Malcolm Brown changed by play that paralyzed Eric LeGrand

West Point cadet Malcolm Brown plays on the

West Point cadet Malcolm Brown plays on the Army football team. Last season Brown collided with Rutgers player Eric Legrand leaving him paralyzed. (Oct. 25, 2011) Photo Credit: David Pokress

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WEST POINT

Malcolm Brown wasn't the player left paralyzed when he collided with Eric LeGrand a year ago during the Rutgers-Army football game. Yet, his life, like LeGrand's, was forever changed.

Not a day goes by that Brown doesn't think of LeGrand. Not a day goes by that he doesn't pray LeGrand will stand and walk. Not a day goes by that Brown, a junior at Army from Bay Shore, doesn't think about the fragility of life, how the world you know can be turned upside down in a split second.

"It has been difficult," Brown said of the past year, "but it's also made me the man I am."

LeGrand fractured his C3 and C4 vertebrae Oct. 16 of last year while tackling Brown on a kickoff return. LeGrand remains paralyzed from the neck down, and his inspirational rehabilitation has been a well-documented national story.

But it's also been a year of mending, physically and emotionally, for Brown, who broke his collarbone on the play.

At first, it was hard for Brown to sleep. He spent the first night trying to find out what had happened to LeGrand. The second night, after he heard the news, he couldn't stop thinking about it.

Brown wrote LeGrand a letter shortly after the accident. Last summer, before the start of football season, Brown, some teammates and Army coach Rich Ellerson drove to Rutgers to have lunch with LeGrand.

"It was amazing to talk with him," Brown said. "He's a very inspirational person."

LeGrand, reached by phone Wednesday in New Jersey, said he appreciated being able to spend time with Brown and the other Army players.

"You would think it might be sad or something, but we just treated it as a normal thing," said LeGrand, who will lead Rutgers onto the field Saturday against West Virginia. "It's nobody's fault what happened. It's just something that happened."

Besides the meeting with LeGrand, Brown credits his father, a retired lieutenant with the New York City Fire Department, for helping him deal with the accident. Roscoe Brown was in the stands at the Meadowlands watching his son run back a fourth-quarter kickoff when LeGrand, a 275-pound defensive tackle, slammed into his son's left shoulder. Both players dropped immediately to the turf. Only one got up.

"I went through 9/11 and I saw people jumping out of windows and everything, but the moment that happened, my life was really in my throat," Roscoe Brown said. "I couldn't tell who was down on the field. I didn't want anyone to be hurt, and I could tell it was something serious."

Few fathers were as qualified as Roscoe Brown to help his son deal with a senseless tragedy. Just months before Sept. 11, 2001, Brown was transferred to a firehouse in Queens from one in Brooklyn. On Sept. 11, five members of Engine 214/Ladder 111 died at the World Trade Center. Malcolm was 10 years old at the time. For months, he watched his father return from long days at Ground Zero, searching for his friends' remains.

"After watching what my father went through, I knew I wanted to grow up and serve my country," Malcolm said. "It's the big reason I came to West Point. I wanted to be able to be a leader and make a difference."

Tragedy is a part of everyday life at West Point, where the names of graduates who have been killed in service are announced over the loudspeaker at the dining hall. Still, everyone on the field was shaken up when they saw a motionless LeGrand being carted off.

"I knew it when I saw him laying there not moving that it wasn't good," Malcolm Brown said. "I've been playing since I was 5 years old. First time I saw something like that."

Roscoe Brown knew his son was hurting. He wasn't quite sure what to say when he drove him back to West Point from the Meadowlands. So instead of talking, the father listened to the son, who had been able to stand after a brutal collision.

"He talked, I listened," Roscoe Brown said. "Sometimes that is really what people need. And then we both prayed for Eric and his recovery.

"I don't think Malcolm felt any guilt. I think what Malcolm felt was concern. It was one of those things where it's like, that could have been me. Football is a violent game, and life is fragile."

Sitting in the stands of Michie Stadium this week, Malcolm Brown said that in many ways he is a different person than the one who lined up to take a kickoff last October. Unlike LeGrand, he can still walk and he can still play football. But he no longer approaches the game, or his life, in the same manner.

"It changed his life," Brown said, "but it changed me, too. I think what I learned from that day and what I learned from watching my father when I was a kid is that you never know when it's going to be your last day, or your last play. It's pushed me to be the best I can."

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