Eric LeGrand is, in his own words, an athlete. Is, not was.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers understand that. On Tuesday, the Buccaneers signed LeGrand to their 90-man offseason roster, adding him to a team full of accomplished athletes.
Why is this remarkable, one roster move during a long offseason of countless team-building maneuvers? Because LeGrand is currently in a wheelchair and hasn't walked in 19 months. On October 16, 2010, he was paralyzed from the neck down while tackling Army kick returner Malcolm Brown in a game played at Giants Stadium.
LeGrand was – and is – a part of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights family. The Buccaneers and especially their head coach, Greg Schiano, understand that. Schiano was the head coach at Rutgers from 2001-11, which means he recruited LeGrand, helped shape him into a young man and a football player and exulted in his successes. And it means he was there when LeGrand fell stiffly to the Giants Stadium turf and didn't get up, and he was there at his hospital bed that evening and he will remain there for every step forward LeGrand takes in his recovery and his life.
LeGrand believes some of those steps will be literal ones. He was told after his injury that he would never come off the ventilator he was attached to in the hospital. He left the ventilator behind after five weeks. He was told he would never walk again and he doesn't believe that either.
Last October, a year after his injury as he engaged in the early stages of therapy to regain the ability to walk, LeGrand told SI.com's Jon Wertheim that his goal was to visit the spot on the Giants Stadium field where he was hurt, lie down there once again, and then get back up and walk away. He also told Wertheim that he believed the strength he had developed in his body as a college football player was aiding him in his rehabilitation efforts.
It is the strength of LeGrand's will, however, that prompted the Buccaneers to sign him to their roster. If Tampa Bay's personnel department developed a scouting report on LeGrand, as they do on all players they are considering signing, the first line was surely: "Will never quit."
LeGrand was just a junior when he suffered his injury, so it's impossible to predict if his football path would have ended in the NFL under other circumstances. At the time, he had played in 31 games and recorded 60 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries. Still, his signing with the Buccaneers this spring is still the fulfillment of a dream, as it allows him to bring attention to the issue of spinal cord injuries and the ongoing research to find a cure. LeGrand's unfailingly positive attitude has amazed many, but he draws strength from his desire to be an inspiration to others who suffer similar injuries.
"Leading up to the draft, I couldn't help but think that this should've been Eric's draft class," said Schiano. "This small gesture is the least we could do to recognize his character, spirit, and perseverance. The way Eric lives his life epitomizes what we are looking for in Buccaneer Men."
A year ago, in Rutgers' 2011 spring semester, LeGrand resumed his studies via Skype and he has also continued to be an impactful member of the Rutgers football team. Last October, just over a year after his injury, he led Coach Schiano and the Rutgers team onto the field at their home stadium before a game against West Virginia. LeGrand also joined his fellow seniors on the field for Senior Day festivities prior to kickoff of a win over Cincinnati on November 19.
LeGrand's signing with the Buccaneers is only the latest way that he has inspired others across the nation since his injury. His courage and determination has garnered national attention, such as his appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated shortly before his return to the football field last fall. In the magazine's 2011 year-end issue, that return was voted SI's Moment of the Year. LeGrand received the Most Courageous Athlete Award from New Jersey Sports Writers Association in January and will also receive the Unsung Hero Award at the New Jersey Hall of Fame induction ceremony on June 9 for his "representation of courage, strength and character."
LeGrand is planning to graduate next fall with a degree in labor studies and most recently partnered with IMG to help him transition to the broadcasting booth. You can follow Eric's remarkable recovery through his very active Twitter feed @EricLeGrand52.