One of the hardest things Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano had to do when he left Rutgers for the NFL last January was leave Eric LeGrand behind. Earlier this week, Schiano figured out a way to bring the paralyzed former Rutgers defensive tackle into the fold in Tampa Bay.
Because his inspirational story demonstrates what Schiano says he's looking for in his Bucs players, LeGrand was signed by the Bucs on Wednesday as an undrafted free agent.
"Leading up to the draft, I couldn’t help but think that this should’ve been Eric’s draft class," Schiano said in a release by the Bucs. "This small gesture is the least we could do to recognize his character, spirit, and perseverance. The way Eric lives his life epitomizes what we are looking for in Buccaneer Men."
The signing was a symbolic gesture that came on the calendar date (5/2) that matches the uniform number LeGrand wore at Rutgers. It also came as a surprise to LeGrand, who has regained limited movement in his arms and limited sensation in his body since he was injured during a game against Army on Oct. 16, 2010.
"It came out of nowhere,’’ LeGrand said during a conference call Wednesday. "Coach Schiano called my mom on Monday night, but he didn’t tell me until Tuesday around 1 o’clock, and I was like ‘Are you serious?’
"He said ‘It’s the least we could do,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t even know what to say right now.’ It was always my dream to go to the NFL, retire and become a sportscaster, so dreams really do come true.
"It just goes to show that if you really believe and if you do the right things in life, good things are going to happen to you. He just did this out of the kindness of his heart. It’s just amazing.’’
LeGrand fractured two vertebrae and suffered a serious spinal cord injury on the play that left him paralyzed. He was initially told he would be a quadriplegic for life and would have to breathe through a ventilator, but five weeks after sustaining the injury he was breathing on his own again.
Since then LeGrand has improved to the point where he can now stand up with the help of a metal frame, sit up without assistance for up to 15 minutes and make walking and pedaling movements with mechanical or human aid.
"I wasn’t supposed to be doing any of this kind of stuff,’’ LeGrand said. "But I just keep going every single day and keep believing, and I stay on my daily grind just like I’m preparing for a football game.
"I don’t know when that football game is going to be, but every single day I think of that as I go through my rehab. My goal is to walk again, and I know it’s going to happen. That’s why I’m going to keep on fighting.’’
LeGrand said he learned a lot about how to fight adversity while playing for Schiano at Rutgers and has been inspired by Schiano to continue fighting his own personal adversities.
"Coach Schiano is like a father figure to me,’’ LeGrand said. "Everything we’ve been through, he’s still there for me and he still stays on top of what’s going on here in New Jersey.
"Going into Rutgers, I was like a little boy, but I’ll leave there as a man, because I learned from him that when you’re faced with adversity, you can never back down. You have to face it front on.
"In life you can’t control what cards are dealt, so you just have to deal with the cards you’re dealt and that has continually helped me through my whole situation on a daily basis.’’
LeGrand resumed taking classes via video conferencing less than a year after he was paralyzed and he continues to work toward a degree that he hopes will land him a job as a sportscaster.
Having already worked the 2012 Rutgers spring game, LeGrand may be on his way. But even a career in broadcasting may not top the moment that awaits LeGrand when his name is added to a board at Rutgers that denotes all the Scarlet Knights who have made it to the NFL.
"That’s what I was fighting for,’’ LeGrand said. "It’s not the situation I wanted, the way it is, but I’m going to walk in there one day and see my name there and hopefully show my kids and everything and be able to say I was there. It’s just a blessing.’’