I was laying on the turf thinking, I can’t breathe. I can’t move. I’m dead. This is it. When I hit the guy, I instantly went numb. I didn’t feel any pain at all. I was already out of breath because I just ran full speed down the field, and when I hit the ground, I couldn’t catch my breath. That’s when it really got scary. The trainers came out. The equipment manager came out to take my facemask off. They were telling me not to move and asking me questions to keep me awake so I didn’t pass out.
They lifted me up onto the gurney and I caught a gasp of air. I guess it was how they twisted my body — it opened my lungs up for a split second. And I thought, Oh, I just got the wind knocked out of me. I know this feeling. This is happened before. Everything’s gonna be alright.
As they were carting me off, I thought, Let me give that thumbs up and let everyone know I’m OK. My brain gave the signal, but nothing happened. It felt like there was a 1,000-pound cinderblock on my hand. That’s when I knew it was really bad.
It took them seven minutes to get me off that field. The longest seven minutes of my life.
A lot of lives changed that day.
Five years after that tackle, people say I’m an inspiration. That my courage and my positive attitude lets them know they can overcome anything life throws at them. But let me tell you something: Anybody who’s in the spotlight — the strongest, most talented, most inspirational people in this world — didn’t do it alone. There’s a person or a group of people behind them that helped make them who they are. The people that stood by them through the toughest times and let them know they were strong enough to overcome — that they were capable of doing the impossible.
For me, that person is my mother, Karen LeGrand.
After my injury, everyone talked about me and how it changed my life, and it did, in more ways than I can count. But my mom’s life changed right along with it.
In that split second, when my C3 and C4 vertebrae cracked and left me paralyzed, my mom went from having a full-time job as an import/export specialist to being a round-the-clock caregiver. She had to quit her job and learn a new trade: how to care for a quadriplegic. If I’m up in my room, and a fly gets in and lands on my face or starts buzzing around my ears, I have to call her. If I get cold in the middle of the night and I need more blankets, I have to call her. All the little things you do every day without even thinking about it, I have to call her. And she’s always there. Every time.
From Day One, she was the strongest woman on earth. She stayed at the hospital with me for the whole four weeks after the injury and slept on the pullout couch in my room for the five months I spent living at my rehab center. And if you didn’t have a positive attitude when you came to visit me — if you were there to feel sorry for me and us — she wasn’t letting you in. She wanted to control the vibes, and she did. That positive attitude I have every day that people say inspires them so much? That’s where it started. That set the tone for my and our attitudes since.
My mom has been amazing through his whole thing. It’s changed her, too — for the better. It made her dig deep and see how tough she is, physically and mentally. Five years after my injury, she’s pretty much an expert on how to take care of someone with a spinal cord injury. But it doesn’t make it any easier. This is our life now, and she does whatever she needs to do. We still argue 35 times a day about everything — she’s still my mom. She tells me I’m being crazy, and I tell her I’m gonna move out (like I got somewhere to go). I guess some things never change.
More than anything, my injury has made us both realize what’s important in life. Since Day One, we’ve been in this thing together. We draw strength from each other, and because of her, there’s always plenty to go around.
I’ve said this many times, but there are so many things I’ve gotten the opportunity to do because of my injury. But if you take away all the appearances and celebrity meetings, and all the stuff you guys see on TV or on my Instagram, I’d be OK with that, because the most important thing I’ve gained from this whole experience is a newfound relationship with my family. This whole situation has brought us all so much closer together, and it all starts with my mom — and also with my aunt, Cheryl Curet. That’s my mom’s sister. She’s always kept a prayer around me, and just like my mom, she always has such a positive attitude. She’s also one of the cornerstones — that rock that everyone leans on.
It’s also about the thousands of people who reached out to me after my injury, and have been reaching out since. My family has always had my back, but it was the random support that I was getting from other people which led me to realize that I’m an inspiration to a whole lot of people, and it made me feel like I had a responsibility to prevail. These people who didn’t even know me, but they were reaching out to me and wishing me well. They were telling me I’d walk again, and telling me to stay positive and work hard. I felt a responsibility to live up to that. I’ve never backed down from anything, and I wasn’t about to start now when I had so many people in my corner.
So I’ve been grinding ever since. Me and my mom. In it together. Rehab three days a week. Speaking engagements. You name it. Grinding. I’m on the right path and I’m getting stronger every day.
But without Karen LeGrand? Who knows how it would’ve turned out.
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.
In February of 2014, President Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper and challenged individuals, nonprofits, businesses and government to find ways to inspire and expand opportunity for youth. TPT Assist is answering the President’s call to action with a series of stories from athletes who have faced a personal crossroad or a moment of adversity in his or her pathway to success.
Click to learn more about the My Brother’s Keeper initiative and My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.
Photographs by AP Images