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Nine Months Later, Rutgers’ Eric LeGrand Fighting Odds

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Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand should be getting prepared for his senior year on the football field with the start of the season just six weeks away.

Instead, he’s just trying to walk again.

That’s how much life changed for the 20-year old just over nine months ago during a game against Army at New Meadowlands Stadium on Oct. 16, when LeGrand was involved in a massive collision on a fourth-quarter kickoff.

“It felt like I’d got the wind knocked out of me and I was just gasping for a breath,” LeGrand said.

It soon became clear that something was very wrong, as he couldn’t move his body and struggled to breathe. As LeGrand lay on the field, he even worried for his life.

“I got onto the stretcher, I saw my mom, I told her everything was going to be OK and then I got in the ambulance and I can’t remember anything after that until (the following) Wednesday,” said LeGrand, who was heavily sedated the next several days.

He had fractured his C-3 and C-4 vertebrae and had emergency surgery that night at the Hackensack University Medical Center. LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down and doctors deemed it a complete injury, giving him a zero to five percent chance of regaining motor function. They also predicted LeGrand would be on a ventilator to assist his breathing for the rest of his life.

His mother, Karen, kept the sobering news and statistics away from her son, not wanting it to dampen his spirit.

LeGrand was sent to the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in November, moved in with his aunt in March and is now finally living back home in Avenel, NJ, located about 30 minutes outside New York City.

Speaking now, LeGrand’s voice is gentle and quiet, but determined, as he talks about staying upbeat through it all and this being part of a bigger plan for him.

“It’s my nature, this is all I know,” LeGrand said of remaining positive. “… Being at Rutgers, we always talk about fighting through adversity, so this is basically what I’m trained to do, fight through adversity.”

The word “Believe” has become a rallying cry for his family, friends and supporters, and LeGrand himself has the word inscribed on bracelets he wears.

With that spirit, LeGrand has already defied the odds. Just five weeks after doctors said he might never be off a ventilator, LeGrand was breathing on his own.

He’s currently regained partial feeling throughout his entire body and has some movement in his shoulders and arms. Last week, LeGrand sent out a picture from his Twitter account, BigE52_RU, that showed him standing in therapy, accompanied by the words, “Standing tall, we can’t fall. Standing upright again”.

Once he’s able to stand for a half-hour, LeGrand will then be placed on a specialized treadmill to help train his brain to relearn how to walk, even though he cannot move his legs yet.

LeGrand doesn’t have a date he hopes to walk again and is instead taking it one step at a time - both literally and figuratively - but is convinced it will happen someday.

While his injury has raised questions about the safety of football and prompted his coach, Greg Schiano, to propose eliminating kickoffs from the college game, LeGrand views what happened to him as a freak accident and doesn’t want the game to change as a result of it.

[Related: Columbus parade honors ex-Ohio State coach Jim Tressel]

“It’s the one thing I don’t agree with coach Schiano about,” LeGrand said of eliminating kickoffs. “I don’t support it. Kickoffs are just a thing that happens. But I understand where he’s coming from with this because he’s like the father of our family.

“He sees one of his players go down, he feels responsible. So any way he can change that - if the situation can be avoided - I can see why he wants to change it.”

One thing that’s been unanimous since LeGrand’s injury is the outpouring of support he has received. Although the injury is being covered by several different insurances, there is no shortage of costs related to a life-changing event like this.

That’s why Rutgers set up the “Eric LeGrand Believe Fund” in his name and a former coach of LeGrand’s set up the “Eric LeGrand Patriot Saint Foundation” to raise money for him and his family (money can be donated directly online to the PatriotSaint Foundation on this page).

The fundraisers organized for LeGrand have ranged from Rutgers alum Bill Bellamy of MTV fame hosting a comedy event to a charity motorcycle bike ride to a music concert this weekend in New Jersey hosted by hip-hop DJ Funk Master Flex; it’s called “52 Fest” in honor of LeGrand’s number.

While recovering, he has connected with his fans over Twitter by using voice-recognition on his computer to send out tweets. Among the people who have shown their support are ESPN college football sideline reporter Erin Andrews and actress Alyssa Milano. NBA basketball player Tracy McGrady took things a step further, personally donating $20,000 to LeGrand.

[Related: CFB’s celebrity look-alikes ft. Denard Robinson-Lil Wayne]

Whether it’s reaching out to him on Twitter, donating to one of his foundations or just voicing support, LeGrand appreciates all the well-wishing he’s received and says it keeps him hopeful. He’s also been encouraged by speaking with former Penn State football player Adam Taliaferro, who himself was paralyzed during a 2000 game against Ohio State and given just a three-percent chance of walking again.

Less than a year later, Taliaferro led the Nittany Lions onto the field at Beaver Stadium for Penn State’s 2001 season opener. Taliaferro, who also grew up in New Jersey and coincidentally graduated from Rutgers-Camden law school, now lives outside Philadelphia and runs his own consulting business.

“I talk to Adam a lot,” LeGrand said. “I was actually with him a couple weeks ago … he just tells me to keep the faith, keep the hope, things will come back - it just takes time.”

[Related: Years later, Adam Taliaferro recalls harrowing injury]

LeGrand is now living his life as normal as possible; he resides at home and spends his time going to therapy and taking Rutgers courses twice a week online.

His goal is to one day become a sportscaster and he’s discussed being involved with SportsNet New York’s broadcasts of Rutgers games this fall, although the details have yet to be ironed out. And while that dream may one day be realized as well, LeGrand is currently focused on another plan that’s never far from his mind.

“Every day I dream about running back onto the field,” LeGrand said. “I don’t know when it’s going to be but I’m going to do it. Every day I dream about running back onto that field with my team.”

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