I’ll never forget the fear in Eric’s eyes when I got to him on that field. He couldn’t breathe. I knew right away that it was really bad, but the hardest part was having to tell his mom.
She said to me, “What is it, coach?”
All I could tell her was, “We need to pray.”
Then, I saw the fear in her eyes.
That’s the most detached I’ve ever been from the game as a football coach. I don’t remember how many minutes were left on the clock, but after Eric was taken off the field, I couldn’t focus on the game. I didn’t tell the rest of the team or even the coaches how serious Eric’s injury was. It was a close game and we somehow ended up winning, but as the players were on the field celebrating, I couldn’t get to the locker room fast enough.
That’s where I told them, “We all need to pray, because Eric is in a serious situation.”
What followed was a chain of months in which Eric was in really bad shape. He was in ICU for a long stretch, but there was one night that was particularly bad. We played at South Florida and we were getting on the plane to come home after the game when I got a call from the doctor. Eric was having a lot of trouble regulating his own body temperature, and the doctor said his temperature had gone up to 105 degrees. He was really in bad shape.
Standing on the tarmac, I said, “Doc, what are we looking at?”
And the last thing he said before they shut the doors on the charter was, “Coach, it doesn’t look good.”
I thought we were going to land to the news that Eric had passed away. I remember praying the whole way home, and when we landed back in New Jersey at 4 or 5 a.m., I went straight to the hospital. He was again in critical condition, but he was stabilized.
That night and thereafter was almost surreal, because it was in the middle of the season, so the whole rest of the season was a blur. I’d do all my coaching work throughout the day, and then at night I’d go to the hospital, which was an hour away in Hackensack, and I’d stay with Eric for part of the night. Then I’d drive home, get a shower and do it all again the next day. It was so his mother, Karen, could sleep, but also because I just wanted to be with him. For those first 25 days or so, Eric didn’t want to be alone in that hospital room, so we made sure somebody was always with him — that whenever he woke up, somebody was sitting right there.
When he came out of what was essentially a coma, the first thing he asked me was, “How are you?”
He was going through this traumatic experience — he could hardly speak and he had a tube in his mouth — and he wanted to know how I was doing.
That’s the kind of guy we’re talking about.
I think about the morning the surgeon came out of the operating room and gave us the diagnosis that Eric would never breathe or eat on his own again. I think about the period of time when we weren’t sure if Eric was going to make it.
Now, fast-forward five years, and to see everything he’s done with his life is miraculous.
I’m a coach, so let me use a football analogy to tell you what I see. We always talked at Rutgers about preparation. We preached it.
That’s what I see Eric doing every day. Preparing.
He’s already beaten the odds 10 times over, but he and I both believe — and I think a lot of others also believe — that he’s going to overcome his paralysis with the help of medicine and of some advancements that are yet to come. He believes that there’s going to be a cure for paralysis, and he’s staying ready so when that cure comes, his body is ready to take it. And while he’s staying prepared, he’s doing a ton of things, from public speaking to fundraising, to help advance the cause for that cure, and he’s inspiring everyone he touches along the way.
He’s just a special guy, and I’m not just talking post-injury. He’s still the same guy he was before his injury. He was always the guy who would lift the spirits of the team when it was one of those hot August training camp days. When there wasn’t a lot of juice left, Eric was the one who brought the juice. He was always the energizer bunny.
Eric was going to be a professional football player. That’s how good he was. He was 275 pounds playing nose guard, and he had the speed to be the first one down the field on special teams. That’s a unique combo. You don’t see that often.
That day five years ago when Eric ran down the field and made that hit and lost the ability to play the game he loves is a day I’ll never forget. I’ve coached for 30 years, and that day was my hardest as a coach. He lost so much that day, but what he’s done with his life the last five years since is incredible — and what the world has gained because of it is nothing short of a miracle.
It’s truly unbelievable to see the way you’ve lived your life, Eric.
And I know the best is yet to come.
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.