Night after night, Eric LeGrand would drift to sleep in the hospital room that had become his temporary home. But the glow emanating from Greg Schiano's laptop provided a reminder that he was never alone. If LeGrand awoke in the middle of the night, his coach at Rutgers — correction, his second father — would be there, breaking down film of the week's opponent, fighting off the urge to, you know, sleep.
Why do this for weeks on end? Schiano wasn't to blame for LeGrand's paralysis, sustained while making a routine tackle, nor that he needed a ventilator to breathe. Chance was the culprit. But Schiano always promised parents he would treat their boys like his own, and the man's word is his bond.
"Let me tell you," LeGrand said after a recent therapy session, "I'm so thankful for Coach Schiano."
• • •
Mike Miello coached high school football in New Jersey for 43 years. He was old-school, the type of coach unlikely to deviate from his principles. One of his basic tenets: Freshmen didn't play on the varsity squad at Ramapo High.
But one year his team found itself thin up front. Assistant coaches suggested it was time to do the unthinkable. A baby-faced but tough-nosed freshman was turning heads at practice, and it was time to promote him, they implored Miello.
"I said, 'Are you kidding? He's a freshman!' '' Miello said Friday. "Well, I gave in, and we started him on the offensive line. By the fourth game of the season, he was starting both ways."
That kid was Schiano. But the feat wasn't a result of elite talent or athleticism, though he had a measure of both. It stemmed from Schiano's uncompromising effort and dedication to the craft.
"He made a study of the game of football," Miello said.
That's Schiano. Anything he does, big or small, he devotes every fiber of his being to it.
His next mission? Turning around the 4-12 Bucs.
• • •
The Bucs hired Schiano on Thursday for many reasons. They liked his track record of turning around the moribund Rutgers program. The Bucs loved his attention to detail. (He describes himself as meticulous.) Discipline is lacking in the locker room and on the field, but that will soon change, if Schiano is to be believed.
But as much as anything, the Bucs were drawn to Schiano because of his makeup — not as a coach, but as a man. When he met general manager Mark Dominik, The first thing I asked him was what is his hobby?" Dominik said. "He said, 'Well, my hobby is my family.'
"As a great football coach, that's really all the time you have in this world. To hear him say that without knowing what I wanted to hear was impressive."
Dominik shouldn't have been surprised. The only surprise is Schiano's broad definition of family. It extends beyond wife Christy and kids Joey, John, Matt and Katie.
Schiano worked 11 years at Rutgers, but it was more than a job.
"The way I approached it at Rutgers was those (players) were my sons, and that's why it was so hard to leave," he said. "After telling them (I was leaving), I can't tell you the number of text messages that I've received in the last 24 hours that just make me know that we're getting through to those kids.
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"That's why you coach."
• • •
The nightly drives from Piscataway to Hackensack could take more than an hour, but they had to be done. LeGrand and his mother needed every ounce of support after he was hurt in a game Oct. 16, 2010. This made Schiano's response instinctive.
He would arrive to relieve Karen LeGrand, sending her home to get some sleep. No one leaves their kid alone in a cold, lonely hospital room, tubes coming out of him and machines purring. So Schiano wasn't about to.
"He is a very caring man," Eric LeGrand said. "He made sure I had the best of everything. The best doctors, the best care — everything. When you're in the situation I was in, with a broken neck, the best really comes out of people. I always saw him as a coach, but after what happened, I saw a whole other side of him."
LeGrand remains paralyzed but has made significant strides that suggest his hope of recovering is hardly ridiculous. Doctors said he'd never breathe on his own, but he does that just fine nowadays. Doctors believe some movement below the shoulders might be returning.
But Schiano changed, too. His heart had never hurt so much. He'd never shed so many tears.
"It was literally the hardest thing I've ever been through emotionally and physically," Schiano, 45, said. "I wasn't sleeping. I didn't want to cheat the team, but I wanted to be sure I was there every day. I wanted to give Karen a rest. So she'd wait for me, and I'd get there and sit with him until the middle of the night. And then she'd come take over."
Last week it was the LeGrands who cried, when Schiano broke the news of his move to Tampa Bay.
"That was a tough day for us," Karen LeGrand said.
When Greg and Christy Schiano discussed the decision with their children, the kids likely asked the questions kids ask, about new schools and soccer teams. But they also asked something else.
"One of the things that my kids all said was, 'Well, what about Eric?' " Schiano said.
He'll have a place to stay any time he likes at the Schiano residence in Tampa. The Bucs don't have a coaching staff, and Schiano hasn't even met everyone on his team. But that decision has already been made.
Those who know Schiano look at how he has responded to previous tests and make predictions about how he'll do with the Bucs.
"He'll be just fine," Eric LeGrand said. "He's going to take control. He's going to show he's a leader. When he's focused, nothing can stop him."
Schiano's new challenges include the Saints, Falcons and Panthers. They are a step up from Big East foes such as Pitt and Syracuse. Which is just fine, Miello, Schiano's high school coach, said.
"With Greg," he said, "the greater the challenge, the greater the response is."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.