Eric LeGrand was a standout defensive lineman at Rutgers University, when a tough tackle left him motionless on the football field. A spinal cord injury paralyzed him from the neck down. He speaks with guest host Celeste Headlee about overcoming major obstacles and his memoir, Believe: My Faith and the Tackle that Changed My Life.
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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we're talking with Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas. We'll ask the flying squirrel how it feels in that white hot spotlight and what kind of sacrifices she made to get there.
But first, we've talked a lot about safety and football on this program and those issues have cropped up again since the season started, but some people might not know that inside most football helmets there's a warning sticker. It says, quote, "No helmet system can protect you from serious brain and/or neck injuries, including paralysis or death."
Our next guest, Eric LeGrand, remembers reading that statement when he started high school football, but the significance of the warning didn't ring true until a few years later. Eric was a stand-out defensive tackle at Rutgers University and had dreams of playing in the NFL until this moment changed his life.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Inside the five, it's Malcolm Brown. Oh, what a great open field hit by Eric LeGrand, who is shaken up with the play.
HEADLEE: It turns out Eric LeGrand was more than shaken. He was paralyzed from the neck down. He talks about his experience in a memoir called "Believe: My Faith and the Tackle that Changed My Life." It was released earlier this week and he joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.
ERIC LEGRAND: Hey, thank you for having me.
HEADLEE: I've read that you've actually watched the video of that play over and over again. What exactly do you remember of what happened?
LEGRAND: Well, I've seen that play thousands of times now and, you know, I remember running down there and making the play and I didn't black out, which some people do when they get a spinal chord injury, but I was well aware of what was going on. I hit the guy and I landed on the ground and I couldn't feel a thing. The last thing I could feel was my heels hitting the ground and I tried to move, but I couldn't move my neck or anything and I tried to breathe and I couldn't breathe, which freaked me out even more. I felt like I got the wind knocked out of me.
And I just remember Coach coming over to me, telling me I have to pray and I - you know, I just started praying, got all freaked out even more, and then somehow, when they lifted me up on the stretcher, I did catch a gasp of air somehow and I tried to give the crowd a thumbs up and it didn't work. But as they put me into the ambulance, they put the oxygen mask on and I thought that was going to really save me and let me be able to breathe again and it didn't. And I freaked out even more and I ended up panicking so much, I passed out.
HEADLEE: Oh, that's when you blacked out. I mean, you say you've watched it thousands of times. Why go back to it that often?
LEGRAND: Well, I see it always on TV and stuff, so I always see it there, but it doesn't bother me. It's my last play that I ever got to play in the game of football, so you know, I actually made a good hit on the guy too, so it's good to see that because I used to pride myself on hitting people hard. So it's not - even though it was my last play that, you know, changed my life forever, it doesn't have an effect on me watching it because I love the game of football and I love being around it.
HEADLEE: What about when you see other injuries? You know, this weekend, in the NFL, the Raiders' Darrius Heyward-Bey looked like he got knocked out cold. They were helping him on the field. They had concern about a neck injury. When you see something like that happen in a professional game, do you get concerned?
LEGRAND: Yeah. I actually do. I think I get more freaked out when I see it happening to somebody else than when I actually see my play when it happened to me. It doesn't bother me watching my play, but when I see somebody else, I immediately just go, oh, and I just think about what I was going through at that moment and I always immediately try to send up a prayer for them.
It's an indescribable feeling when something like that happens and the only people that can really know about it and explain it are the people that went through it, so I know exactly how they felt laying there on the field.
HEADLEE: Well, but I wonder where you come down on the issue of helmet safety and concussions in the NFL, even though that's not what happened to you. Do you feel, as some do - even some past players - that football, as it's played right now, is too dangerous, that they need to find ways to make it safer?
LEGRAND: I don't think it's too dangerous. You know, everything happens for a reason out there in that football field and you go out there, you train so hard and you know you put yourself at risk every time you strap up that helmet. Of course, there could be more research done with concussions and everything, but it's hard to make this game safer. You got so much padding and a helmet already and the equipment is suitable for you to play the game and run fast and fly around. It's hard.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee and I'm speaking with Eric LeGrand. He has a new memoir out, talking about life after a devastating football injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
You know, I want to revisit a couple of the moments since your injury. For example, there was the moment a year after you were hurt when you led your Rutgers teammates out on the field from your wheelchair. The entire crowd, huge crowd, went nuts for you. That eventually became Sports Illustrated's best sports moment of 2011. You won the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the ESPYS in July. And then last spring, of course, the big event was when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers actually signed you as a free agent. Your old coach from Rutgers, now the head coach there, and he thought pro guys could learn something from you.
You've said this often, that you think everything happens for a reason. I mean that sounds as though you're saying you were destined to get injured and you're destined to do what you've done since then, be paralyzed, be in recovery, and then go on to do these other things.
LEGRAND: I guess you could put it that way. I've never really heard it like that, but for sure. I believe I was put here to do things just like that, you know, reach out to more people with my attitude. You know, I can't even scratch my own nose if I want to, but it doesn't mean I want to get down and get all upset about it. I'm just going to go out there and do the things that I can do and help other people while I can with my voice and just being in people's presence and being the person that I am.
HEADLEE: You know, some football players have come away from hearing you speak really saying that they are changed, that they feel inspired, that they feel as though you changed their life. What do you say to them?
LEGRAND: You know, I just tell them to go out there. You got to be the best that they can be. Don't take anything for granted in this world because you never know when it could be gone, just like that at the drop of a dime. And when you see living proof right in front of your face how one play could be your last play, it really takes a toll on somebody, I believe.
HEADLEE: Well, tell me about your physical recovery and where it stands right now. I actually heard that some recent tests showed your nerves are actually resending signals to some of the places they hadn't sent signals before. That's incredibly good news. How do you feel?
LEGRAND: I feel great about it. It's this EMG test that they put all these stems that detect any type of contraction throughout your body, and I have contractions going all the way down to my feet. It's not enough for movement yet, but the signals are still getting down there, which is great to know and great to hear. It really keeps me motivated and keeps me pushing the therapy all the time. Doctors can't really explain how this is happening or why. I really just think it's the grace of God and a miracle working right now in me and I'm continuing to push and continuing to fight all the time.
HEADLEE: I know you're working on a degree in labor studies at Rutgers, and I read that you plan to walk, literally, with your graduating class, but the one that struck me was you wrote about wanting to go back to the field and find the exact spot where you were injured. Can you tell me what you plan to do from there?
LEGRAND: Yeah. Well, you know, we were playing Army that year at MetLife Stadium and when I went down there, on the last Sunday, I actually got to finally see the spot where I went down, and to actually see it, you know, it was kind of surreal. Like, wow, this is where it happened. I was thinking about - going to roll my wheelchair over there, but then I was just like, no. Let me just wait until I can go lay there, get back up and run, walk, crawl, whatever I can do, just to say I finished that play and then put at ease at my heart.
HEADLEE: Eric LeGrand, author of "Believe: My Faith and the Tackle That Changed My Life." It hits book stores today. He joined us from our studio in New York. Thank you so much for joining us, Eric.
LEGRAND: Thank you.
HEADLEE: And good luck with the recovery.
LEGRAND: Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.