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Paralyzed player is college football's shining light

By Steve Politi, Special to CNN
updated 9:06 AM EST, Fri November 18, 2011
Former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand participates in the coin toss before last week's Rutgers v. Army game.
Former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand participates in the coin toss before last week's Rutgers v. Army game.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Football collision left Rutgers player Eric LeGrand paralyzed
  • 13 months later, LeGrand can move his head and shoulders somewhat
  • He maintains a positive outlook and believes he will walk again
  • LeGrand: "I believe I've been called upon to help other people out"

Editor's note: Steve Politi is a sports columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. He can be reached at spoliti@starledger.com, or follow him on Twitter: @StevePoliti

(CNN) -- In this dark and dismal year for college sports, when each scandal seems worse than the next, inspiration arrives in a motorized wheelchair.

In a month when Penn State is dealing with child sex abuse charges against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, the fallout bringing down longtime head coach Joe Paterno and the university president, a reason to still believe in what's good about college football will never play another down again.

His name is Eric LeGrand, and you'll find him Saturday on the field at Rutgers Stadium in New Jersey. He will be honored at the team's annual Senior Day before a game against Cincinnati, and the expected crowd of more than 50,000 will no doubt save the loudest cheers for him.

On October 16, 2010, he collided with Army kick returner Malcolm Brown while making a tackle. The collision left him paralyzed from the neck down, and when he awoke in the hospital, he was connected to a respirator that doctors said he would need for the rest of his life.

"I could barely turn my head," LeGrand said. "They had to roll me to change my position. It felt like I was going to die. That's what it felt like."

But now, 13 months later, he can move his head and shoulders when he talks, his long braids moving as he does. He has attacked therapy the way he once went after weight-lifting records in the gym, and believes it is only a matter of time before he is walking back on the field at Rutgers.

SI: Why LeGrand thinks he will walk again

No one can say for sure if that will happen. But his belief that it someday will not only fuels him, but also has become a rallying cry that has spread from the Piscataway, New Jersey, campus across the country. LeGrand, 21, has a way of touching people he's met, from professional athletes to his teammates to the more than 26,000 fans who follow him on Twitter.

"Just right away, he had this positive energy and positive outlook on life," said Alex Morgan, the breakout star for the U.S. women's soccer team who became friends with him at a professional game in July. "That's what inspired me. I feel I'm lucky to get to know him because he's such an inspiring person."

He has inspired Bart Scott, the New York Jets linebacker, to support his "Believe Fund" with T-shirt sales. He has spent time with nearly all the professional teams in the New York area, including Yankees stars Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

Erin Andrews, the ESPN sideline reporter, reached out to LeGrand a few weeks after the accident. He caught her on a bad day when he called. "Here I am, feeling sorry for myself and this sweet kid calls me," Andrews said. "It really put a new perspective on my life. I get emotional just thinking about it now. I thank him for that."

But he hasn't just met celebrities. LeGrand has made inspiring others a goal for his life, regularly speaking to youth and school groups around New Jersey. Last month at a Jersey City middle school, students cheered from classroom windows as his wheelchair motored up to the entrance, waving signs with his name and No. 52, his uniform number.

He told the kids that he believes this is only the beginning of his journey, how any time life gets him down, he remembers there is always someone who has it worse than he does.

"I take this as a responsibility to get better," he said. "I don't want to let everybody down who's been behind my back. That's what keeps me going every day. Even though I can't control when I'm going to get up, but what I can control I take as a responsibility to do what I've got to do to get better."

Near the end of the question and answer period that followed his speech, one shy girl walked to the front of the stage and asked him a blunt question: "Did you ever ask God why this happened to you?"

"I don't ask God why, because I truly believe this happened for a reason," he told her. "I believe I've been called upon to help other people out. I don't ask God why this happened to me, because I know that question will be answered down the road when I am walking again, and I've helped a lot more people believe in themselves."

That word -- believe -- has become his rallying cry. Spend time with him, and it's easy to see how frustration could take over. LeGrand has no movement below his shoulders. It takes two hours, with his mother, Karen, and a physical therapist, to get him out of bed and dressed in the morning.

His rehab sessions at Kessler Institute in West Orange are grueling. His occupational therapist places LeGrand's left arm in a harness that suspends it. The therapist then uses electrodes to stimulate LeGrand's pectoral muscles to move the arm toward his body, then LeGrand must hold it there for 30 seconds. His face will strain from the effort.

"This is my workout now," he said. "It's crazy. I go from squatting 605 pounds to just trying to hold my arm up."

But LeGrand is smiling even when he makes that observation. The smile is almost always present. He calls 2011 "the fastest year of my life," and he keeps himself as busy as possible. He is back taking two classes at Rutgers, sports labor relations and criminal procedure, and is part of the school's radio broadcast team at home games.

LeGrand always thought he would try to get into broadcast after a career in the NFL. Now, he has accelerated that timetable, doing spots on both ESPN and CBS Sports recently in addition to his regular work during the pregame and halftime shows at Rutgers.

Exactly one expert picked Rutgers to win the Big East title this year: LeGrand. If the Scarlet Knights, pegged to finish last in the preseason poll, win their final two games against Cincinnati and Connecticut, they'll do just that.

If they do, LeGrand will find himself in the national spotlight again. Rutgers finished 4-8 last season, and the devastating injury to LeGrand cast a pall over the entire campus. Now, his presence does the opposite. When he motors around the stadium on game days, fans call out his name and cheer, or stop him to explain how he's touched their lives without knowing it.

He is, in a dark time with scandal after scandal in college sports, a ray of light.

"It's crazy," said his sister Nicole. "He can't even lift a finger but he's touched an entire world."

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