Former Rutgers player Eric LeGrand tackles hardships, inspires faith



Kelsey Hanson

Each year since 2012, The Office of Disability Services has presented the O.S.A. Humanitarian Award in honor of the late Fr. Bill Atkinson, the first quadriplegic to be ordained through the Augustinian order. The award is presented to an individual or organization who exemplifies the spirit of service and the love for community that Fr. Bill Atkinson embodied during his lifetime. This year, the 2015 Fr. Bill Atkinson, O.S.A. Humanitarian Award was presented to Eric LeGrand.

LeGrand is a former defensive tackle for Rutgers University who, on Oct. 16, 2010, suffered a collision that fractured his C3 and C4 vertebras and left him paralyzed from the neck down. The doctors told his mother, Karen LeGrand, that her son was given a 0-5 percent chance of ever regaining full neurological control.

Translation: According to doctors, Eric LeGrand is never supposed to walk again. These odds are not stopping him.

In the Villanova Room on Thursday, Feb. 12, Eric LeGrand told his story to a standing room only crowd that was peppered with bright red “Novability” T-shirts provided by Villanova Disability Services. LeGrand was interviewed on stage by Keith Jones, Villanova alumnus and nightly host of NBC Philadelphia news at 10. There were several question-answer components to the interview but regardless of the questions, the answers were all very similar.

With every response, LeGrand found a way to work his humor, hope and gratitude into the conversation. LeGrand says that he has “nothing to complain about” as he speaks of all of the people who have been with him from the start. He also acknowledges that, with his increasing fame, (LeGrand was featured on the December 2011 cover of Sports Illustrated), he has the whole world supporting him as well. And for that, he is grateful.

The one-word campaign that blew up after LeGrand’s injury is one that embodies Eric’s entire journey: Believe. This one word with a twofold meaning (the “el” in the middle of the word conveniently makes up Eric LeGrand’s initials) summarizes LeGrand’s entire outlook on life both before and after his accident. LeGrand believes in healing, support and, perhaps most importantly, in hope. His last words to his mother before entering his first surgery after the injury were prophetic: “I’ll be back.” Though still in a wheelchair, these are words that Eric LeGrand continues to say with confidence.

In the Villanova Room, LeGrand acknowledged his role as spokesperson for those with physical disabilities, but he also made it a point to say that his disability is not his defining quality. In fact, despite the initial predictions of the doctors, LeGrand’s physical disability is only a temporary quality. When asked what remained within him after the injury, LeGrand said that everything remained within him. The accident changed nothing about who LeGrand was and is as a person. He still enjoys life, “hanging” with friends and family, telling jokes and making people smile. For LeGrand, a sense of humor has a healing quality, as is evidenced by LeGrand’s Twitter account in which he has coined the hashtag #SpinalCordProblems.

Though LeGrand’s attitude is overwhelmingly positive, it is also realistic. Although he has every intention of walking again, LeGrand acknowledges that the current state of his body comes with a unique set of responsibilities that he takes very seriously. LeGrand vocalized several times throughout the evening his belief in the fact that he is part of God’s larger plan. Part of that plan, LeGrand says, is being the “face of disability.” That is, at least for the time being.

When asked what his biggest success in life was, LeGrand replied that his biggest success has not happened yet. LeGrand says that he is “still doing big things.” LeGrand is constantly looking ahead as he holds to the words he told his mother on that first day of surgery: “I’ll be back.”

Whether LeGrand realizes it or not, he is already back. And it is because of this that, when LeGrand does finally walk away from his wheelchair, the entire world will be cheering from the stands.