Jermaine

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Eric LeGrand, Contributor - The Players' Tribune

I’m really not doing anything special. I’m just doing what I have to do to get better, that’s all. This is how people should be living — trying to get better every day, no matter what their situation. My obstacles might be a little different than yours, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attack them with the same passion and drive every day, right?

Don’t get me wrong, I hate being paralyzed. Every day is a grind, and the progress is slow. “Baby steps” doesn’t even begin to describe it, and it’s hard not to think about what could have been.

What if I never got hurt? What if I got up off the turf that day and kept on playing? Would I have a family by now? Would I have a wife and kids? Would I be in the NFL? There were four Rutgers alums who won Super Bowl XLIX with the Patriots. Would I have been one of them?

I think about that stuff every day.

More than anything else, people always ask me: How do you stay so positive?

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I could answer that a hundred different ways but the first thing that always comes to mind is my old friend Jermaine.

About a month after my injury, I arrived at Kessler, my rehab clinic, where I would live for the next five months for inpatient rehab. When I got hurt, it was all over TV, so when I got to Kessler, everybody knew who I was. I’d roll (literally) into the gym, and everyone would stop what they were doing and look at me. It was kind of awkward because nobody would say anything, they’d just stare, so I’d roll into my corner by myself and start my therapy.

I wasn’t worried about making friends. I saw how everyone else was interacting with each other — it’s a real community atmosphere — and I was kind of on the outside, so I got into one of those modes where I was just focusing on me. I got close with my therapists, so I’d talk to them, but I would just go to rehab, do my work and call it a day. I didn’t realize how much I was gonna need friends, especially friends who were fighting the same kinds of battles as me.

Finally, after about three weeks, one of the therapists brought this kid over to me. His name was Jermaine. He was the first patient I met, and he became one of my best friends there.

I didn’t realize how much I was gonna need friends, especially friends who were fighting the same kinds of battles as me.

Jermaine used to work at Newark airport in New Jersey, so he was on his feet a lot. One day, he started tripping over his own feet — like he forgot how to walk or something. He went to the doctor, and they put him on some medication and told him he needed to keep himself in shape because his body was having trouble supporting his weight, which was weird because he was only 5’8″ or 5’9″ and around 200 pounds. That should have been a red flag but he just left it at that and they sent him home.

Then one day back at the airport, he sat down to have lunch and he never got up.

They did an MRI and they found a cancerous tumor growing on his spinal cord, which was cutting off the signals his brain was sending to his legs. If they performed surgery to remove it, they would have had to cut through his spinal cord — completely sever it — and he’d be paralyzed for the rest of his life. So instead, he went through chemo and radiation to try to shrink the tumor.

Jermaine and I were on similar schedules. My therapy was from 1-3 p.m. and his was 2-4 p.m., so I’d see him every day in the gym. He still had control of his upper body — the tumor was on his lower spine, so it affected him from about the stomach down — so he could wheel himself around, unlike me, and when he was done with his rehab each day, he’d wheel down the hall to my room. I had my Xbox and my flatscreen TV in my room, and since I couldn’t play, he would play, and I’d just sit back and talk trash. He’d be getting destroyed in Call of Duty and I’d be saying, You’re lucky I ain’t got my hands yet or I’d come in and show you what’s up.

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We hung out a lot, and we got pretty close.

Jermaine was always sick from the chemo and radiation, so he went back and forth between Kessler and hospital a lot. After seeing what he was going through day in and day out, I started thinking: Where’s his mom and dad? Where’s his family? Nobody’s really coming to see him. I didn’t know if he didn’t want people to come see him or what, but nobody was there. He didn’t even have someone to bring him fresh clothes. He’d wear the same clothes for three or four days at a time. That’s just how it was for him.

Towards the end, I saw his mom and dad come in and try to help him out a little bit. I know his dad was in and out of jail, and his mom stopped by a couple of times but nothing consistent.

There are a lot of stories like Jermaine’s. He was on his own.

I finally got to go home after five months of inpatient care at Kessler. I’d still be doing outpatient therapy three days a week, so I’d still get to see Jermaine, as he was still living there and going back and forth, in and out of the hospital.

The first time I went back for outpatient rehab, I saw Jermaine by himself in his wheelchair. I hadn’t seen him in a few days, so I rolled over to him and said, “Yo, Jermaine, what’s good?”

He looked at me with the blankest stare, like he never even met me before. He just wasn’t himself. I thought, Wow, the cancer must have spread. This doesn’t look good at all …

My next rehab session was the following week, and when I went in, I went straight to the wheelchair clinic and asked if Jermaine got fitted for his new chair yet. I thought maybe if he had, that’d cheer him up a little. They said he had but unfortunately, the chemo and radiation hadn’t worked, and the cancer spread to all the way to his brain. He didn’t make it.

Jermaine died in April, 2011, about five months after we met at Kessler.

There are a lot of stories like Jermaine’s. He was on his own. Rehab — especially the kind of rehab we do — is physically, mentally and spiritually exhausting. I can’t imagine ever going through what I go through on a day-to-day basis with nobody behind me to support or encourage me.

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The moment I found out Jermaine had passed, I promised myself I would never complain about anything in this world ever again. Jermaine would’ve given anything just to be able to take care of himself and be able to live his life, and he had nobody there supporting him.

Meanwhile, I felt like I had the whole world behind me. I had strangers I’d never even met writing me and coming to see me to wish me well. Even today, I’ll post a picture or video of me in therapy on Instagram or Twitter, and I’ll get 80, 90 or 100 comments from people encouraging me. Everybody has my back.

Nobody had Jermaine’s.

I always say that my injury doesn’t define me, but what it has done is it’s given me a pretty clear purpose: I want to motivate people. I want to inspire others to never give up no matter what obstacles they’re facing. I want to help find a cure for paralysis. There’s so much I can and want to do, and because of my injury, I know exactly what legacy I want to leave and what I have to do to make it happen.

I don’t think anyone should die without leaving some kind of legacy, whether it’s through their kids, their work or how they’re able to positively impact others. Jermaine didn’t have the chance to touch that many people but he touched me, and a lot of what I’ve done since and will do in the future is because I was able to call him a friend.

Maybe that’s Jermaine’s legacy …

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People always ask me if I would go back and change that moment when I got hurt. Honestly? I don’t think I would. Yeah, I want to walk. I want to play football. I want to drive a car and hug my mother. But at the end of the day, I would never give back the things I’ve been able to experience over the last four-and-a-half years. More than anything, I’ve been able to inspire and motivate others, but there’s so much more I’ve been able to experience because of my injury.

I got to meet and know Lil Wayne, my favorite rapper. I got to meet my idol, Ray Lewis. I got to be on the field at Super Bowl XLVIII with my favorite team, the Broncos. I not only got to attend the ESPYs, but I was presented with the Jimmy V. Award for Perseverance. I get to be a part of the Subway campaign with so many other great athletes, which means I get a Subway black card — free Subway for life. C’mon now!

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These are all things I never dreamed I’d get the opportunity to experience. It’s stuff that doesn’t happen to kids from my neighborhood. They’re memories I’ll cherish forever.

My injury has also brought my family closer together. Before, everybody — my aunts, my uncles, my cousins — was really busy. We’d see each other at holidays and at my football games but that was about it. Now I see my family just about every weekend. We have barbecues and we take family vacations together. Everyone is so much closer. I love it.

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My day’s gonna come when I can stand up and control my body again, and I can prove that my injury doesn’t define me. I’m still the same person I would have been if I never got hurt — the only difference is that one version can walk and play football and the other one can’t. Aside from the physical limitations, I’m the same dude. I still have the sheer will and determination to be great — the same things that made me a great football player — and that pushes me in my rehab.

I don’t think I’m doing anything special. I’m just doing my best and grinding every day to reach my goals. It’s long, hard work, and I find motivation anywhere I can, whether it’s from my family, my followers or from remembering my old friend Jermaine.

It ain’t easy being a boss. But if you wanna be a boss, you gotta put the work in.

And of course, you gotta bELieve, too.

Eric LeGrand is a former Rutgers defensive lineman who was paralyzed from the neck down after making a tackle on a kickoff return in 2010. He is the President of Team LeGrand, which is a fundraising branch of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which is dedicated to finding a cure for paralysis resulting from spinal cord injuries. 

This is the second in a series of Rehab Diaries documenting Eric’s quest to walk again. You can read the first installment, Learning to Walk, here.

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