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Paralyzed college football player Eric LeGrand amazes and inspires

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As a young boy growing up in New Jersey, Eric LeGrand had a dream of one day receiving a call from the NFL saying, 'We want you.' Part of that vision included seeing himself on the cover of 'Sports Illustrated.' The circumstance surrounding both of these dreams coming true over the last 12 months is something that LeGrand could never have imagined.

In the fall of 2008 , Eric LeGrand attended his first semester at Rutgers University, where he had been recruited as a defensive tackle for the school's Scarlet Knights. In his first two seasons for Rutgers, Eric played in 25 of 26 games and quickly became a heavily-touted linebacker prospect.

Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010 began like most autumn Rutgers Saturdays for LeGrand, now a junior. He was determined to see his team chalk up another victory and couldn't wait to take the field.

That day, Rutgers was doing battle with the Army Black Knights at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford. With 5:10 left in regulation against Army, LeGrand became seriously injured while making a tackle on a kickoff.

Lying motionless on the field for seven minutes while his neck was immobilized, LeGrand was placed on a backboard stretcher and rushed to Hackensack Medical Center.

Doctors informed Eric's family that he had two fractured vertebrae and a severe spinal cord injury rendering him paralyzed from the neck down. Eric remembers doctors telling him that he would never be able to breathe without a ventilator. He also recalls these painful words: 'You'll never walk again.' Five weeks later, LeGrand began breathing on his own.

On Oct. 29, 2011, with snow falling, LeGrand led his teammates onto the field in a motorized wheelchair. It was voted the Best Sports Moment of 2011 by readers of 'Sports Illustrated' an honor that put Eric on the cover last December.

While Eric still relies on his wheelchair, he can now occasionally stand with the support of a metal frame. Thanks in part to intense physical therapy, he is experiencing tingling and twitching throughout his body. LeGrand told me that he will walk again. 'The doctors I have now, they're just watching me daily,' LeGrand said. 'I get a quick checkup and they keep on going. They're just waiting to see what's going to happen next.'

As Eric continues to amaze doctors and physical therapists with his progress and positive attitude, the honors continue to roll in. In May, LeGrand received the call he had always dreamed of. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers symbolically signed him to their organization, and he says it was an unforgettable moment. 'It felt great making the NFL roster even though I couldn't play,' LeGrand said. 'It may not have been under the circumstances that I wanted, but I will now forever be part of that organization. Every time I go down there, it's like a family.

Eric LeGrand could be forgiven for asking 'Why me?' but he does not ask that question. He accepts his current situation and has decided to use it as a tool to help others overcome adversity in their own lives.

Lately, Eric has kept up a busy schedule of delivering motivational speeches to universities, schools and other groups. At these gatherings, his audience listens intently as Eric speaks of his determination to prevail. When he speaks before an audience, 'You can hear a pin drop,' LeGrand told me.

As Eric finishes his studies at Rutgers (he's set to graduate next summer), he's having a ball practicing his second love broadcasting. 'I just started my second year for Rutgers Radio just sharing my knowledge about football the game that I know and the game that I love,' he said.

Add author to his list of accomplishments. Eric has just written two books with Mike Yorkey that chronicle his life and ongoing recovery. 'Believe: My Faith and the Tackle That Changed My Life' features Eric's uplifting story in his own words. A young reader's edition called 'Believe: The Victorious Story of Eric LeGrand' was published at the same time. 'The books explain my life story and how I grew up,' Eric said. 'I want to inspire millions of people through my book.'

Eric's progress and determination to use his injury as a tool to help others has provided him with what he calls 'the best two years of my life.'

Believe: an interview with Eric LeGrand

Dow: Shortly after the accident, you began some intense physical therapy. How important was that therapy in terms of where you're at today?

LeGrand: It was good. A lot of people don't realize that when you have a spinal cord injury, the muscles tighten up because they're not moving. Right away, they started stretching me and moving me around. At first, I was getting tired just from stretching. As time went on, they increased my therapy time to three hours a day.

Dow: You're already beyond the point of where many of your doctors thought you would be. What do those doctors say now when they see the incredible progress you've made?

LeGrand: When I first got hurt, I had a whole bunch of different doctors and everyone had a different prognosis. Some of them said I would never walk again. They just came out and said it blunt like that: 'You'll never walk again.' They said I would never come off the ventilator and that I would never do a lot of things that I've done. The doctors I have now - they're just watching me daily. I get a quick checkup and they keep on going. They're just waiting to see what's going to happen next.

Dow: I saw a photo of you taken not too long ago where you appeared to be standing and a video where your fingers were moving. Where exactly are you at today in terms of your progress?

LeGrand: I have some movement in my shoulders and I have some finger twitches going on. Right now, I'm in therapy four hours a day, five days a week, and I'm walking on the treadmill. They have two people moving my legs and one rotating my hips. After that, I work on my balance and ride an arm bike to get some contractions going through. Then I work on some arm functional stuff where I curl my arm and reach up in the air.

Dow: What sort of feedback have you received from people who come to see you when you're giving motivational speeches?

LeGrand: I notice that when I start talking, everyone tunes in. It doesn't matter if they're adults or middle school kids and it can be hard to get their attention you can hear a pin drop. Everyone's listening to what I'm saying. That means a lot. They tell me that I'm an inspiration to them. They say that if I can deal with what I'm going through, their problems don't seem quite so impossible. They say they can handle it without complaining. When people see me, they feel they have no complaint in the world, and that's what I want them to take with them when they walk away.

Dow: You've said that you believe you will run again, and I believe you will. But because human beings are wired the way we are, sometimes our minds try to work against us no matter how much conviction we may have. When those doubts start to creep in, how do you deal with them?

LeGrand: I just switch my mind right back and remind myself of how far I've come and where I want to get to and how I'm not going to let anything stop me from reaching my goal. Whatever I can control, I'll control, and whatever I can't, I'll just let it play out.

Dow: Do you believe in God?

LeGrand: I do. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I believe he puts us through certain things that we can handle. He's not going to put us through things we can't handle. I believe there's already a big game or a big script already written about what's going to happen with our lives. I think God is using me as an example because of my attitude. Everybody's dealing with something, but there's always somebody dealing with something worse than you.

My book explains my life story and how I grew up. How I've always been a positive person and how I've dealt with adversity head on instead of running away from it. I want to inspire millions of people through my book, through my words and through my life lessons.

After I was hurt, there was a fund set up through Rutgers to help with the medical bills because my mom had to stop working to help take care of me. Now, I'm setting up a fund through the Christopher and Dana Reeves Foundation to help others going through things like this - from helping with their quality of life to getting them a wheelchair and ultimately finding a cure for paralysis.

Dow: What would it take to get you to come to Maine?

LeGrand: (a smile in his voice) Oh, it would have to be warm I don't like the cold. As the first four words in my book say, 'I am always cold,' so whenever it's warm again, you'll get me up there.

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