HASBROUCK HEIGHTS, NJ - Practice could wait.
The Hasbrouck Heights football team had a visitor, one who commanded their attention. Eric LeGrand, the former Rutgers University football player, who now serves as one of the Scarlet Knights' radio announcers, had come to speak to the team about his journey recovering from a catastrophic football injury that has left him in a wheelchair. The team sat at the bottom of cement stands underneath the field's press box to listen to his inspirational story.
LeGrand started his story recalling his playing time in Pop Warner. Admittedly the best player on his team, LeGrand wanted to "ditch practice to hang with friends." His mother, Karen, wasn't having that.
"You're not any better than anyone else on that team," LeGrand recalled. "You make a commitment, you see it through. If you start something, finish it. And 19 years later, I still remember that lesson."
The visit was arranged by Hasbrouck Heights coach Dale Sipos. A graduate of Lodi High School, he played offensive line for Rutgers, according to Aviators' assistant coach Frank D'Amico.
"I heard about Eric speaking to other groups through James Maguire, a Rutgers tailgating buddy of mine," said Sipos "I reached out to James and gave him a few dates for Eric to choose." Maguire is involved with LeGrand's 'A Walk to Believe,' held every summer.
While LeGrand did talk about the catastrophic football injury that left him in a wheelchair, he talked to the team about the core values he learned growing up, and that he still lives by: commitment, humility, trust.
His next core value, humility, was learned in college.
Despite having a full scholarship to Rutgers, he became the waterboy for the varsity players. The lesson?
"No matter how good you are, you're never too good."
The last core value he discussed was trust.
Recruited to Rutgers as a linebacker, LeGrand was called into the office of then head coach Greg Schiano, who told him he wanted to move him to noseguard, telling him it would be "better for the team." Having never played the position, LeGrand said he doubted the decision, and questioned the coach, who told him "trust us." LeGrand went on to play games at noseguard, as well as fullback.
When he later spoke with Schiano again, he told him, "We trusted you to get the job done."
LeGrand also discussed the game he suffered his life-changing injury against Army at MetLife Stadium on October 16, 2010. LeGrand was on the kickoff team when the crown of his head went into another player's shoulder, and he fell to the turf field, unable to move. When the trainers reached him, all he could whisper was "I can't breathe." When Schiano reached him, he told LeGrand he needed to pray.
"I admit, I was nervous, I couldn't move," he said. He was carted off the field and transported to be treated at Hackensack University Medical Center where he was diagnosed with a fractured C3 and C4 cervical vertebrae.
"Everything happens for a reason," he said. "My mental toughness was put out there, which is bigger than the game."
LeGrand encouraged the players to challenge themselves, whether it be on the field or in the classroom.
"What are you doing extra that will put you over the top?" he asked them. "What am I doing? What am I sacrificing?"
"Be the best you can be, whether it's on a test or in practice or a game. Challenge yourself and those around you."
He likened football to a brotherhood.
"Go out each and every day and give it your all," he said. "I left it all out there. You'll never have a regret if you give it your all. It's given me so much more than I ever could repay."
LeGrand also shared with the team his goal: to return to MetLife Stadium, lay down on the 25 yard line where he had been injured, and "run, walk, or crawl to finish that last play."
"I was surprised about his whole mindset, and how he's not disappointed or regrets anything about football," said senior Matteo Ochoa, after listening to LeGrand. "He feels he found his new purpose in life, which is testing his mental toughness."
"It was very motivational," he continued. "He's easy to relate to because he played football, and it could happen to anyone of us."
"It gives a great message to the kids," said head coach Nick Delcalzo. "He told the kids about not quitting, don't quit on your team, or in life."
The team received LeGrand's "Roll Model" t-shirt prior to his arrival. The shirts were provided by donations from residents and community organizations including Mike Valenti, Bergen Funeral Service, Hasbrouck Heights, Hasbrouck Heights Chamber of Commerce, Hasbrouck Heights VFW Post 4591, Hasbrouck Heights American Legion Post 106, Hasbrouck Heights Lions, Meredith Family Agency of Wood-Ridge, The Bagel Shop, and Georgette Schnell.
LeGrand is a member of the New Jersey Hall of Fame, and was honored with the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the 20th annual ESPY's on July 11, 2012. His number 52 has been permanently retired by Rutgers University.
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