“You can be anything you want to be.”
That phrase certainly seemed to be ringing true for Eric LeGrand. He was average academically, never excelling in any particular area. However, his passion and talent for American football had gotten him a scholarship into Rutgers – one of the leading universities in America. People there were bigger, faster and stronger than he was. However, his hard work and determination led to him eventually becoming a starter for the team, providing a valuable contribution to the team’s defence. There was talk of him being drafted into the NFL, which would see him earn a minimum of $500,000 per year.
Not bad for someone “average.” However, on the 16th October 2010, his life would change forever.
Rutgers were playing a game against Army in front of 30,000 people at Metlife Stadium, where two NFL teams play their home games. As Rutgers kicked the ball away, LeGrand sprinted downfield to try and make a tackle. He did. LeGrand collided with the ball carrier, and it was immediately obvious something was wrong. He lay on his back, completely still. As he was stretchered off the field, he tried to give a thumbs up gesture to the crowd. He couldn’t.
“I thought I was going to die” LeGrand recalls. “I thought that was going to be the end of my chapter.”
He was nearly right. He’d fractured his C3 and C4 vertebrae, and needed emergency surgery to stabilize his spine. The surgery was a success, but he was paralyzed from the waist down, with doctors predicting that he’d never be able to breathe without use of a respirator.
That wasn’t the way Eric was, and it took him just six days before beginning to practice breathing independently. It took him a week more before he regained some movement in his shoulders and sensation throughout his body. Just seven months later, he had obtained movement in his arms, and began tweeting pictures of him standing upright at therapy. While all this was going on, he hadn’t forgotten about his education. Amazingly, he began to continue his course online, as he would use Skype to hear lectures three times a week. How does a 20 year old go from the prospect of fulfilling his lifelong dream and a chance to make millions to the reality that he may never walk again – and simply carry on with his life?
Well, that was just the way Eric was. When talking about losing the ability to feed himself, he admits that “At first it was a little bit weird; now I don’t care, I just want to eat the food” before breaking out into a big grin. After the two and a half hours it takes him to get ready each morning, he spends the next four in gruelling therapy – while smiling. He’s never once looked around and complained about how bad he has it, or wished that the accident hadn’t happened. He can’t change what’s happened. But he can change what will happen next. His first public appearance came just over a year after the injury, as he was set to go down the tunnel with the Rutgers coaching staff. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was about to head out into a blizzard. His mother tried to talk him out of it. Not a chance. This was just “another thing” for Eric. The occasion was voted “The best moment in sports 2011” by Sports Illustrated.
When his college coach Greg Schiano left for a job in the NFL, he made Eric’s dream a reality, and phoned him to tell him that they’d be signing him. Despite being absolutely delighted, his first thought wasn’t for him – he asked Schiano “Do you really want to waste a roster spot on me? You could use that.” A month later, after attending the team’s practices, he retired so that Schiano could have that roster spot open.
It came as a surprise to no-one that his next career would be in motivational speaking. His talks always start with the same line – “I believe that I’ll be walking all over this world soon.”
You can be anything you want to be.