Former Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed making a tackle during a Scarlet Knights game in 2010, talks about how he is managing during the coronavirus pandemic, his injury and Greg Schiano’s return as Rutgers’ football coach.
Q: What would you want to say to New Jersey, to everyone, that is enduring this COVID-19 nightmare?
A: I would say we have to stay inside. We have to stop the spread of this virus that’s going around. Take these moments to enjoy the time with your family and reflect on all the great things that you have in your life and how fast they can be taken away. If you take a look at all the people that it can be affecting, it doesn’t matter who it is, it can be affect anybody, and we need to do our part. If we ignore this, it’s only going to get worse.
Q: Put into words how scary this is for you.
A: It’s very scary. I’m not gonna lie. I’m afraid to go anywhere, because you just don’t know, people are catching it so easily. I don’t even want to go around the neighborhood, walk the dog with my mom when it’s a nice day just because someone might come up to the dog [135-pound Italian Mastiff named Diesel] and start petting my dog and then all of a sudden somehow I get it. It’s very scary.
Q: What would you say to the basketball players who didn’t get to have their NCAA Tournament, all the seniors especially, and all the high schoolers who had their seasons cut short?
A: I would say, “I’m sorry. My heart goes out to you.” This whole situation is preparing them for something bigger down the line. There’s ultimately a reason why you’re dealing with this adversity, and like I said, I’m so sorry that you didn’t get to experience those moments. But right now we are dealing with a global pandemic, and sometimes it’s bigger than just sports. It’s just very unfortunate to say, but it’s what our world is like right now, what we’re dealing with, and we have to do our parts.
Q: You know better than anyone — following the spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down 9¹/₂ years ago — what it’s like to have a sport, and more than a sport, taken from you.
A: I know exactly what it’s like not being able to do the things that you love, play the game that you love, and hopefully for most people that it’ll only be for a short period of time. From someone like me, it’s been my life. I know what it’s like, and I feel for them, but it is not the end of the world, so we have to do our part. People’s lives are at line right now, so it’s bigger than our sport.
Q: One day you’ll walk again. The ones who were cheated out of March Madness or their spring sport can still walk and run, right?
A: Yup. When you start putting things in perspective, yes, it does suck that you didn’t get to play your sport, but you’ll still be able to even go on to the professional area or you’ll be able to have another career. And you still have your health. You still have your life to live. And obviously this is something that’s gonna stick with them forever, but they’ll be able to still move on from this and grow from it. … You can walk. It’s not the end of the world.
Q: How are you doing?
A: Hunkered down in my house right now, but I’m doing well.
Q: What is this like for you, and how are you handling it?
A: Obviously, I’m very compromised because of my situation, so it’s a very serious situation for me, as it should be for everybody. I don’t want to know what it would be like to go through it. It’s kind of scary, for sure, but it just makes me just stay in my house and do my part for however long it’s going to be, because I know we’ll get through this, but right now we gotta focus on helping each other out.
Q: What were your emotions when the Rutgers men didn’t get a chance at March Madness?
A: Man, that one hurt! That one hurt deep down in the soul. Last time they were in the Tournament I was 6 months old. What [coach] Steve Pikiell did with that program has been truly amazing. The seniors that are on the team — there’s only three of ’em — to not get that experience is heartbreaking, and you gotta feel for the kids. They put their foot down and they kind of let people know they are a serious program in there. They’re a force to be reckoned with. Every morning I’d wake up before the game and I’d yell “RU” out to my mom down the hallway (laugh). When my nurses aren’t here, she’s my caretaker.
Q: How is she doing?
A: She’s doing well. She gets out to walk the dog every day. That’s like her step away from everything.
Q: She goes to the grocery store?
A: She has been there from the very beginning. I’ll say we’ve been lucky where we’ve had neighbors or friends that have stopped by if we need little things and have dropped stuff off. God forbid she catches [coronavirus] and then passes it along to me. We’re very cautious about that. Sunday she went to the Walgreens drive-through. She’ll go pick up one of my prescriptions I need for one of my medications.
Q: Hand washing?
A: My mom is always putting Purell on me a few times a day. She comes over there and starts rubbing my nose with Purell. She drives me crazy, I’ll tell you that (laugh).
Q: What did you like about the Rutgers team?
A: So if you know me, I’m very gritty. … Fight tough, tough-as-nails type of player, that’s what I was. When you watched that team, that’s what they were — tough, hard-nosed. They could get down early if they weren’t in rhythm, but they were gonna fight, and they’re gonna fight to the very end.
Q: You had some events canceled because of the virus?
A: May 2 would have been my third annual Eric LeGrand Flag Football Tournament, that’s unfortunately not gonna happen this year. I had my big, big event that we have every year which is my 5K, A Walk to Believe. It’s a walk/run, that was gonna be on June 6, which is now up in the air. Everything is so up in the air I don’t think it’s possible to have it on June 6. This would have been Year 10, and we were changing it up, we were gonna do it in the evening. We were gonna have fireworks and a celebration, and now it’s not gonna happen.
Q: It brings in how much?
A: These past three years, it’s been over $100,000. We were trying to raise $1 million this year for my 10-year anniversary.
Q: When you spoke to the U.S. women’s national soccer team at the beginning of the month, what was your message to them?
A: I tried to tell ’em try to compete against themselves, to be the best player that they could possibly be. And keep on going out there, don’t apologize for being great. The sacrifices they make to be where they are today, they have made and continue to make, I know exactly what that is like, so never take what you do for granted.
Q: What’s it been like for you being a motivational speaker?
A: I love it. I truly do love it. I love being able to talk, share my story. It’s not just kids, and businesses, adults, corporations, they bring me in and I get to share my story with them. My biggest message is people leaving with perspective of what they get to do or what they can do or being the best that they can be at all times. That’s what I truly try to do.
Q: What do most people ask you?
A: What’s it like having Coach Schiano back? What are my workouts like at therapy? How often do I go to therapy? [That] is a big one. What do I do to keep myself motivated? Like what keeps me going every day? That’s a big one as well.
Q: What keeps you going every day?
A: Honestly, the people that I see when I go up to therapy. People that come up to me and tell me that they would love to be in my situation, and that’s crazy to think about ’cause I can’t even shake your hand. … People tell me that ’cause they see the people that I have met, the things that I get to do. They’re nothing but blessings and I don’t take them for granted when people see that. And they’re like, “Wow!”
Q: You’re not able to go to therapy now, are you?
A: I’m not going right now, thank God I have stuff at home. I’m doing all the stuff that I would do at therapy — well not all of it, but 80 percent of it I’m doing at home.
Q: Does anybody ask you if you ever felt sorry for yourself?
A: Oh yeah, I’ve gotten that, and absolutely not. These past 9 ¹/₂ years have been … it’s been a journey. I see how much I’ve grown and the difference that I’m making in this world, the impact that I’m making on people’s lives — that’s what it’s all about. Those moments when you’re at home, and you’re by yourself, that’s when you truly find out, you know? That’s what drives me. I just want to keep on getting better, keep on making an impact and making a difference, and also realizing the difference that I have made so far. And knowing that people do care about me, and that they look up to me for motivation and inspiration.
Q: When you were injured on the football field, did you ask, “Why me?”
A: No I never did. It sucks that it happened, and then formulate a plan to handle this situation. I don’t think it would be fair for me to ask, “Why me?” when you see some of the situations that I have seen.
Q: What situations are you talking about specifically?
A: People that their families walk out on them … losing their job, don’t know they’re gonna survive … people who don’t have the ability to have a new home built for them and have to go live in a nursing home and they’re 25 years old … people who have passed away from this injury. That type of stuff. … How can I sit here and say, “Why me?”
Q: Where are you in your therapy now?
A: I’m kind of at that point where I try to keep myself healthy and strong. And when that day comes when that cure is here, I’ll be ready for it.
Q: Do you tell yourself, “I will walk again?”
A: I do. I’m 29 years old. God willing, I will have many more years to come and see that day, and I’m trying to do my part to make that happen with my foundation of fundraising funds for clinical trials. But I truly believe that one day I will walk again. The reason much going on with technology that who knows where we’ll be in another 10 years?
Q: So that keeps you going too, right?
A: Oh my God does it! You see where when I first started to where we are now nine years later — where will we be in five years from now, where will we be in 10 years from now? That’s what gives you hope.
Q: How much better are you physically than 9 ¹/₂ years ago?
A: Oh, I’m so much stronger. My back muscles, my shoulder. I see sometimes when I lean forward, when I put on the shirt, I want to pull myself back — before I would have to ask somebody to pull me back. I’m paraplegic, but yeah, I’m pretty strong.
Q: Any Netflix recommendations?
A: Have you heard “Tiger King”? I went on Amazon Prime and I watched the show “Hunters.” That was really good as well.
Q: You had an NFL dream as a child?
A: I wanted to go the NFL and retire and become a sports broadcaster.
Q: Who were your favorite players?
A: Terrell Davis, ’cause I’m a die-hard Denver Broncos fan. I wore No. 30 all through my Pop Warner and high school career. And Ray Lewis, that’s why I wore No. 52 [at Rutgers]. I was recruited to play middle linebacker, I’m like, “I’m gonna wear No. 52,” ’cause I couldn’t wear 30 because somebody else had it. I still kept the number even though my position [defensive line] got changed.
Q: Why did you choose Rutgers?
A: It was the perfect time, it was right during those years, 2006, 2007 where they were really at the high points and I said to myself, “I’m 20 minutes away from campus. I want to stay right here and everyone that’s been a part of me getting here. I want them to come see me play.”
Q: What do you think of Coach Schiano’s return to Rutgers?
A: I believe that it’s the best option for Rutgers football, for Rutgers University, and the state of New Jersey.
Q: Do you have a favorite Coach Schiano anecdote?
A: My favorite I always like to use is, “You gotta learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.” You’re gonna go through a bunch of uncomfortable situations where you may not like your situation, but if you’re comfortable in them, you’ll be able to push and strive through them.
Q: What makes him such a good coach?
A: He demands the best out of you at all times. He sets his standard for you and the program where he’s not going to stray away from that. And it pushes you to levels where you thought that you could never even be at.
Q: The lessons he taught you as a football player …
A: I use in my life today.