Thursday, August 18, 2011
Eric LeGrand visits Jets
By Jane McManus ESPNNewYork.com
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- After Eric LeGrand watched the New York Jets practice Thursday afternoon, they beckoned for the young Rutgers player from the middle of the field.
He pointed his motorized wheelchair at the scrum, which soon enveloped him. After some words, former Rutgers teammate Jamaal Westerman handed him a green Jets football jersey with the No. 52 and the name LeGrand sewn onto the back.
For one afternoon, he was one of them.
Eric LeGrand wears a "Can't Wait!" T-shirt at Jets camp on Thursday.
"It's unfortunate I got here, but also fortunate at the same time," LeGrand said, "being able to inspire a bunch of people like I've been able to do. It's truly a blessing and very humbling."
LeGrand has a lot of reasons to like the Jets. Westerman visited him three times a week after his initial injury, and Bart Scott should soon cut a check for LeGrand, since the linebacker made some of the proceeds from his "Can't Wait" T-shirts available to the Eric LeGrand Patriot Saint Foundation.
That's the shirt he wore, sitting under the shade of the venerable old oak tree. That's where he was when coach Rex Ryan came over in the middle of practice to talk for a bit.
"More than a good player, he was just a good guy," Westerman said. "His mom's nice, everybody's nice, we're a family out at Rutgers. So it was hurtful what happened to him, but just to see his recovery and how he's taken it, and how he's taken it with a smile."
LeGrand finally met Scott just before practice. The veteran linebacker has taken an interest in helping people with spinal injuries after his cousin was injured in a shooting.
"He's been so strong through the process and life deals with certain things, and it's all about how we choose to deal with it," Scott said. "I think that he's embraced it and he took the challenge on. I think he should be an inspiration to a lot of people."
LeGrand, the Rutgers defensive lineman paralyzed on a kickoff return last season, was greeted by Plaxico Burress first, and then other Jets like Derrick Mason and Mark Sanchez stepped forward to thank him for coming.
Santonio Holmes said LeGrand's story is inspirational. The 20-year-old LeGrand was told after being injured that he would probably never walk again or come off of a ventilator. After five weeks he was able to breathe on his own, and recently LeGrand said via his Twitter account that he stood for 40 minutes.
"It was an amazing story, not wanting ever to give up," Holmes said. "It's going to be an honor for him to come out and be a part of this team and feel loved, and the game that I know he loved to play and not take anything for granted."
LeGrand grew up rooting for the Denver Broncos, and acknowledged he didn't like LaDainian Tomlinson then, since he was a member of the AFC West-rival San Diego Chargers.
"But finally getting to meet him," LeGrand said with a big smile, "I was star struck."
The New York Giants have also been supportive, and coach Tom Coughlin was one of several affiliated with the team to visit him at Hackensack Medical Center.
Westerman, who played with LeGrand and has seen him since at Rutgers or at school functions, said it's hard for him to see LeGrand as just a symbol of something. To him, LeGrand is a friend who loves football and wants to come to a practice. At the same time, he sees why LeGrand is special.
"We all believe he's going to walk some day," Westerman said. "Life comes with adversity, ups and downs, but it's how you handle it."
LeGrand is continuing his therapy, and hopes that he continues to heal.
"I just have to keep on standing up for at least a half-an-hour, so I can get my body on this locomotive training mat," LeGrand said. "It serves as a treadmill that they put these stems on. A therapist is behind you and you're in a harness and they just basically retrain your legs how to walk again."
It is a lot of hard work, but LeGrand's positive attitude is what is so impressive. Westerman said that it's impossible to feel like you can complain when you watch what LeGrand smiles through, but it's the only way he knows.
"It's just the way I was basically built," LeGrand said. "I believe it's just the only way to go through life. You can't get mad at what happens to you. Things happen, so the only way to get better is to be positive and just fight through it because if you're negative, then you're just going to go right down the drain. That's just the only way I know how to do it and I just do it."
LeGrand plans to be on the sidelines of every Rutgers home game this season, and wants to attend as many road games as possible. And, he'll keep believing -- along with his friends and former teammates -- the entire way.
Jane McManus is a reporter and columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.