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Eric LeGrand, paralyzed Rutgers player, signed by Buccaneers

It seemed the accident had stripped him of just about everything -- the ability to walk, his ability to breathe independently and, naturally, his shot at one day making it to the NFL.

But if there's one thing Eric LeGrand has proved over the course of his near two-year battle to recover from a spinal injury, it's that perseverance pays off.

The former Rutgers defensive tackle achieved his ultimate goal of becoming a professional football player, signing an NFL contract to be a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"This is a dream come true for me to go to the NFL," LeGrand, 21, said at a news conference Wednesday at Rutgers. "The circumstances, yeah, but I'm there."

Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, LeGrand's former head coach at Rutgers, approached Tampa Bay about signing LeGrand as a free agent.

"I was in shock," said LeGrand, who learned the news from Schiano Wednesday morning morning. "He just said 'We're picking you.' . . . I was just like 'Really? You're just going to waste a pick?' . . . And he said yes, this is something they want to do."

LeGrand has used a wheelchair since Oct. 29, 2010, after he was paralyzed making a tackle on Army running back -- and Bay Shore product -- Malcolm Brown in an Oct. 16, 2010, Rutgers home game. LeGrand was told by doctors he'd never walk again. But he's been able to stand and walk with assistance, and has vowed to walk on his own. LeGrand is on track to graduate from Rutgers in the fall.

This past weekend's NFL draft would have been his chance to make it to the pros, just like his former teammates Mohamed Sanu, Joe Martinek and Justin Francis. Schiano helped to make up for that.

"I never thought I'd be picked up in the draft," said LeGrand, who will receive his No. 52 Buccaneers jersey Friday. "Coach said this was my draft. I'm not going to lie, I was watching the draft and it was hard seeing those kids and I'm thinking this could have been my turn. When he did this for me, it was a dream come true. I was like, 'Thank you, coach. This means a lot to me.' "

After 11 seasons at Rutgers, Schiano left the program in January. But the first-year Bucs coach has spoken to LeGrand every week.

"This small gesture is the least we could do to recognize his character, spirit and perseverance," Schiano said in a statement.

And this "small" symbolic gesture means everything to LeGrand.

"It shows the person he is, still keeping in touch with me," he said of his coach. " You know he's down in Tampa right now, but he's making sure we know that he's not forgetting about my family and I up here. He's like a father figure to me."

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