Last season, Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand, then 20, from Avenel, suffered a devastating injury when he collided with an opposing player on the Army team while making a tackle. He fractured his neck and chipped his spinal cord and was paralyzed from the neck down.
On Nov. 22, just over a year after the injury and two days before Thanksgiving, he came to Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston to deliver a message of inspiration.
LeGrand, who uses a wheelchair that he controls with his mouth, needed some help setting up and adjusting the microphone. Dressed in a Rutgers T-shirt and matching sweatsuit, he spoke to the group from the stage of the auditorium, with his mother, Karen LeGrand, in the wings. Toward the end of his talk, students saw a documentary about his injury and its aftermath.
LeGrand described lying on the field after the injury, before he blacked out.
“My body went totally numb,” he told the students. “I was laying there and I knew I had a choice to make. I could die on the field, or fight.”
He added, “As they lifted me on the stretcher, I caught a gasp of air and saw my mom hysterical. I knew something was wrong.”
Again and again, LeGrand chose to fight. When he learned he had fractured his neck, he said, “I decided I’m too young, and I believe in God, and I believe there’s a reason for everything. I decided I would fight through however I can. If you believe in yourself and in God, then the sky is the limit.”
He has proven doctors wrong when they predicted the worst. “They told me I’d be on a ventilator my whole life,” he said. “I shocked the doctors and came off the ventilator in five weeks.” He has regained some feeling in parts of his body and works hard in physical therapy, with the goal of walking again. He can already stand during physical therapy sessions, under the watchful eye of his therapist, for 40 minutes at a time.
LeGrand’s plight was not only a huge story in New Jersey — where jerseys and T-shirts with his name and number flew off the shelves in support of a foundation created in his honor — but around the country. NJ Gov. Chris Christie honored him at the Statehouse in Trenton in June.
He remembered his first Thanksgiving after the injury — at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange.
“It was the first time I ever had Thanksgiving in a rehab center and I was only 20,” he said. “‘What is going on?’ I thought. My family came, and I realized I was thankful for a lot. There were a lot of people there who didn’t have any family there. I had my whole family supporting me, and a nation of people behind me. That’s a lot. Without them I don’t know where I would be.”
Today, LeGrand said he looks forward to being a sports broadcaster and has gotten a chance to work home games at Rutgers. “I want to be able to explain the game I love to play,” he said.
And he’s also returned to Rutgers as a student, using Skype and other technology to complete his coursework toward a degree in criminal justice.
“I believe I will rise from this chair one day,” he said. “There’s going to be a big party in New Jersey that day! I believe in the power of prayer and believe in myself.”
Kushner guidance counselor Rabbi Richard Kirsch remembered how students in his Foundations of Prayer class reacted to the news of LeGrand’s injury last year. He decided to bring him to the school because of what his process of recovery says about the power of prayer and hope.
“Students in the class were asking about visiting Eric, about his welfare, what they could do, and how they could pray for him and what to say,” Kirsch said. “It’s not that often that we have the opportunity to really apply what we learn in the classroom to real life.”
Yossi Wagshul, 18, of Teaneck called the talk “inspiring.” Josh Blank, 16, of Livingston, said, “It was really amazing to hear his story and how he bounced back and overcame the odds. Everyone told him he would not have a chance, but he stayed with it and came out on top.”