Football still runs heavy through my blood. Even though I haven’t played in 5 1/2years, I can still feel the adrenaline building in the locker room, the thrill from rushing on the field, and the inner drive that got louder with the roars of the crowd. I miss the sweat, the push, and the idea that with every play, every yard and every long practice, I got a fraction better at my sport.
Everything I loved, and still love, was gained on that field. And then it all went black…
They say you never forget a life changing moment, even the hours leading up to it. Good or bad, you remember. It was October 16, 2010, an otherwise ordinary day for me as a Rutgers Football defensive tackle. We had an important game against Army Football, and just like the rest of my team, I was well-prepared–-head coach, Greg Schiano, made sure of it. Coach Schiano was the kind of coach that turned boys into men. He threw you into tough situations just to test you, and you had no choice but to rise above the bar he set… I had no idea how much his lessons in perseverance would mean to me later.
I remember that day vividly. As far as sports superstitions go, nothing was out of the ordinary. I slept well, ate my usual breakfast, met with coaches and teammates, and dressed in the same uniform I’d worn for the last 3 years. The game was at MetLife Stadium, home of the NY Giants and NY Jets. Excitement built as I waved and spoke into the cameras, broadcasting to the world what they had in store for the game from our team... The game was close. We were tied with 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter. My teammate, kicker, San San Te, booted the ball down the field on the kickoff and it landed directly in the hands of Army’s Malcolm Brown. As Malcolm sprinted up the field, hustling past several of my teammates, I zeroed in. It was if I couldn’t see anything else…the momentum, my adrenaline--it felt like this tackle was made for me.
Inches away, I dodged toward him, helmet first, just shy of the target. Bang.
I couldn’t breathe, I could no longer hear the cheers of that same stadium crowd I loved… It was silent. Time moved slowly until everything suddenly went black. I opened my eyes four days later looking at a bright white hospital room ceiling. All around me were banners, posters, autographed footballs, and ‘get well soon’ notes from people I’d never even met–other college teams, NFL coaches… The first thought I had was, "wow that must’ve been a good play, people noticed.”
‘Spinal Cord Injury, the C3 and C4 vertebrae, incomplete.’ That was the call that changed the game–my game, and my world. I’d never be able to breathe without a ventilator, eat solid foods, or walk again. That was the call… 5 years ago.
I’ve always had a warrior’s spirit. Even as a kid, I fought against the odds.
I was overweight for a portion of my childhood, and it worked for me until the 8 th grade. They told me I’d have to lose a significant amount of weight to make the cut for Pop Warner football. At that point I’d been playing for most of my childhood, and to me nothing else mattered except the game. What did I do? I did what I’d always done; push. I ran 4 miles a day, and cleaned up my diet until I dropped the 20lbs I needed to qualify. You can’t teach that kind of willpower, it’s something you just have to find in yourself.
Today, I realize just how powerful the mind can be over the body. Those same doctors who told me I would be completely dependent on outside help to breathe eat, and move, are stunned by how far I’ve come. Now, I can breathe just fine without a ventilator. I can eat solid foods. I can shrug my shoulders. Without a doubt, I believe I will walk again.
Most people will look at me and think I’ve lost something, and that’s all they’ll see. I see it differently.To me, it’s a fresh start. It’s an opportunity to inspire people who believe they can’t overcome their mental and physical limitations to achieve a goal, whether that goal is to walk, to run, to drop 50lbs, or to simply become the best version of themselves.
It’s crazy to think that my definition of fitness has changed so drastically. I no longer sweat through grueling practices, or charge the field at the opposing team. But I still push my body to its limit. I fight through the challenges for myself and for my new team–everyone who looks to me for inspiration in the face of obstacles.
I am an athlete. I still taste the sweat during practice, I still feel the power of my body driving through a tackle, and I still see the hit. But that same hit that took me down, has also built me up. I may be looking up, but I’m also looking down, searching for that first step. In therapy, that one step means everything. http://ericlegrand.org http://www.teamlegrand.org