SPARTA, NJ — The Sparta Middle School students welcomed a special guest last week. Eric LeGrand visited just before Thanksgiving, to share his story with the seventh and eight grade students.
LeGrand’s book “The Victorious Story of Eric LeGrand” was a selection for the summer reading book clubs. The teacher that chose LeGrand's book, Suzanne Russo, Article Descriptionreached out to arrange his visit after the positive response the book had with students.
"The book chat had such a great response from the students that participated," Russo said. "It has a message kids need to hear."
Eight sixth grade students were chosen from a pool of students who had read the book to have lunch with the author.
The seventh grade class was quite and attentive as LeGrand came to the middle of the stage. Calm and steady, LeGrand took the students through the timeline of his story. He started with the specifics of the moment that would change the trajectory of his life.
“With less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter, it was a play just like I’ve done hundreds of times before,” LeGrand began.
“My mindset was to make a big play to get the offense back on the field. I faced double team coverage but got through and I had 30 to 40 yards to make the play. I was thinking ‘do I use my head or shoulder.’ I knew it was going to be a big hit,” so he decided to go with his shoulder.
His teammate tripped up the player he was getting ready to hit, making him “twirl up in the air,” and when he came down Legrand’s “head hit his shoulder blade.” That’s what caused a fracture of his C3-C4 vertebrae, LeGrand said.
At first everything went quite and in slow motion, LeGrand said. When he began to move he got a “big gasp of air and thought it was just a whole body stinger.”
He said he told the trainer and coach over and over, “I can’t breathe,” when they asked where he was hurt.
They put him on a back board and as they were taking him off the field, “I wanted to give a thumbs up so my mom and everyone would know I was OK. But I couldn’t move. It was if I had 1000 pound cinder blocks on my hand.”
He told the students he though he would be able to breath better once the oxygen mask went on. He took a big inhale but could not exhale.
“I panicked and passed out and woke up on Wednesday,” LeGrand said. The injury happened on a Saturday.
Legrand told the seventh grade students when he did wake up he had visits from Giants Football coach Tom Coughlin and the Giants rookies and the Eagles coach Andy Reed “took the trip to see me.”
Along with visitors, LeGrand had letters from people who wrote about how he had touched their lives.
“You never know the difference you can make at your age, in their life and then they are there for you in your darkest times,” LeGrand said.
He openly talked about his time in Hackensack hospital and Kessler rehabilitation center in West Orange. The first reports doctors gave to LeGrand and his mother were grim. They said not only would he never walk but he would never breath, eat solid food or possibly not make it through surgery.
Some of those things have already been proven wrong.
LeGrand said when he was being wheeled into the operating room he told his mother “I’ll be back.” From that point his mother was adamant that “everyone who talked to him had to be positive."
“That really helped to get me motivated,” LeGrand said.
He told stories of others who motivated him along the way.
He talked about “Humphrey the 5’5” Jamaican dude” who introduced himself as the one who was going to take care of him during his stay at Kessler. “That little man cannot take care of me for five months,” LeGrand thought.
“I want from being a big time football player on top of the world, taking care of everything to have to learn how to trust people to help me,” LeGrand said.
On the day RU was playing football wearing the uniforms he chose for them, LeGrand watched on television. In the fourth quarter he started getting nervous. The Scarlet Knights lost. He went to sleep and “woke up an hour later on a stretcher and someone slapped me in the face and told me to wake up.”
The person did not sound like a person “it sounded like a demon” whom he told to “hit me again.” It was his mother. LeGrand had an infection and a fever over 105. He was taken to St. Barnabas Hospital. He did not know if he was going to make it through the night. But he did.
LeGrand said the coaches had been told and on the ride back from the game his teammates said they were afraid to turn on their phones to learn bad news.
When he woke up he saw his sister and said he wanted to go to IHOP. When Nicole told him he could not go he got mad and wanted to go for a walk to blow off steam. He was hallucinating from the fever. He woke up again and saw his coach, mom and sister all sleeping.
While watching Sports Center he “saw something that changed my life.” He spoke about a loud commotion in the hallway outside his hospital room. A girl with a cancerous brain tumor had been admitted because her brain was bleeding, LeGrand told the silent room.
Then the next day there was more noise and a lot of kids, 15-16-17 years-old, all hysterically crying. The girl had died on the operating table.
“It was a reality check,” LeGrand said. “I’m here and I’m living and breathing. I don’t ever want my family or friends to leave the hospital that way.”
Still battling the infection he did “flat line a few times over the next few days,” according to LeGrand.
Finally back at Kessler, he was now famous. People began to treat him differently, watching him but not talking to him. Until finally 22-year-old Jermaine broke the ice and they became friends.
With gifts of a flat screen TV, Xbox and satellite connection his room became the place to hang out.
Jermaine became family. LeGrand explained Jermaine had an undiagnosed tumor on his spine. By the time it was diagnosed the only way to save his life was to sever the spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
Jermaine’s family only visited three times in five months. When LeGrand was discharged from Kessler, Jermaine was in the hospital, so he did not get to say goodbye.
When he returned to Kessler Jermaine did not know who Legrand was. The cancer had spread and he died soon after that.
LeGrand said “I decided I woudn’t ever complain about anything. Jermaine couldn’t get his parents to visit or have clean clothes or have someone cook for him.”
LeGrand told the students, “All us are going to face adversity in life. How you handle that adversity changes how you dictate your life.”
He shared a message his coach had given him as a player. “The definition of success is ‘the peace of mind you get knowing that you did everything you could to be the best you could.’ I try to do this every day and I tell people like you.”
He finished his comments with a message for the students. “It’s a much better feeling if you try to help someone rather than put them down. You don’t know what’s going on at home and maybe school is the only safe place for them.” He told them not to make fun of people if they are different, try to be their friend.
The seventh grade students had questions for LeGrand. They asked about the logistics of being in a wheelchair; how do you get in bed, how do you travel in an airplane, how his wheelchair works, “It’s the Lambo of wheel chairs,” he said. It goes up to eight MPH and can “fly through the hallways.”
“In your book you said you are always cold,” a boy asked. “Are you cold now.” Legrand said he had been cold backstage but warmed up speaking and moving. “Being paralyzed affects you in a lot of different ways. I don’t sweat anymore.”
“How do you make money,” one student asked. In addition to motivational speaking, he is a sports broadcaster with ESPN, Big 10 Network, Sirius XM. “Nothing holds me back.”
“What do you do for fun.” He said he travels a lot; Miami, Vegas, the islands “Turks and Caicos is probably my favorite.” He would go out with friends but “mostly now it’s more Netflix and chill.”
His favorite football team: “Die hard Denver Bronco’s fan.”
He fielded questions about possible further recovery. He told them he continues to go to physical therapy. He is confident about technology “right down the road,” that will benefit him if “I’m blessed with a long life.”
Asked about his inspiration Legrand said “Adam Taliaferro at Penn State. He was told he would never walk again and he does. And my mother.”
A question was asked about his number being retired at High Point Stadium. “It was the only number every to be retired in the birthplace of college football."
LeGrande uses his national reach to spotlight people who are affected by paralysis, partnering with the Christopher Reeves Foundation, according to the video that introduced LeGrand to the students.
They asked how he got his degree and how writes. He uses Dragon speak-to-type software. He had to use that and Skype to finish his degree in Labor Relations at Rutgers.
“Get the long picture and set long term goals,” LeGrand said. “When you really really work for something, it feels great when you get it.”
Four seventh grade boys, wearing football jerseys seemed to have gotten the message. When asked what they took away from LeGrand’s visit:
“Don’t take anything for granted,” John Finkeldie said.
“Never give up,” Josh Brancy said.
“Be happy,” Mason Lindsey said.
“Keep pushing through no matter what happens,” Patrick Dunn said.
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