Paralyzed Rutgers Player Eric LeGrand Overcoming the Odds

PHOTO: Paralyzed Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand, right, and his mother, Karen LeGrand, leave the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J., Oct. 12, 2011.
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Eric LeGrand's football career was over in a second ... the second he tackled Malcolm Brown on a kick return at New Jersey's Meadowlands Stadium last October.

Watch LeGrand's Interview with ESPN's Tom Rinaldi Here

"I fell to the ground and my body just went, 'ding,'" he said. "That's all I hear, like my bell was ringing and I -- my body was stuck ... I try to get up but I couldn't."

He couldn't get up because he had broken his neck. LeGrand's mother, Karen LeGrand, was in the stands and said she knew instantly that something was wrong.

"I've never seen Eric go down in all of his years playing football," she said. "He's never been down. That was the first time I've ever seen him actually go down and not get back up again."

Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano ran to his player's side.

"I just knew something was wrong, and on my way out there [I was] just quickly thinking, 'Please, let him be knocked out, Lord,'" he said. "You could see he wasn't moving, and I knew it wasn't good."

Not only could LeGrand not move his body, but he struggled to breathe.

"I was like, 'Can I pass out? I may die here,'" he said. "Fear of death, that's the biggest fear that I got because I couldn't breathe the way I was breathing and I couldn't move. ... Laying out on the ground, motionless, not being able to breathe was the hardest part in thinking: Can I die here?"

For seven minutes, his family watched helplessly as trainers tried to help.

"You see all these people working on your son and he's laying there, and you're standing there, totally helpless," Karen LeGrand said. "That's how I felt. I felt totally helpless, like there's nothing that I can do right now to help him."

His body and head were immobilized as he was taken off the field -- but LeGrand still tried to give the crowd a thumbs up to show that he would be alright.

"When I tried to put the thumbs up, you know when you get carted out, I couldn't do it," he said.

"I was like, 'It's not going; it feels like there is 1,000 pounds holding it down and it won't move,'" he said. "That's what all this feels like, basically. When you try to move, there's 1,000 pounds on you and you can't move it."

LeGrand fractured his C-3 and C-4 vertebrae and, that night, underwent nine hours of emergency surgery to stabilize his spine. At 22, he was paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors gave him a zero to 5 percent chance of regaining neurologic function -- a prognosis his mother never told him.

"I didn't want to hear that 2 percent of the people with this injury can walk, or 5 percent regain this, or I didn't want to hear about the percentages because my son, in all honesty, is not a percentage," Karen LeGrand said. "My son is my son ... and nobody knows him, nobody knows the will he has, nobody knows the faith that we have."

In the wake of the injury, the outpouring for LeGrand was enormous. As he remained in intensive care, the Rutgers community adopted a single word to show its support -- believe.

"It's a belief that Eric's going to heal, Eric's going to walk again, Eric's going to be his old self," said Schiano.

It's because he believes that Eric keeps fighting.

"I believe that I will walk one day. I believe it," LeGrand said. "God has a plan for me and I know it's not to be sitting here all the time. I know he has something planned better for me."

That belief has not wavered. Six days after surgery, he first moved his shoulders. By early November, he transferred to a rehabilitation facility less than an hour from the Rutgers campus to begin his recovery. Still breathing on a ventilator when he arrived, he asked doctors to remove it for the first time during Thanksgiving week.

"The doctor said I might be able to breathe for a minute. A minute," he said. "I lasted an hour and a half."

"He went through the night, the next day, and that was it," said his mother. "He was done. He says, 'I don't want it, I don't need it.' And he was breathing on his own just fine."

Those 90 minutes were the beginning of the rest of his life.

"Right now," Karen LeGrand said, "I believe he's got sensation everywhere. Everywhere. Everywhere, yes. His arms, his legs, his feet. He has sensation everywhere."

LeGrand now stands for 40 minutes at a time. And when he sits, it's often in front of a computer as he works toward his degree via Skype.

He has a job providing color commentary for Rutgers football games on the radio -- a dream of his since he was a boy.

But LeGrand's legacy lies not just in what he's done for himself. At Rutgers, he's the essence of the team's mantra: believe.

"Believe. Believe. Believe," Karen LeGrand said. "It means we believe that he is going to be OK."

He might just get there. On Saturday, he will be one step closer when he leads the Rutgers' Scarlet Knights onto the field in his wheelchair -- his first trip through the team's entry tunnel since that fateful fall Saturday.

He isn't giving up on making that trip on his own two feet.

"Leading that team out of the tunnel ... oh man ... it brings chills down my spine," he said.

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