He used his lips to manipulate the controls, steering perfectly as he made a right turn between a couch and television set, then past a few ottomans before turning around and facing the 10 or reporters to begin a 30 minute session.
“Wait,” LeGrand said. “I need to move back. My foot is against the (ottoman). …See, I can feel that.”
Those are the gains the LeGrand family lives to experience. He has sensation throughout his paralyzed body, and they believe voluntary movement will come.
A 20-year-old junior, LeGrand was injured while making a tackle in the fourth quarter of a game against Army on Oct. 16, 2010. What LeGrand immediately believed was a neck stinger and getting the wind knocked out of him turned out to be paralysis from the neck down, something he did not learn until waking up four days after the injury.
He was told he would never walk again, but he doesn’t believe that, and there is good reason.
LeGrand was also told he would never come off a ventilator, but there he sat Monday in his new home, his aunt’s house about an hour south of the Rutgers campus, no breathing machine, his tracheotomy nearly closed, shrugging his shoulders and bobbing back-and-forth, side-to-side, while answering questions and engaging a room full of intent listeners about walking again.
“There’s no room to get angry,” LeGrand said. “In time, it’s going to happen. I’m learning to be patient because I was never a patient person. It will all come back in time. I’m young, I was healthy. My body just has to heal itself.”
LeGrand is a believer, and that is why he sees no need to talk to his doctors.
“My family handles the doctors,” LeGrand said. “I just go and work out every day with the therapists.”
Everything he sees in his future comes from his heart, and his mind.
In his dreams, the real ones when he is asleep, he sees no wheelchairs, he said. In his dreams, the ones when his eyes are open and he is talking about a reason to celebrate his situation and not pity himself, he sees no wheelchairs.
“I feel his thing right now is to be an inspiration,” said LeGrand’s mom, Karen, who moved from her Avenel, N.J., home to Jackson. “For a lot of people that are in a similar situation as him, but aren’t quite as positive, or are down on themselves, if you look at him, a 20-year-old kid, in the prime of his life …he was actually living his dream. Just like that, it’s over, but he’s still up, he still smiles, he still laughs.
“He knows that maybe playing football wasn’t something he was supposed to do. He knows ‘Maybe I was supposed to do something bigger than that.’ ”
More than six months elapsed since LeGrand was carted off the field at the New Meadowlands
Stadium late on a windy Saturday afternoon, with an oxygen mask over his face and his condition as grim as it was uncertain.
In the days and weeks after the injury, there were surgeries, prayers from across the country, and an “A” list of visitors from Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid to former Penn State player Adam Taliaferro, who suffered a similar injury and defied the odds to walk again and is now a lawyer.
In the months since, LeGrand is trying to live as normal a life as possible, all the while knowing it is impossible to live a normal life.
He took one class (Blacks and Economic Structures) this spring at Rutgers, with ends with his Tuesday final. He will take two more classes in the summer and planning a full schedule as he slowly re-establishes his social life. He even is on twitter (@BigE52_RU), amassing 2,500 followers in less than a month.
There are “Believe” motivational word sculptures sprinkled throughout his aunt’s house, and one hanging over the doorway heading into his bedroom. A mounted Rutgers ax, the symbol for the program motto of “Keep Choppin’ ” with the words “R” F.A.M.I.L.Y (Forget About Me, I Love You) is in the room.
“I had no idea Eric was so strong, and mature,” Karen LeGrand said. “I had no idea he was so strong. I always knew he was strong. He’s always been strong-minded, but the courage he has shown me, it has absolutely amazed me. It helps me so much.”
LeGrand went to his first Rutgers practice since the injury April 16, and he will be there for Saturday’s Scarlet-White spring game. He watched his favorite basketball player, Boston Celtic Kevin Garnett, beat the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Friday, attend the NCAA basketball regional in Newark (N.J.), goes to the movies, out to the store and pretty much everything else.
And there is always fanfare with it.
“A lot of people do come up and they say, ‘We pray for you. We do believe in you,’ ” LeGrand said. “In fact, I was at Madison Square Garden, and some guy came up to me and was like, ‘I’m here for you, man.’ I’m thankful for that.”
LeGrand’s face lights up when he talks about now living in a Knicks household as his Celtics completed a four-game sweep in the NBA’s first round of the playoffs, and there is nothing but smiles and laughter when his toddler-aged nephew, Xavier, sits on his lap.
But the reality of LeGrand’s situation is omnipresent.
“I cried (Sunday) about four or five times,” he said. “After a while, I cry, but then I get motivated. Keeping fighting. It’s sadness because I see my friends, they’re going out (at night), and you wish you could go with them.
“I know I’ll be back out there soon, so it doesn’t bother me too much.”
A nurse comes to his aunt’s house to help in the morning, and his aunt (Cheryl Curet), uncle (Ariel Curet), mom, girlfriend (former Rutgers soccer player Rheanne Slieman), sister (Nicole) and plenty of others are always around to help.
He goes to physical therapy twice a week at the Kessler Rehabilitation Center in Ocean Township, 20 miles from his new home, and once a week at Kessler Institute in West Orange, N.J., more than an hour from his home, where he spent four months rehabbing after being released from Hackensack (N.J.) Medical Center in November.
The obvious frustration is not being able to walk, and he demonstrated it by saying he wanted to wiggle his finger, although he could not.
“The toughest part is not being able to do everything I want to,” LeGrand said. “But I’m living life the best I can, and I’m thankful for everything I have.”
Any frustration is quickly supplanted by the incredible drive and optimism he routinely displays.
When asked how he can remain so upbeat with such odds stacked against him, there is compassion in his voice as he speaks about his experiences at the Kessler Institute.
“Being in Kessler for five months, you see some crazy things, and you have to be thankful for what you have,” LeGrand said. “There are people in there that can’t even talk. They can’t move their head. I can move my head.”
What awaits LeGrand is yet to be seen, and he knows that.
He is a criminal justice major, but he always has a passion for broadcasting, so he may change his course of direction. Motivational speaking may be in his future, but so far no one has approached him about it.
Yet, there is no doubt optimism and a high level of belief in his ability to walk again will be part of his daily mental ritual.
“If you don’t stop believing,” LeGrand said, “then anything is possible.”
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