Eric LeGrand was a junior at Rutgers University when, after making a tackle during a kickoff return against Army, he lay on the ground unable to breathe, thinking he might die. He was paralyzed from the neck down.
Wheelchair-bound while attending the opening of a new playground in Eisenhower Park Saturday, it was a reminder of how dangerous football can be.
Earlier this week, National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell suspended four players for their involvement in the New Orleans Saints' bounty program, in which defensive players were given financial incentives to injure players on the opposing team.
But LeGrand, the victim of such a horrific fluke football injury and not a malicious hit, had a surprising take on the Saints' dangerous tactics.
"Stuff like that happens all the time in the NFL," LeGrand said . "I never experienced it in college football or high school. But it's the game of football. You've got to protect yourself out there. If you're good, people are going to gun for you. That's the cost of being a good football player. That's crazy with all the suspensions and stuff. [Jonathan] Vilma's suspension for a year? That's going to take a lot of money out of his pocket. I guess that's what the commissioner has to do to keep control of the league, but it still happens out there all time, so that's going to be hard to control."
LeGrand, who signed a symbolic contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, was making an appearance to support the Let All the Children Play Foundation (LATCP), which debuted a playground accessible to children with disabilities. In his motorized wheelchair that he controls with his lips, LeGrand toured the park, took a spin in a modified carousel, and spoke to the crowd.
He is now able to sit up under his own power for 15 minutes and he learned on Friday that doctors are, surprisingly, starting to see signals in his body below his level of injury, giving LeGrand continued hope he will one day walk again. "When the doctors tell me, 'We don't understand how this is happening; this isn't supposed to happen,' then I know it's a good thing. That keeps me going, that makes me smile."
Earlier this week, former Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner said he would prefer that his sons not play football because of the risk of serious injury. LeGrand has a cousin in high school and said he has no problem with him playing, as long as loves the game.
"When you're playing the game of football, you know that anything can happen to you," LeGrand said. "It says right on the helmet, 'Warning: You may receive concussions or you may become paralyzed from playing.' You can't really worry about getting hurt. It's not like we're not warned. They tell us about it. So we put ourselves at risk going out there."