For three days last week, Eric LeGrand watched the NFL draft from his motorized wheelchair at home in New Jersey. The former Rutgers defensive tackle, paralyzed making a tackle on special teams against Army in 2010, was excited to see his Scarlet Knights teammate, receiver Mohamed Sanu, selected by Cincinnati. ¶ LeGrand may be currently unable to walk or stand without assistance, but he certainly isn't without feeling. ¶ "This was his class, he would've been in this draft," his mother, Karen, said. "He watched the draft. He didn't let it get to him. But he said to me at one time, 'That could've been me.' " ¶ More than 1,100 miles to the south, Bucs coach Greg Schiano was thinking the same thing.
That's why the former Rutgers coach telephoned LeGrand on Tuesday afternoon and offered him a contract with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent. The team's announcement Wednesday morning of LeGrand's signing read the same as the signing of any college free agent.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced today they signed college free agent DT Eric LeGrand. LeGrand joins the Buccaneers from Rutgers University, where he played in 31 games. During his time with the Scarlet Knights, he recorded 60 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries, before his playing career ended prematurely.
"This small gesture is the least we could do to recognize his character, spirit, and perseverance," Schiano said in a release by the team. "The way Eric lives his life epitomizes what we are looking for in Buccaneer Men."
LeGrand, who is finishing up his studies at Rutgers and hopes to become a broadcaster, was stunned by Schiano's decision to offer him a chance to sign with the Bucs.
He said a No. 52 jersey, Buccaneers helmet and contract are being shipped to him in New Jersey. Not coincidentally, LeGrand was signed on May 2, or 5-2.
"I said, 'Are you serious? You want to do this for me?' " LeGrand, 21, said in a conference call. "He said, 'It's the least we could do.' I said, 'I don't even know what to say to you right now, Coach. This is amazing. Thank you.'
"This is something I always dreamed about, to go to the NFL and retire and become a sportscaster. Dreams do come true if you really believe. If you do the right things in life, good things happen to you. He did this out of the kindness of his heart where he just wanted to do it. … Honestly, it's amazing. It is, it really is."
LeGrand's inspiring story is well documented and gained national attention. For weeks after LeGrand's injury, Schiano, who coached at Rutgers for 11 seasons before being hired by the Bucs in January, would finish practice and drive more than an hour to relieve Karen in the hospital and spend the night by the side of his player. Spinal cord damage and two fractured vertebrae led doctors to believe LeGrand would be a quadriplegic on a respirator for the rest of his life.
But only five weeks after the injury, he was able to resume breathing on his own. Eventually, he was able to stand upright with help from a metal frame.
On Oct. 29, 2011, one year after his injury, LeGrand led the Rutgers team onto the field in the Scarlet Knights stadium. He also joined the team during Senior Day festivities Nov. 19 before Rutgers' win against Cincinnati. LeGrand was on the cover of Sports Illustrated's 2011 year-end issue and his return to the football field was voted the magazine's Moment of the Year.
He credits Schiano with instilling many principles that have enabled him to face his injury and fight to recover.
"You know, I was going into Rutgers as a little boy, and I'm coming out a man," LeGrand said. "He's that type of person.
"It's hard sometimes when you want to feed yourself or you have an itch and you want to scratch yourself, sometimes it's disappointing. Then you think about all the kinds of stuff Coach Schiano taught us at Rutgers and you just kind of fight through it. … I just stay on my daily grind. I take this as if I'm preparing for a football game. I don't know when that football game is going to be, but I'm preparing for it every single day as I'm going through my rehab."
Karen LeGrand learned of Schiano's plan Monday and struggled to keep the secret for 24 hours. The signing is symbolic by nature and no terms were disclosed, but he counts against the Bucs' 90-man player limit and likely will eventually be placed on the reserve/retirement list.
"I'm so moved by Coach Schiano doing this," Karen said. "There's nothing else I can say about the character of that man. He's an awesome person, he's genuine and caring, and for him to do something like this … what a kind act.
"He has a feeling now, what it feels like being signed as a free agent. That means more than anything. … He knows what it feels like after seeing all the other classmates that have been drafted and signed with an NFL team."
LeGrand, who would've been playing in his senior season last year, said he believed he was on the path that would've led him to an NFL career.
"Oh yeah, that was the whole goal," he said. "That's what you work for and dream for. Playing football, I always wanted to get to the NFL and believed I had a good shot at it. Unfortunately, the injury happened, but it was a fortunate thing that I was able to help a lot more people out there in the world not playing football than if I was playing."
Now LeGrand's goals have changed. He said he's progressing with his rehabilitation and is able to sit up for 15 minutes at a time. He expects to graduate with a degree in labor studies in the fall of 2013 and has partnered with IMG to continue his broadcasting career. He recently helped call the Scarlet Knights' spring game.
Oh yeah, and he plans to walk again.
"My goal is to walk," LeGrand said. "I know it's going to happen. I believe this happened for a reason. My goal is to get back on my feet. That's what I'm going to keep on doing, I'm going to keep on fighting. I don't know when it's going to happen, but I know down the road that is going to happen because if you believe in yourself, if you believe in the man above, anything is possible."