Here's a handful of words Eric LeGrand used to describe himself and his life on Tuesday, during a press conference at One Buccaneer Place: "Fortunate." "Blessed." "Happy." "Excited."
The descriptive words that seemed to mean the most to him, however, the ones that actually broadened his ever-present smile? Those were easy to tell, because a sense of wonder crept into his voice when he said them: "A member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers."
"Now everyone refers to me as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers," he said, a sense of wonder creeping into his voice. "It's crazy to say – I'm in the NFL and being mentioned as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now being down here finally in Tampa in the beginning of June has been a blessing. I love it, just taking it all in and getting to see new things and being around things I've always dreamed about being around. I'm excited about this whole situation."
LeGrand used the word "situation" a lot during his meeting with the press on Tuesday, which came after the Buccaneers' morning practice and his own address to the team in the locker room. Most of the time, he used it as shorthand for the life-altering event that took place in the fall of 2010 and everything he has been through since. On October 16, 2010, while covering a kick for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights against Army in a game played in Giants Stadium, LeGrand suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down. The initial prognosis was bleak; doctors indicated that he would never walk again and that he might not regain the ability to talk or move anything below his neck.
"When I was first laying there on the field, I didn't know what was in store for me," he recalled. "I didn't know if I was going to die or not. But when I became conscious on Wednesday, I told my mom right away that I'll be back and everything's going to be fine. I just had to fight through this whole situation. I didn't know what the full extent of it was, but I knew that if I could will it happen and my faith was right I would be able to get through this situation. And I am. The doctors told me I wouldn't be able to talk or do anything, to walk, but now I'm at a press conference with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It's a blessing and I've just got to keep on fighting until I get to where I want to get to."
LeGrand was holding a press briefing at Buccaneer headquarters because he is a Buccaneer. On May 2, Tampa Bay signed him to their roster, making the NFL dream he has nurtured since he was five years old come true. In January, the Buccaneers had named former Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano their new coach, and that meant LeGrand had a friend down in a Florida. The two men have become extremely close since LeGrand's injury, and LeGrand now refers to his former coach as a "father figure." An idea that Schiano had been nursing since before he was called by the Buccaneers suddenly bloomed into full flower one spring afternoon when he was meeting with General Manager Mark Dominik and Director of Player Personnel Dennis Hickey.
"It was one day when Mark Dominik, myself and Dennis Hickey were sitting in Mark's office and we just started talking about it," said Schiano. "All three of us looked at each other and said, 'Man this gives me chills just thinking about it. Let's call the Glazers and see what they think.' We got their blessing and Mark kind of steered us through how to do it. It really was a special day to call Eric and tell him we were going to be able to do this. I think it was equally special for him."
The almost unbelievably inspirational force that LeGrand has become since his injury has now been trained on the Buccaneers and the NFL and their fans. At his press conference, LeGrand unveiled his #52 Buccaneers jersey that is now available for purchase in the team shop on Buccaneers.com. He intends to use funds from the jersey sales to start the Eric LeGrand Foundation, which will help advance spinal cord research and provide aid to injured people lacking the right insurance or equipment. Making it to the NFL may have been his childhood dream for a different reason, but now he knows that becoming a Buccaneer can help him in his new goal of inspiring people in difficult situations like the one he is overcoming.
LeGrand definitely inspired his new teammates on Tuesday, particularly during his heartfelt talk in the locker room.
"The speech that he just gave us was really touching, and I'm just glad that he's here with us," said rookie running back Doug Martin. "He basically tells you, 'Don't give up. Stay mentally strong.' Mental toughness – that's what Coach [Schiano] talks about, too. Just keep going, keep pushing."
For some of the Bucs, especially the young players who just recently graduated from college to the pros, LeGrand's story was very familiar. Actually meeting the player who has taken such a tragic turn of events and turned it into a vehicle for positive change was inspirational, to say the least.
"[LeGrand's visit] had a big impact on me, personally," said second-year linebacker Mason Foster. "All the things that he's been through, I followed the story before Coach Schiano came here. To see from when it first happened to now, his outlook on life, it really makes it so that anybody else, you can't complain about anything. He's going through this and he's still really positive about anything. It makes you want to just wake up and work hard."
His conversation with his Buccaneer family in the One Buc Place locker room had a big impact on LeGrand as well. He used to be in awe of NFL players, and now here were 90 of them giving him their full attention, hanging on every word. It confirmed for LeGrand once again that he can use his situation for an immense amount of good. LeGrand's remarkable outlook on his life since that terrible moment at Giants Stadium is summed up in the seemingly backward way he describes that turn of events on Tuesday: "Good things happen to good people."
"I always believe in Coach Schiano's saying: 'Where there's a will, there's a way,'" said LeGrand. "You can will things to happen in this world. If you believe in yourself and you believe in the man above, anything is truly possible. That's what I do every single day of my life. I have been so fortunate to have you guys be able to share my story out there to millions of people, and them supporting me through this whole situation. Because there are people out there who don't have the support that I have, and they need it. I try to help them get through tough times. I like talking to everybody, having a good time, loosening everybody up, motivating each other and challenging each other to get better every single day.
"That's how I continue to live my life, and I'm out there trying to inspire a whole world of people and change the world day by day."