- Associated Press - Monday, April 25, 2011

JACKSON, N.J. (AP) - Paralyzed Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand doesn’t believe in feeling sorry for himself, getting angry or wondering “Why me?”

It’s not his style.

The 20-year-old said his injury while making a tackle on a kickoff return against Army on Oct. 16 at New Meadowlands Stadium, was a one-in-five-million longshot that happened because fate or God intervened.

“There is a reason why it happened, that’s what I truly believe,” LeGrand said in a his first open meeting with the media on Monday. “I was picked for this to happen to. Some people can’t go through injuries like this, it would just put them down. I just believe God put me through this because he knows I can fight through this.”

Don’t ever doubt that.

The junior defensive tackle is going to rehabilitation three times a week. He’s finishing off an economics course. He’s thinking about becoming a sportscaster. And all along, he’s believing with all his might that one day, he will walk again.

When that will happen, LeGrand doesn’t know. He just knows he will.

That’s all that matters.

“I will walk again,” he said. “I believe that.”

Looking at LeGrand as he says that, it seems hard to believe.

A one-time barrel-chested athlete, LeGrand now sits in a big wheelchair with foot and hand rests to keep his limbs in place. A plastic tube is close to his mouth, and when he blows into it, the wheelchair moves from one room to another at the rural home where he is now living not far from the Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park.

“The toughest part is not being able to do everything I want,” LeGrand said. “But I am living life the best I can. I am thankful for what I have.”

LeGrand knows things can be worse. During his extended rehabilitation at Kessler Institute in West Orange, N.J., he saw people who couldn’t talk or eat.

He also admits that life isn’t perfect. He cried four or five times on Sunday because he had talked to friends about their plans and it made him realize what he was missing.

And anger is part of his life, as well, especially when he is trying to do an exercise and he can’t get it done.

But he remains strong. And he gets over it.

“I know there is no room to get angry,” LeGrand said. “In time, it will happen. You have to be patient. I’m learning because I have never been a patient person. I’m learning through this that you have to be patient. It will all come back in time. I am young. I was healthy and my body just has to heal itself.”

The longer one sits and talks to LeGrand, the less one sees of his wheelchair. Soon, the focus becomes the face of the young man who seemingly never ceases to smile, who enjoys a good laugh and who is as positive as a person can be.

“I am the same exact person,” he said, “and I always will be the same exact person.”

But now, he has a story to tell to the masses. And LeGrand has been overwhelmed by the support he has received from around the country, and from sports personalities and teams that have been inspired by that story.

There are things that are back to normal these days, too. In fact, he has developed a longing for food from Rutgers’ notorious grease trucks, especially a craving for a Fat Betty Boy with no marinara and ketchup. In other words, that is a cheeseburger, mozzarella sticks, grilled chicken, French fries and ketchup _ health food for a carefree, college football player.

LeGrand, who will turn 21 in September, believes he will defy the odds. He chuckles when asked about his doctors. They told him he would never get off a ventilator. They told him he would never be able to breath on his own.

Five weeks later, he proved them wrong.

“I don’t talk to the doctors,” he said. “They don’t really bother me.”

Instead, he works with his physical therapist. And the results are obvious.

Almost as if to show off, LeGrand flexed a pectoral muscle. It might seem a minor thing for the average person, but it’s not, his mother said.

“Just to have one muscle come back and to feel it, it’s huge,” Karen LeGrand said. “It’s huge, because it is one more step to the next one, and the next one. Just to have feeling in his fingertips, it’s all major steps since he left Kessler.”

He felt none of that after tackling Army’s Malcolm Brown late in the fourth quarter during that October game in East Rutherford, N.J.

LeGrand only remembers coach Greg Schiano coming on the field and telling him to pray to God, be positive and to start “choppin’” through this right now. Of course, the latter command was in reference to Rutgers’ mantra _ “Keep Choppin’” _ that Schiano installed during a run in which the Scarlet Knights made five bowls in a six-year span.

LeGrand, an Avenel, N.J., resident, bought into that philosophy on that critical day. He remembers talking to his mother, getting in the ambulance, and having an oxygen mask being put over his face.

The next thing he remembers was that it was Wednesday.

And people told him he talked over the next four days. But he doesn’t remember it.

LeGrand suffered a fracture to his C3 and C4 vertebrae. He has sensation in his body, and can tell when a person puts pressure on a certain part of his body. But he has been unable to move his arms or legs since being hurt.

LeGrand has visited the team twice, including once recently when sophomore Jordan Thomas was knocked out at a spring practice.

While the hit was scary, LeGrand said he was OK with it. For now, he looks forward to the day when he can lead the team back on the field.

“It’s motivation to me everyday,” he said. “It’s all in God’s hands when he wants me to get up and lead that team at that right time. Who knows when it will be? But I know he will let me do it. And that’s my motivation.”

Until then, LeGrand continues to work and be a source of inspiration for his family.

“I had no idea that Eric was so strong and mature,” Karen LeGrand said. “He’s actually matured right in front of my own eyes. He was a your typical 19- or 20-year-old football player, you know, goofy, silly and annoying, the whole bit. He has grown up so much right in front of my eyes, I am so proud of him.”

As the words come out, Karen LeGrand’s eyes welled with water.

“I had no idea of his strength,” she said. “I knew he was always strong, strong-minded, but the courage he has shown me has absolutely amazed me. It helps me so much to know he is that strong, I feed off his strength, believe it or not. When I get down, I just look at him and how can I be down? Look at this kid! He is not down, He is still fighting.

“So, I am not going to be down.”

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