained the reason for the phone call. "Karen, I want to run this by you first to make sure it's okay. We would like to sign Eric to a free agent contract with the Bucs."
My mom wasn't sure she heard right.
"Are you saying -- ?"
"Yes, we would like him to be part of the team."
Mom felt overwhelmed. "How could it not be okay?" she asked. "Eric will be absolutely thrilled if you did this."
"Well, we are going to offer Eric a free agent contract, and I'm going to call him tomorrow, so don't tell him."
"Okay, Coach," she said. "I'll do my best not to tell Eric, but please call him early because I don't know how long I can hold out."
My mother has never been very good at keeping secrets. Okay, she couldn't tell me, but she had to tell someone. As soon as she got off the line with Coach, she called Nicole. My sister could be trusted to keep a secret.
So I had no inkling what was up when Coach called in a chatty mood the following day. We were talking football when he changed the subject. "I want to sign you as one of our free agents," he blurted.
I didn't think I heard right. "Are you serious?" I asked. "You're going to waste a spot on me?" I knew that all NFL teams were limited to a ninety-man roster going into training camp.
"This is something I want to do," Coach replied. "I talked to the GM and our owner, and everyone is on board."
I didn't know what to say except, "Thanks, Coach."
But deep down, I was super, super excited. This was a dream come true. I had always wanted to go to the NFL. It wasn't the circumstances that I wanted, and I knew I would never get on the field, but this gesture from Coach this act of humanity meant the world to me. I also knew this decision would show football fans everywhere what type of person Greg Schiano was -- someone who looked out for the welfare of others instead of himself.
Coach said he would send me a team jersey with No. 52 and my name on the back as well as a Bucs helmet, and he also invited me to come to Tampa Bay to meet my teammates whenever I wanted.
When the phone call was over, I felt like I could levitate in my wheelchair -- or at least do some wheelies. It didn't take long for the Tampa Bay organization to announce the news -- including a statement from Coach Schiano saying, "The way Eric lives his life epitomizes what we are looking for in Buccaneer Men." He called the signing "a small gesture to recognize his character, spirit, and perseverance."
Tampa Bay's action hit a chord with football fans across the country. My new BFF, Lil Wayne, tweeted: "Today, Eric LeGrand was drafted into the NFL. Mark this down as a beautiful day in sports." I also received 82 text messages and 15 missed calls within two hours of the announcement.
Because of the tremendous local media interest in my story, Rutgers scheduled a press conference that evening at the Hale Center. Using my mouthpiece to move and steer my wheelchair, I came out onto the stage for the press briefing under my own power.
I did my best to describe the shock and awe that I felt upon hearing the news from Coach Schiano and how he had looked out for me since day one of my injury -- seeking the best doctors, the best nurses, the best therapy.
Coach even pulled some strings to get me cable TV -- and ESPN -- during my five-month stay at Kessler. "No matter what, even though he is down in Tampa right now, he is still keeping me on his shoulders and on his mind," I said. "Coach has not forgotten about me and my family up here in New Jersey."
Later, I learned how the whole free agent thing with Tampa Bay came to be.
Each year, the NFL has seven draft rounds, which means that with 32 teams, 224 players (in principle) are drafted. The last player picked is called "Mr. Irrelevant" because he's likely a player who'll never make an NFL roster. Every year, Mr. Irrelevant is invited to Newport Beach, California, for a roast and a ceremony awarding him with the Lowsman trophy, which mimics the Heisman trophy but depicts a player fumbling a football.
Mike McCartney, who helped Coach Schiano become a Christian years ago, had become a player's agent and remained a good friend. Before the draft, he approached Coach with an idea to have the NFL allow one more player to be drafted after the final pick of Round 7 and call him "Mr. Relevant" instead. The idea would be to honor a college player with difficult circumstances who wasn't going to be drafted -- like someone in my position.
Coach Schiano loved the idea. So did the Bucs' general manager, Mark Dominik. But in the busy spring months leading up the draft, the tyranny of the urgent got the best of Coach. He ran out of time to run his idea past the National Football league headquarters in New York City. That's when Coach got the idea to do the next best thing -- offer me a contract as a free agent, which I could sign and be part of the team.
The Bucs ownership thought Coach's gesture was truly wonderful -- and so did football fans everywhere.
What does the signing mean in practical terms? There was no money involved, but the team flew me down to Tampa Bay in June during an OTA -- that's NFL lingo for "organized team activity" -- to watch a practice, meet my teammates, and say a few words to them. Inside the locker room at one Buc Place, my message was simple to the guys: Play every down like it's your last.
"Appreciate everything you have," I said. "Not too many people get paid to do what they love to do, so don't take for granted things that other people don't have," I said.
I'm sure speaking those words from a wheelchair carried some impact. Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy told the Associated Press afterward, "We always complain about a bunch of nothing. For a guy to have the sport he loves taken away from him completely to be as happy as he's ever been, what can we really complain about? If you've never found any type of motivation before, listening to him talk is definitely a confidence and motivation builder."
After visiting with my teammates, I did a meet-the-press briefing with Coach Schiano at my side. I wore a red Bucs jersey -- No. 52, of course -- for the media event.
Coach opened with these remarks: "Throughout this whole time, I got to know his mother, Karen LeGrand, really, really well. She's as tough a lady as you've ever met. You can see that this is her son. I can remember being in the hospital many times with Eric, and the things that he would say to me would blow me away. The kind of selfless guy that he is. Worried about me, worried about his mom.
"Meanwhile, he's laying in a bed with tubes coming out of his mouth. He can't move. Still to this day, as he works painstakingly to recover, that tells me and tells those people that he's influencing that this all happened for a reason that he can have an effect on other people and be an inspiration to them.
"I don't know if this happened to me that I could be half the man Eric is. When I look at guys and look at people who should be referred to as heroes, this guy -- in my book -- is a true hero and a true inspiration."
Once again, I was humbled by Coach's words. After expressing my thanks to Coach Schiano, I announced that my No. 52 Buccaneers jersey was now on sale, with all proceeds earmarked for spinal cord research and helping others who lack insurance or the right equipment with their recovery.
I also announced that I would return to Tampa Bay for the 2012 season opener against the Carolina Panthers and see the team play the following week in my backyard when the Bucs invaded Gotham to take on the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium (or the old New Meadowlands Stadium). From the viewpoint in my wheelchair, I'm sure I'd be reliving a Saturday afternoon nearly two years ago.
But I knew I would be okay because of the love of my family and the thoughtfulness of Coach Schiano, who didn't have to sign me as an NFL free agent, but he did.
Thanks, Coach, for fulfilling a dream.
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