Greg Schiano did not want to get on the plane.
The Rutgers football team was on the tarmac in Tampa hours after blowing a fourth-quarter lead in a crushing loss to South Florida, two weeks after Eric LeGrand had suffered a spinal-cord injury covering a kickoff late in a win over Army. Dr. Robert Monaco, the team physician, told Schiano that LeGrand had taken a turn for the worse.
“He said, ‘Eric has a very high fever and we don’t know if he’s going to make it,’” Schiano recalled. “I’ll never forget it.”
As the flight raced to New Jersey, Schiano and his wife, Christy, prayed — not knowing what they would find when the plane landed.
“I couldn’t get the phone on fast enough,” Schiano said. “Doc told me, ‘He’s alive, and he’s at Saint Barnabas.’ The cops race me over there. Karen (LeGrand’s mother) was there, and I met her. We’re standing outside the ICU unit, and he flatlines. I’m standing there thinking, ‘We’re going to lose him.’ And the doctors did an incredible job. They flipped him over and his heart started beating again.”
Oct. 16, 2010. The day LeGrand went to tackle Army return man Malcom Brown and did not get up from the MetLife Stadium turf. Friday is the 10-year anniversary — which means LeGrand has been an inspiration to many for 3,652 days.
“This injury has created one of the most transformative and inspirational people in the world,” former Rutgers athletics director Tim Pernetti said. “That tackle changed Eric’s life permanently and changed his family’s life permanently. But how he recovered and who he is, his smile, his way that he has about him? That has changed our lives forever.”
Here’s a look at lives LeGrand has impacted over the past 10 years.
‘It’s just a matter of time’
Alan T. Brown had LeGrand alone, so it was time to break the ice.
“I turned to him and go, ‘So do you want to talk about sex?’ Brown recalled with a laugh. “And he just looks at me with that Eric look, and he goes, ‘What?’
“And I said, ‘Dude, you’re 20-something years old. I’m sure it’s on your mind.’ And he started laughing hysterically.”
Brown considers himself “the old man on the block.” He suffered a spinal cord injury at age 21 at a Caribbean beach and has been a quadriplegic for 33 years. But it never slowed him down.
The New York native used to work as a sports agent, has a World Series ring from his time with the Florida Marlins and helped launch a sports talk radio show in Miami. He has run in several New York City marathons, gone skydiving and scuba diving and has two sons. He has also become a mentor to others who suffer similar injuries, working with the late Christopher Reeve after the actor’s spinal-cord injury.
WNBC-4′s Bruce Beck, a friend and former client, called Brown after LeGrand’s injury and connected him with Pernetti. Brown quietly advised Rutgers from his South Florida home, then began visiting LeGrand once he was out of the hospital.
Brown helped LeGrand launch his career as a broadcaster and speaker and advised him on forming Team LeGrand with the Reeve Foundation, where Brown is an executive. He has also helped LeGrand become a mentor.
“We talk all the time, and make sure each other are OK,” Brown said. “It’s great to have that smile. His warmth is amazing. The way he carries himself with such grace. I’m just glad to know he is on my side. We’re family.”
Brown has a video he watches from time to time. It shows LeGrand before his injury, dancing in the locker room after a Rutgers win. The image makes Brown cry. But it also motivates him.
LeGrand believes he will walk again. He works every day to keep his body fit and ready for when the breakthrough arrives. Brown plans to be there with him and do it together.
“It’s just a matter of time,” he said. “With people like Eric, we will get there.”
Using his voice
LeGrand was one of the first phone calls Pat Hobbs made when hired as Rutgers’ athletics director, and there have been many more since. Some calls with LeGrand have been tougher than others.
“When we had some challenges during the coaching search, he was upset,” Hobbs said. “He shared that with me.”
LeGrand wanted Schiano home, and he was not shy about it, from the playfully defiant halftime message to the Board of Governors before talks broke down the first time to a Thanksgiving column for NJ Advance Media — “My coach, Greg Schiano, can make Rutgers whole again” — with plenty of brutal honesty along the way.
Hobbs asked LeGrand to trust the process. A few days later, Rutgers had its miracle.
“It’s important, when you are going through a process like that, to talk to the people who care most about the program,” Hobbs said. “It helps you understand the way they view the process, but also it helps you learn about the man you’re hiring. … Eric was trying to impart to me the impact [Schiano] had on his life, and those were really important conversations.”
Hobbs got to make another phone call to LeGrand a few months after Schiano’s return to welcome him into the Rutgers Hall of Fame. LeGrand was ecstatic; he said it was one of the best days of his life.
Rutgers planned to hold the induction ceremony Friday before COVID-19 interfered. Hobbs was unsure if LeGrand would be comfortable if it fell on his anniversary, but he didn’t bat an eye. LeGrand thought it would have been perfect.
“He’s had a tremendous influence on me,” Hobbs said, “when you see the courage he approaches every day in life.”
An excellent Plan B
Kevin MacConnell cracked up.
The longtime Rutgers athletics official was going through a deluge of correspondence in the days after LeGrand’s injury, the challenges he would face now apparent. There was a note from a woman from Old Bridge named Arlene Gonzalez. She wanted to help and organize a bake sale.
MacConnell pictured a nice little old lady and appreciated the sentiment, but he knew the funds they needed to raise went beyond homemade cookies.
They both laugh about it now. Gonzalez was not a senior citizen, and she had a second idea. You may have participated. It’s called “A Walk to Believe.”
Gonzalez did not know LeGrand. But as the mother of two sons, his injury had an impact on her. She started firing off emails to anyone at Rutgers she could find. After talking with MacConnell, a plan began to form.
Gonzalez wanted to host the walk at Old Bridge High, but it only took hours before a rush of signups spurred her to get it moved to Rutgers’ stadium in Piscataway. It has kept growing ever since, with a tailgate and other attractions added over the years. The 10th event was virtual this spring amid the pandemic, but still the most successful yet.
Gonzalez yearns for the day when LeGrand and everyone else in a wheelchair can stand up and walk in the event. And she plans to keep it going as long as she can.
“I was blown away by Eric,” Gonzalez said. “He turned a negative situation into a positive situation. There are days when I have really bad days, and I think of Eric and it keeps me going. He is just so passionate. He is beyond inspirational. He is like a son to me. We’re going to keep going. If Eric can keep pushing himself, we’ll stand behind him and push just as hard.”
Finding the bright spots
“I heard a roar. And then just pure silence.”
Tim Pernetti would watch the last few minutes of the game from the sideline when he was Rutgers’ athletics director. When Rutgers tied the Cadets late in the fourth quarter that Saturday, he stepped out of the suite he had been sharing with then-university president Richard McCormick and went down to the field. He was walking through one of the stadium tunnels when the play happened.
“I don’t think there is a day that goes by that I don’t remember it happening and what I was doing,” he said.
Pernetti and Schiano did everything they could to build walls around LeGrand and his family, shielding them from the outside world. Pernetti vowed Rutgers would include LeGrand in everything. He was one of the first phone calls when Rutgers joined the Big Ten. And when Pernetti lost his job during the Mike Rice scandal, LeGrand left a physical therapy session early and went to campus to speak to reporters and vouch for Pernetti.
“When I got fired at Rutgers, it was challenging for me and my family given the connection we had to the place,” Pernetti said. “His support, and what he did … his loyalty and innate ability to throw himself out there and support people that are important to him is really inspirational.
“My relationship with Eric has changed who I am as a person. Typical New Jersey people, we’re all cynical. But I find myself looking at the bright spots and seeing the bright spots way more than I used to because of his influence.”
Headed to South Beach
Mike Nichols was shivering in his hospital bed.
People with spinal cord injuries are often unable to regulate their body temperature. LeGrand is one of them, so he recognized his pep talk needed a splash of humor.
I’m going to take you to Miami!
Nichols does not remember much about the first few weeks after he crashed into the boards headfirst during a Monroe High School hockey game at age 17. But he remembers LeGrand sending him a message on Twitter within 72 hours of his injury. And he certainly remembers when he rolled into his room at Morristown Medical Center to visit and offer support.
“Just a stupid joke like that, it meant the world to me at the time,” Nichols said. “It took me out of cold January in New Jersey to being in Miami and nice and warm.”
They never got to Miami together. But they have done plenty more. They’ve become confidants and friends, doing everything from supporting each other’s charitable endeavors to sneaking backstage to visit comedian Kevin Hart to texting back and forth about the NFL.
Nichols proposed a deal to LeGrand: When they walk again, he will play football with him as long as LeGrand puts on skates and plays hockey.
LeGrand’s response? “Hell no.”
“He is a role model by every sense of the world,” said Nichols, who is now attending Rutgers part-time and doing some sports broadcast work for the student radio station.
“You can’t piss off the captain of the team, so I’m going to follow his lead. He is just an amazing person, a great friend and a mentor.”
An Emmy to go with the ESPY
Bruce Beck hustled through the chilly April air and down the Manhattan sidewalk in his tuxedo. He clutched an Emmy in one hand and his cell phone in the other, sobbing into it. LeGrand and his mother, Karen, were on the other end – and a bit confused.
“You won an Emmy!”
“I won an Emmy?”
“What do you mean Eric won an Emmy?”
Beck conducted LeGrand’s first studio interview after his injury for WNBC-4′s Sunday night sports show. The program won a New York Sports Emmy a few months later. Beck accepted the award at the Marriott Marquis, dedicating the win to LeGrand on stage, then raced back to Rockefeller Center for the 11 p.m. news telecast, making his emotional call to LeGrand on the way.
Beck purchased a second Emmy to give to LeGrand. He surprised him that summer at Kessler Rehabilitation Center in West Orange. LeGrand thought Beck and longtime cameraman Jimmy Roberts were coming for a feature on his rehab work. Over 200 people packed the workout room instead to watch Beck present LeGrand with the award.
Beck’s tears flowed there, too.
“He was worthy of the honor more than me. I was just telling the story,” Beck said. “He has such an outlook on life that we all wish we had. He has one of the greatest smiles I’ve ever seen. He’s a special person. I call upon him any time I need inspiration, or to put something in perspective. He has that power to impact people.”
LeGrand suffered his spinal cord injury in an NFL stadium, a stone’s throw from New York, during a rivalry series that dates back to 1891. But there are many more people like him in relative anonymity.
J.T. Brooks is one. He suffered his spinal cord injury in a preseason scrimmage as a 16-year-old quarterback for Cherokee High in Rogersville, Tennessee.
LeGrand was there for him almost immediately. They texted and talked over the phone, connecting through football as Brooks went through six hours of rehab a day at an Atlanta facility. But they had not gotten a chance to meet in person.
LeGrand made sure to change that. Brooks and his parents took a trip to visit Permobil, a wheelchair manufacturer with a location outside of Nashville. He had no idea LeGrand had flown in to surprise him.
“I’m trying out the new chair and he’s in there sitting in the room,” Brooks recalled. “It was a great moment. He’s just a guy I looked up to even before my injury, because so many people around the world do, and it was just great. We talked football and real-life stuff. He just gave me great advice.”
The two remain in contact.
“It just gives you hope,” Brooks said. “He understands, more than anyone else, what I’ve been through. That is something that is indescribable, how you can connect with people that have the same injury. Just seeing him — people from my hometown say I’m their role model, but I look at Eric as a role model. He’s done it for so long and done it so professionally and become such a better person after his injury. It inspires me.”
Tuesdays with Carlin
Call it the Woodbridge School of Broadcasting.
Chris Carlin did not know LeGrand well when he was playing for the Scarlet Knights. Their relationship was forged after the injury, when LeGrand joined the longtime Rutgers play-by-player on the radio team, first on the studio crew and now as a game analyst alongside Carlin and Ray Lucas.
Carlin would visit LeGrand at home every Tuesday night and turn on the tape to review the previous weekend’s audio.
“We’d talk about, ‘This is good, and this is where you want to try to improve,’” Carlin said. “And he would take all that. It was like a little mini-class, and he was into it.”
There were some growing pains. LeGrand skipped out of a postgame show one week early to head to the Shore with friends. Carlin was not happy, and he let LeGrand know that after the fact. But it’s their ability to be truthful with each other that has strengthened their bond.
“You can’t have a bad day around the guy,” Carlin said. “I love him to death. He never doubted that it was meant for this to happen to him. This is a guy who always has a smile on his face no matter what, and that’s just an inspiration in itself. And he wants to get better at everything he is doing.”
‘I’m ready to go’
Everyone knows the story now.
Schiano and his wife were in New Jersey last November last year to visit friends before driving to watch their sons play for Amherst. Schiano had time to kill and knew his old job was available for him. He took a drive around the Rutgers campus, impressed with the upgrades and changes since he had last been in town. Schiano then drove over to Avenel and surprised LeGrand at home.
That is when he knew.
“That night was a special part of deciding to come back here,” Schiano said. “Just sitting there with him in his little man cave upstairs, that was where I kind of said, ‘If this thing can work out, I’m ready to go.’”
LeGrand idolized former Rutgers defensive tackle Eric Foster, and Schiano saw similarities between them. LeGrand was becoming a team leader like Foster, a high-energy player whose passion was infectious. That did not change after his injury.
“The positive outlook Eric has had since the day the injury occurred, to me, is almost supernatural,” Schiano said. “I don’t know many people that could do it, if any. That has been an incredible inspiration.”
When Schiano left Rutgers to go to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he remembers his kids were crying about leaving New Jersey. Then one asked, “What about Eric?”
“I started crying,” he said. Schiano made LeGrand’s NFL dream come true a few weeks later when he signed him to an honorary contract with the Bucs. The two have remained inseparable since.
“He’s changed me as a coach, he’s changed me as a man, and Karen – the selfless approach she’s taken is literally heroic. I’ve learned from both of them a lot,” Schiano said. “He has become a huge part of my life. I get choked up just talking about him. He is something, man. He is special.”
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