Like the college students listening to his every word, Eric LeGrand was in the prime of his life until tragedy struck.
But LeGrand told an attentive audience at Hillsborough Community College's SouthShore campus Monday he can't be defined by the injury that stripped him of so much, including the ability to walk and dreams of an NFL career.
LeGrand, who suffered a debilitating spinal injury while playing football for Rutgers University in 2010, said he would rather be known as someone who inspires others.
He appeared to do just that at HCC.
Student Matt Dial beamed as he met LeGrand. He said LeGrand's outlook on life made him more determined than ever to finish his studies toward a career as an emergency medical technician.
Dial, 21, said his daily struggles pale in comparison to LeGrand, who needs help with the simplest of tasks, such as covering himself with a blanket when he is cold. He must depend on others for everything.
"It makes me feel different now," said Dial, who lives in Brandon. "I have a different view on what struggles really are. You can never compare your struggles to anything like that."
LeGrand suffered the injury two years ago making a tackle against Army on a kickoff return. At 20, he learned he was paralyzed from the neck down.
LeGrand, however, said he is upbeat about life. Yes, he has his battles, but he's also thankful for the positives, including a connection to the area now that his former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano is the head coach for the Tampa Bay Bucs.
"I believe everything in this world happens for a reason," LeGrand said. "I never ask why this happened.
"I've been able to touch so many people. I've been able to make other people smile."
Doctors didn't offer much hope when LeGrand got hurt. But, he weaned himself off a ventilator after five weeks and continues to make small strides. He tackles his obstacles just as he used to tackle opponents.
"You just got to handle the adversity," LeGrand, 22, said. "Focus on the most important thing at that time. Continue to strive."
His daily rehabilitation is netting some results. While he still needs a wheelchair, LeGrand can move his shoulders and experiences sensation throughout his body.
He is confident he will leave the wheelchair one day.
"I just got to keep on fighting and get through the day," he said.
When he falls asleep, LeGrand dreams he is walking or running. He said that his dreams seem so real that when he wakes up, he tries to get out of bed. It has not happened — yet.
"I know I will walk again one day," he pledged.
LeGrand's never-give-up-attitude captivated the students, much as it has captivated the nation. When he steered his wheelchair onto the Rutgers field to lead the New Jersey team last October, readers of Sport Illustrated chose it as "The Best Moment of 2011." ESPN is working on a documentary about LeGrand's life, and LeGrand also received the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles in July.
His book, Believe, hits bookstores this month.
In May, LeGrand was ceremoniously put on the Bucs roster by Schiano. He retired just before the start of the team's camp, declaring himself a "Buccaneer for life."
LeGrand joked that Schiano was such a tough college coach that he tried to stay out of his way. But that coach stood by him and his family after he was injured.
"He's been there since day one. I had the best of everything," LeGrand said.
LeGrand's visit to HCC SouthShore was sponsored by the Student Government Association. Association adviser Maria Torres said LeGrand's visit pumped up the campus. Everyone wanted to meet him, she said.
"It's a big deal for such a small campus," Torres said.
HCC president Kenneth Atwater can see how LeGrand has turned into a role model. Despite the devastating injury, LeGrand is living his life to the fullest and doing his best to show others that you don't quit no matter the challenge. Atwater hopes students soak up LeGrand's message.
"If this man doesn't give you inspiration, you can't be inspired," Atwater said. "One thing he did not do was give up. Eric did not give up. That's the spirit we want to instill in all of our students."
Vanessa Vergara, vice president of the college's Student Government Association, got the message. She was impressed by LeGrand's upbeat demeanor.
"He always has a smile on his face," said Vergara, 20, a Ruskin resident. "It is so inspiring."
Student and Ruskin resident R.J. Martin said LeGrand could stay in bed in New Jersey but instead chooses to travel the country as a messenger of hope and perseverance.
"He's an amazing person," said Martin, 20. "I really, truly believe he will walk again. He's really strong. I know he won't give up."
LeGrand's hopes of an NFL career may be dashed, but he is fulfilling another passion — broadcasting. He works as a football analyst for Rutgers Radio Network. He also takes college classes and has formed a charity — the Eric LeGrand Foundation — with the goal of raising money toward a cure for those with spinal injuries.
Vergara said LeGrand has a busy and fulfilling life. His positive attitude makes her believe that anything is possible. You just need to set your sights on a goal, she said.
"I shouldn't be complaining about what I am going through," Vergara said. "It is so miniscule. If he can do it, I can do it. He says to stay in a positive attitude. I can do this."
Monica Bennett can be reached at [email protected]