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Rutgers Football Man of the Decade: Eric LeGrand

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His number 52 being retired means so much more than his play.

Cincinnati v Rutgers
LeGrand was the one constant in a turbulent decade against all odds.
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Happy New Year Scarlet Knights fans, we hope your year and your decade is better than the last. This post is overdue, not even 24 hours into the 2020s because the recipient of this honor is so deserving. Even before the feedback started rolling in on The Best and Worst of the Decade and All-Decade Team that I egregiously did not give special mention to Eric LeGrand, it was already abundantly clear he deserved more than simply being included in those other posts. #52 is the man of the decade for Rutgers Football, perhaps the “Person of the Decade” for all of Rutgers Athletics.

Writing posts about individual people is normally hard for me because life truly is a team sport, but this article proved difficult because there is just so much to say as well as so much that shouldn’t need to be said. My mind was already made up that Eric would get this recognition as I sat in my nosebleed seat watching LSU crush Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl last week. It was nice to see the jubilation in the faces of the Tiger fans in their semifinal performance, some of which spent months of salary for their much better seats, en route to a chance at a national championship in the final on January 13. Championships are what you play for and there is nothing wrong with having that as the goal every year to drive a program forward. That being said, the playoff system implemented during the past decade has somewhat distorted what college football is all about.

In 2010, the Rutgers program had been on a roll for the last half of the previous decade. The football team had showed some chinks in the armor early in the year primarily due to a porous offensive line and terrible secondary play, but they just kept chopping and were still 3-2 heading into the first ever college football game at the brand new Metlife Stadium, against Army. The Black Knights led the Scarlet Knights 17-3 before Rutgers rallied behind backup quarterback Chas Dodd to tie the game late in the 4th quarter.

On the ensuing kickoff, Army looked like they might be set up for good field position until Eric LeGrand, the rare defensive lineman on the kickoff coverage unit, delivered a thunderous hit seemingly out of nowhere on return man Malcolm Brown. (The video clip is here, but please be aware of the graphic nature). LeGrand was down on the ground for several minutes before being carted off the field. The lasting memory is of Head Coach Greg Schiano throwing everything by the wayside other than his concern for Eric, his family, and his teammates. The image of Schiano talking to Eric’s mother on the sideline even before we knew what he was saying (detailed here), may be the one that endeared Greg most to Scarlet Knight fans. As it turns out, all he could tell her was, “We need to pray.”

The team wouldn’t win another game and finished 4-8, but for many fans and Head Coach Greg Schiano, that paled in comparison to what really matters in life. Eric LeGrand was paralyzed. He was in the ICU for a while and avoided St. Peter calling his name more than once. Through it all, even when Eric couldn’t speak himself, the story from family, friends, and coaches was his care for how they were doing. And to those who knew him, this was the same person he always was.

The recovery was slow, but just a year later, Rutgers gave their second best effort in recent memory against West Virginia as a member of the Big East in the snow after LeGrand led the team out of the tunnel in his wheelchair. Unfortunately, RU lost the game 41-31 despite a 31-28 halftime lead over the Mountaineers perhaps due to the emotional expenditure f the pregame and first half. Only the true diehard fans remember the result of the game, instead the lasting imagery comes from Scott Vallone, Khaseem Greene, and LeGrand leading the team out of the tunnel with the axe in a snowstorm that came randomly in October. Sports Illustrated’s coverage helped spur the readers to vote the photo as representative of the best moment of the year.

LeGrand’s SI cover got its own article in the early days of SB Nation.
https://www.sbnation.com/ncaa-football/2011/12/20/2649450/eric-legrand-sports-illustrated-cover

Since then, so many things have happened involving Eric, I cannot list them all here. Some highlights of the highlights include Schiano while coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers helping Eric fulfill a lifelong dream by signing a professional contract. On the home game football broadcasts in recent years, Eric has been in the booth with Chris Carlin and Ray Lucas. Eric’s jersey number 52 became the first and only one retired by the program.

All of those pale in comparison to LeGrand’s desire and progress to simply stand with the help of a metal frame even when he was told he might be a quadriplegic and on a ventilator the rest of his life just weeks after his injury. Or all the charity work he has done with Team LeGrand of the Reeve foundation. Just simply the impact of his motivational speaking and everything #bELieve52 means to those who otherwise may not have been touched is impossible to quantify.

Early in the 2019 season when Chris Ash’s dismissal seemed inevitable, I suggested to Aaron that Rutgers name Eric Legrand the interim Head Coach the remainder of the year. The reasoning for me was that through all the challenges that have hit the Rutgers Football program on and off the field the past decade, Eric has been the one constant. In the quote from “A Few Good Men”, we want him on that wall and we need him on that wall.

Before we had a chance to even figure out if we should even propose such an idea for onthebanks.com, Ash was dismissed by Athletic Director Pat Hobbs. The ensuing hiring chaos reached a crescendo when Schiano and Rutgers parted ways, seemingly ending the chance at a reunion. As if this well-deserved honor wasn’t already locked up for the decade, to cap it all off, LeGrand’s open letter advocating for the return of Greg Schiano was one of, if not the event that brought the sides back to the negotiating table and ultimately brought the Chop back to the banks. More than anything, the Rutgers Football family simply CANNOT lose Eric LeGrand.

Through many trying times, the shining light that gets even the most downtrodden Rutgers fans or anyone affected by spinal paralysis going is Eric LeGrand. What struck me the most on social media this holiday season wasn’t all the thank yous, pictures of people’s food, children, opinions, etc., it was this tweet on Christmas Day. I have no idea who these people are, but the smiles for wearing shirts inspired by a former football player in a wheelchair speaks volumes.

LeGrand is an inspiration to so many. I don’t believe I ever met him personally (2008 maybe), and yet when life throws curveballs at me, I am humbled thinking about how well he has handled the one life threw at him while still a college student. I am not alone in this line of thinking.

College Football isn’t about winning championships, it’s about fun, friends, and family. As we all embark on a new decade, there is excitement that we don’t know what the next year or even day will bring. There’s no sense worrying, you just have to believe. And whatever bad happens, learn from it. Whatever joy that does come along, cherish it. Those personal connections with others no matter how they were formed, embrace them.

Thank you Eric from the entire Scarlet Knight community! I know this post was far from my best, but if there was any total stranger who would likely give me a pep talk and pat on the back, it would be #52 himself, Eric LeGrand.