Thanks, Eric

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Five years ago, on October 16, 2010, Eric LeGrand made the hit that changed his life forever. Since being paralyzed from the neck down as a result of that hit, Eric has become an ambassador to find a cure for paralysis. To honor Eric and his inspirational journey of the last five years, The Players’ Tribune rounded up some of Eric’s old Rutgers teammates and friends to share some stories and tell Eric how he’s inspired them.

***

Mohamed Sanu (Rutgers WR, 2009-11)

I was sitting on the sidelines when it happened. I remember my wide receivers coach was talking to me about the previous series because we had just scored. He was trying to talk to me, and I remember looking out onto the field and seeing Eric make the big hit.

It was loud. Everybody heard it. It was one of those hits Eric always made.

After the hit, I could see the way he was laying on the ground. I could see he was trying to move, but he couldn’t get up.

Coach tried to snap me out of it, like, “Pay attention,” but I didn’t listen. I got up and I walked out onto the field and got as close as I could before they told me I couldn’t go any further. It felt like time just stopped. It was an eerie feeling. I took a knee and started praying.

That five minutes felt like five hours. I knew what had happened, but I didn’t know the severity of it. I can still see that picture in my head very vividly: Him laying on the ground and his head kind of bobbing around and the rest of his body completely still.

I was looking for E to put a thumbs up when he was getting carted off the field.

Nothing.

And we had to finish playing a game after that. I didn’t want to play, but I had to play. You know? So I told everybody, “Hey, we still got a game here. And we gotta play for E because we know E would go out and play for us if it was one of us out there.”

I’ve known Eric since we were freshmen in high school because we used to play against each other. Every year, we would go at it. It was basically me vs. Eric out there most of the time — at least that’s what it seemed like because he was always the one making big plays for his team and I was the one making big plays for mine. When we knew we were going to Rutgers together, it made it more fun because we would always compete. That’s the relationship we alway had. Competing, but always supporting each other.

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We used to go visit him at the hospital where he was staying and doing rehab. Every week, guys would just pile into cars and drive up. Some guys would miss class just to go see him. (Don’t tell coach…)

I remember the first time I went to go see him, he was cracking jokes. This guy just broke his neck and he’s not physically able to move, but he’s able to make you laugh. That’s just the type of personality he has.

His heart is just made of gold.

***

Eric,

Seeing how quickly you turned a bad situation into something great is incredible. To this day, I still wear my “bELieve 52” band on my left wrist, and whenever I take my mouthpiece out during a game, I tuck it into that band so I’m always reminded of you and your spirit and your attitude. It always keeps me going. That’s how much you mean to me.

Every time I play, I’m playing for you, because I know how much you would love to be out on the field playing this game right now. You inspire me every day.

Thank you, Eric, and keep doing what you do.

– Mohamed

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Brian Leonard (Rutgers RB, 2003-06)

I was with the Cincinnati Bengals when it happened. It was our bye week, so I was back in New Jersey for the game that day.

I heard the hit. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of guys go down with injuries. I’ve seen a lot of people get hurt in the NFL. But right away, I could just tell something was different about Eric’s injury. The way he fell. The way his body was reacting. I could see his head moving back and forth, but his limbs were stiff.

I looked over to my girlfriend at the time — who’s now my wife — and I said, “Stef, this isn’t good. Something’s really wrong here.”

I never played with Eric at Rutgers, but I’ve gotten to know him really well over the last few years. He suffered just about the worst injury you could suffer in football, and he got football taken away from him in that one instant. But five years later, he’s really turned such a negative into a positive with his attitude and his work ethic. He’s inspired so many people. He makes people look at life in a different way, and I’m one of those people.

There’s no other guy like Eric LeGrand.

***

Eric,

I’m going through a transition right now — a transition out of football. It’s a tough transition to make. I’ve always been a football player, and now I have to go out into the “real world” and go be something different.

When I think about my situation, and I get scared or confused about my transition, I think about you. I think about how suddenly football was taken away from you. You could have been angry. You could have thought, Why me? But instead, you’ve approached every day like a champ. For you to go through what you’ve gone through and still have the courage and power to get up every day and go to rehab and work towards your goal of walking again, inspires me to know that if I adopt your mindset and your attitude, there’s nothing I can’t handle. Even this difficult transition out of the game I was lucky enough to play at the highest level for eight years.

Keep working towards the goal of walking again, because it’s going to happen. You’re changing people’s lives every day that you wake up. Everybody that meets you and hears your voice — whether it’s radio, TV, whatever you do — is a better person because of it.

I know I am.

Thank you.

– Brian

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Jason McCourty (Rutgers DB, 2005-08)

It was a normal kickoff play. Nothing out of the ordinary. That’s what really stands out to me.

When you see something like what happened to Eric, you realize how fortunate you are to have the ability to play this sport. I remember when it happened and just about every player in the NFL was wishing him well and praying for him. I think the biggest thing for all of us guys that play this sport is that we know that it can happen to anybody — that could have been any one of us.

When he first got hurt and I was going to visit him, I was wondering, What kind of mood is he gonna be in? I don’t wanna say the wrong thing. But that first time I went to see him, and every time I’ve seen him since, he’s had a big smile on his face. He’s always in a great mood and he always has a fresh pair of Jordans on his feet.

That’s E.

The thing about E is that he was always ready to go. He was always in great spirits. When you go through training camp — especially with some of those grueling days Coach Schiano put together for us — it’s great to have a positive guy like Eric always around to be that infectious personality that keeps everybody loose and motivated. He’s always been that guy.

It was sad to see what happened to him, but I remember thinking, If anybody can handle this, he can. He’s always had the passion and perseverance to get through anything and stay positive, stay motivated. He inspires me to stay grounded and realize how much of a blessing it is to play this game and play it at the highest level.

***

Eric,

Thank you, E, for everything that you’ve done. The inspiration that you’ve provided. The positive attention that you’ve brought to not only the Rutgers family, but to your entire community.

Sometimes you don’t always get to see the amount of people you’re touching and the impact you’re able to make, but you truly are an inspiration and you’re doing something truly special. Keep doing it and keep believing. I believe you will walk across that field again one day, and when you do, you’ll be inspiring everyone in a whole new way.

And I can’t wait to see it.

– Jason

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Devin McCourty (Rutgers DB, 2006-09)

I was playing for the New England Patriots and I was at home right before we played the Baltimore Ravens the next day. I was about to head to the team hotel and I was watching the Rutgers game against Army, and I remember seeing Eric go down after making that big hit on the kickoff.

Leaving the house, I was thinking, He just got hurt. He’ll be alright.

Later, a friend that was with me when I saw the hit texted me.

“He didn’t get up.”

Eric came to Rutgers as a bigger linebacker, and they switched him to defensive tackle. I just remember that he worked extremely hard to make that adjustment. He attacked it. He put on weight, got stronger — he did whatever he had to do to get on the field.

That’s one of the reasons it hurt so much to see that happen to him.

He was always an inspiration to the guys around him because of how hard he worked, but now he takes that same mentality and applies it to his rehab, and it has the same effect. It’s inspiring people all over the world.

Every time I see Eric, I ask him what city he’s coming from because he’s always on his Eric LeGrand World Tour, meeting people and kissing babies. It’s really incredible to see what he’s been able to do with his life outside of football and after his injury. He’s always happy, always smiling and great to be around. It’s really incredible.

***

Eric,

Keep being that guy you always dreamed of being. Five years after your injury, you’ve already done so many great things, and sometimes the hardest thing to do is find out what’s next and how else you can make an impact. We all know that won’t be a problem for you. No matter what you do, it’s going to be great. Keep focusing on who you are as a person, because that’s where everything you do starts: with you just being you.

I can’t wait to see the day when you walk again.

– Devin

Sep 14, 2013; Piscataway, NJ, USA;  The number 52 is displayed to honor Rutgers Scarlet Knights former player Eric LeGrand during halftime of a game against the Eastern Michigan Eagles at High Points Solutions Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Jamaal Westerman (Rutgers DL, 2005-08)

It was a Saturday. I was in my second year with the New York Jets, and I remember we were away that weekend for a game in Denver. I was at the team hotel, and somebody came up to me and said, “Hey, somebody from your college team got hurt.”

I’m like, “What are you talking about?”

Then I saw the hit.

I could tell it was pretty bad, but I just prayed for the best. It’s a hard thing to watch when that happens, especially to one of your guys.

The next day, I went out and played a football game.

Eric came in as a freshman at Rutgers when I was a senior, and he was a beast on special teams. He was a D-tackle, but he could fly down the field and lay the hammer on the other team. The D-linemen on our team were always close, so I got to know Eric pretty well.

As soon as I got back to New Jersey from Denver, I went to go see him in the hospital. A lot of people from Rutgers were coming in and out — there was always somebody there. You’re obviously concerned, and you don’t really know what to expect when you walk into his room for the first time. But somehow — after walking in there feeling bad and being emotional about the whole thing — you walk out smiling. And you look around at all the other people after they visit him, and they’re smiling, too.

Everyone was there to support Eric and his mother and lift their spirits, but it was Eric who was making everyone else feel better.

That’s when you realize: There’s just something infectious about Eric LeGrand.

***

Eric,

I’ve never gone through anything remotely close to the struggles you’ve faced. If I was in your situation, I don’t know if I would have the same courage and strength you’ve shown. But seeing you do what you’ve done over the last five years since your injury has given me the courage and strength to face every challenge that has come my way.

When I’m faced with any adversity, I just think about how you’ve been through so much worse and always stayed positive. You prove every day that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it.

Five years … It’s crazy thinking about how long it’s been. Keep moving forward and keep making progress. You know as well as any of us that you can’t control the past, only what you do today and in the future.

You’re going to walk again. You know that, and we all know it, too. I can’t wait to see where you’re at in another five years.

– Jamaal

Sep 14, 2013; Piscataway, NJ, USA;  Rutgers Scarlet Knights former player Eric LeGrand enters High Points Solutions Stadium during halftime of a game against the Eastern Michigan Eagles for his jersey number retirement ceremony. Mandatory Credit: Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Wright (Rutgers TE, 2011-12)

I couldn’t really sleep that night. Everybody was texting me trying to see what was going on with Eric. I just kept replaying the image from the Jumbotron where you saw him make that huge hit, then his body just went stiff.

I’d never seen an outcome like that from a hit before, especially in person, so when it happened, I was thinking, Ah, he’s gonna get up. It’s usually a minute or so before somebody gets off the field when they’re hurt in a game. But after Eric was down for a couple minutes, I think we all started to think it was pretty serious.

When Coach Schiano broke the news to us about Eric’s injury, the meeting room where he addressed the team was dead silent. It was kind of surreal. It was heartbreaking to see that happen to a guy with so much passion who played at such a high level, but what hurt the most was to see it happen to a guy of Eric’s character. Seeing it happen to a guy like that just let the air out of the entire team. Some guys didn’t even want to go back into the game after it first happened, but they knew Eric would want them to keep playing, so they did.

I played with Eric in our high school All-Star game in New Jersey, and he was one of the strongest, hardest-hitting guys I ever played with. We won that game and we met again at Rutgers, and after freshman camp was over, we were roommates in the dorms. We still talk to this day about those times — the ups and downs and just the grind of playing college football.

The thing I remember most about that time with Eric is that he lived life with such joy and he loved the game of football and being around his friends. He just loved to experience different things and different people.

He still does.

***

Eric,

When you got hurt, you made a decision to not let your injury define you. That’s a hard decision to make, and even harder to follow through on. But you turned it into something positive and you’ve used it to make an impact on the world around you. All the people’s lives you’ve touched and the impact you’ve made in our communities is evidence of that. That’s what I admire about you the most to this day.

You’ve given me a new perspective on football and on life. Because of you, I approach football with a greater appreciation for my ability to play the game, knowing it could be taken from me at any moment, and I approach life with the understanding that the most important thing in life isn’t football, but how you positively impact other people.

To see what you’ve done in these last five years has been such an inspiration. Continue to do great things and keep pushing forward. You know we’re all with you, and I can’t wait to see what you do next.

– Tim

***

Five years after Eric LeGrand’s injury, he has created a campaign called #FiveYearsForward​ as a way to honor his journey and to mobilize support for the six million Americans living with paralysis. Eric hopes to use this bittersweet milestone as fuel to advance research that will ultimately find cures for spinal cord injuries. For more information on how to support #FiveYearsForward and honor Eric’s journey, visit TeamLeGrand.org.

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