Greg Schiano's commitment to Eric LeGrand speaks volumes about him

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano watches Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano watches from the sideline during a preseason football game against the New England Patriots in Tampa, Fla. (Aug. 24, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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Sports fans love to talk about career-defining moments, about those pressure-filled, bottom-of-the-ninth situations when the true character of our heroes supposedly is revealed. Sometimes, however, the true test of character doesn't come at the end of the game with the clock ticking down and the crowd cheering. Sometimes it comes at the most horrid and unexpected of times, during a deadly silence in the middle of a college football game when one of your players is lying motionless on the field.

If Greg Schiano could change one thing about his life, he would ask that his career-defining moment had never happened.

He would ask that Rutgers player Eric LeGrand had never fractured two vertebrae and suffered a spinal cord injury during a game against Army at MetLife Stadium nearly two years ago.

But because Schiano can't do that, he's done the next-best thing: He has responded in a way that has allowed LeGrand, the Rutgers football program and his own career to go on and grow in unexpected ways.

Schiano, who coached for 11 seasons at Rutgers before taking Tampa Bay's head-coaching job in January, returns to MetLife Stadium Sunday when the Buccaneers face the Giants. There will be a sizable contingent of fans cheering him on, with LeGrand and Schiano's former Rutgers players leading the list.

LeGrand, who is an honorary member of the Buccaneers and attended their first game in Tampa, has been asked by the Giants to participate in the coin toss. Other former players will be in the stands or watching on television, cheering on a man who they believe helped molded them into the people they are today.

"Let me just say one thing: That man cares," Rutgers linebacker Steve Beauharnais said of Schiano. "What Eric went through, what we all went through here, I think he was the best person to handle a situation like that. There were guys here who never wanted to play football again. He pulled us all out of it. All of us."

The game marks the first time that Schiano has coached at MetLife Stadium since Oct. 16, 2010, the day LeGrand suffered the injury that has left him paralyzed below the neck. Schiano said in a phone interview this past week that he knows walking back onto that field will produce some difficult memories.

LeGrand almost died the night of the accident and initially was told he would spend the rest of his life on a respirator. Schiano was there when the news was delivered and spent nearly every night at the hospital with LeGrand and his mother, Karen, the first couple of months he was there.

Two years later, LeGrand's perseverance and optimism have made him a national inspiration. He not only can breathe on his own but has returned to school at Rutgers and is able to stand with the help of a metal frame.

Despite Schiano's move to Tampa Bay, he has remained close to LeGrand and his mother. In May, he signed LeGrand to a professional contract with the Bucs. LeGrand "retired" in July to vacate a roster spot, but Schiano flew him and his mother to Tampa for the Buccaneers' season opener against Carolina last week. LeGrand was introduced to the crowd as a retired player.

"He will always be my coach," LeGrand told reporters in Tampa. "He is responsible for the person we change into. That's what coach Schiano still does for me."

On a conference call with Giants reporters, Schiano characterized his relationship with LeGrand as "like family."

"As a college coach, you go into people's living rooms and kitchens and you tell them that you would treat them the way you would want your sons treated," Schiano said. "When something like this happens and you spend so much time together, under so much stress, the relationship grows and grows."

To those who know him well, it's not surprising that Schiano, 47, has remained involved in LeGrand's life. Schiano always has been known as a hands-on, detail-oriented coach. He made his name turning a Rutgers program that had suffered five straight losing seasons into one that was invited to a bowl game in six of his last seven seasons.

Schiano has never been known as a guy who does things halfway. This is something Rutgers defensive tackle Scott Vallone discovered when he was a blue-chip recruit at St. Anthony's in South Huntington. For his recruiting visit to Vallone, Schiano arrived in spectacular fashion -- in a helicopter that landed on the school's baseball field.

"It was during classes and I was there talking with Boston College coaches when he flew over the school and he landed," Vallone remembered with a laugh. "It's funny because it did come down to those two schools."

Schiano also has found a way to get the attention of his players at the pro level, though his style has involved more hard work than helicopters. He was a surprise pick for the Tampa Bay job, given that he had no NFL head-coaching experience and had coached only one Rutgers team ranked in the top 25 in the final poll in 11 years.

Yet in many ways, Schiano was the perfect man to take over a team that went 4-12 last season. His attention to detail and team core values apparently have appealed to an undisciplined team that was tired of losing.

Last week, the Bucs snapped a 10-game losing streak with a 10-6 victory over Carolina, grinding out 130 yards on the ground and holding the Panthers to 10 yards rushing.

"His way is a good way. It's really translating well to the players," 37-year-old Ronde Barber said. "I can't say it's been easy. We had a hard training camp and a hard off-season. He expects a lot out of guys."

The former Rutgers players have an idea what the Bucs are going through. Many say playing for Schiano wasn't always easy but that it changed them for the better.

Said Beauharnais: "The man asks for a lot, but he gives a lot back, too. He's someone who really has your back. I think he's shaped everyone in this program and made them a better person."

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