Former Rutgers University football player, Eric LeGrand, shares his story of learning to live as a paralyzed man

The school assembly started in a fairly routine manner.

Teacher Eric Thomas asked students to think about the word “courage” as they watched a documentary about Eric LeGrand, a former Rutgers University football player who was paralyzed after breaking two vertebrae in his neck and injuring his spinal cord during a game in 2010.

Students were captivated by LeGrand’s story, and broke their silence only to laugh at a lighthearted moment, or express awe when LeGrand was shown signing autographs while holding a marker in his mouth.

When the DVD ended, students clapped, some of them thinking that the assembly would conclude with another speech from a teacher. When Thomas reclaimed his spot at the podium, he asked the students to put both hands in the air, holding up their fingers to form a number 52: LeGrand’s number. His next words were simple, but the result was electrifying.

“52 is here,” Thomas said.

There were murmurs of confused excitement as students tried to figure out the meaning of Thomas’s words. When LeGrand emerged from behind the curtains on the stage, students erupted into a thunderous standing ovation.

“I felt myself getting overwhelmed as soon as they rose to their feet in applause for Mr. LeGrand. It was truly a powerful moment,” said Hugh Dwyer, assistant principal of Fisher Middle School.

It was the first of three assemblies during which LeGrand spoke with students at Fisher on April 19.

Among those greeting LeGrand with the ovation was eighth grader Caroline Unger and a group of her friends. Unger said the moment was so emotional that it moved her to tears.

“The fact that he went through such struggles and has such a positive mind about it and continues to improve every day is inspiring,” Unger said.

Unger said that it meant a lot for LeGrand to share his story at her school.

“We never think of ourselves as the most extravagant school, so to have someone with so much importance just come talk to us, it made us feel more special than we have in a while,” she said.

Before LeGrand spoke at each assembly, Thomas read selected poems that students wrote on the theme of courage. About 20 students participated in the writing exercise, and each of them received a copy of LeGrand’s autobiography. Thomas also announced that he would give LeGrand a copy of each poem at the end of the day.

Eighth grader Vincent Hall was one of the poets whose work was read at the assembly.

“To read it up there on stage was different, because that’s never happened,” Hall said. “And then, for him to give it to Eric, I thought that was amazing and Eric said he really appreciated it too.”

Then it was LeGrand’s turn at the microphone. He spoke about the injury, recalling how he had trouble breathing while lying on the field. He remembers trying to give a thumbs up to the crowd but feeling as if his body was weighed down. He remembers starting to lose consciousness and not having any memories until four days later.

And then, he remembers the positivity.

Back then, no one told LeGrand that doctors gave him a 0 to 5 percent chance of regaining neurologic function. His family, friends and teammates chose to surround him with optimism and support instead.

By doing things like breathing without a ventilator and eating solid foods, LeGrand has already overcome the odds. Now he tries to be a beacon of hope and inspiration for others.

LeGrand talked about how he grew up a Denver Broncos fan with dreams of playing in the NFL. He signed an honorary contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in May

2012, and announced his retirement from the NFL that July. He said he believes that everything happens for a reason.

“I have a bigger plan out there. I’m going to inspire millions of people around the world rather than playing football,” LeGrand said.

He spoke about the adversity he still faces. A morning routine that once took 20 minutes now lasts more than two hours. LeGrand told students about his hard work in therapy, and his belief that he will one day walk again. He challenged the students to pursue their own goals, no matter what struggles they might face.

“Be the best you can be with whatever situation you’re dealt,” he said.

After LeGrand answered questions from the audience, he thanked students for having him and asked for their continued support.

The students showed their appreciation with another rousing ovation for LeGrand and his mother, Karen LeGrand, who was with him on the stage.

The impact that LeGrand had on the students was obvious.

“When I saw him and he said what he’d been through and he said to never give up, it made me believe that I can do anything,” eighth grader Tyson Barnes said.

After one assembly, some students lingered, saying goodbye to LeGrand and telling him that he inspired them. Others had written LeGrand’s number and the word “believe” on their hands and arms.

LeGrand’s visit was planned after Thomas, a teacher at the O’Brien Academy, saw a feature about LeGrand on ESPN. Thomas, who has invited a variety of speakers to share their stories with his students, wrote to the LeGrand family through their foundation.

Although he originally intended for LeGrand to speak to students from the O’Brien Academy, Thomas thought that everyone could benefit from hearing LeGrand’s powerful story. He worked with Fisher Middle School administration to bring the assembly to all of the school’s students.

“A setback becomes a failure once you’ve given up. So, we can’t allow that. Not with our children, not with the kind of world we have,” Thomas said. “We’ve got to show them awesome people like Eric and his mother too. His mother’s a story of courage too.”

LeGrand, who is from New Jersey, is working to complete his college degree. He told students he hopes to pursue a career in sports broadcasting and to travel and share his story in the future.

After the assembly, LeGrand told reporters how speaking with students impacts him.

“It means a lot,” he said. “I like to do this just out of my heart; I don’t accept any money to come to speak to the children. This is what I want to do because they truly are our future, and if I can inspire them with a few words I can say, then it hopefully can go a long way.”