PISCATAWAY, NJ–If we've learned anything about Eric LeGrand over the past few years, it's that it’s difficult to rain on his parade.
That certainly showed on Sunday, June 5, when those attending the sixth annual A Walk to Believe 5K experienced some heavy rain showers ahead of the event.
But the showers halted just minutes later, and roughly 900 volunteers and participants showed up to High Point Solutions Stadium to take part in the 5K, which raised over $50,000 for spinal cord research.
The brief downpour actually seemed somewhat fitting for the event, as LeGrand knows a thing or two about weathering the storm and moving forward.
In the fall of 2010, LeGrand was a promising junior defensive tackle for the Rutgers football team. He proved to be a valuable asset for the Scarlet Knights, totaling 2.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss in his first two and a half seasons with the team.
However, things took a shocking and tragic turn on October 10, 2010.
Rutgers was taking on Army in a regular season game at MetLife Stadium. The Scarlet Knights kicked off to Army, and LeGrand was on the coverage team. He went to make a routine tackle on the ball carrier, but the stadium crowd hushed when LeGrand laid motionless on the field after the play.
LeGrand could only move his head, and the medical staff stretchered him off the field. He was immediately taken to a hospital, where tests revealed LeGrand had fractured two of his vertebrae.
He was paralyzed from the neck down.
But the resilient competitor refused to accept defeat. The years since his injury have been characterized by rehab, hard work, and dedication to uphold a promise to recover.
"I truly believe this happened for a reason, and that one day I am going to get out of this chair," LeGrand said.
He was originally told he would need a machine to help him breathe for the rest of his life and had no better than a five percent chance to would ever walk again.
LeGrand has been breathing on his own for years, and has regained movement of his shoulders and has experienced sensation throughout his body.
LeGrand has emerged as a leader and a voice for the nearly six million people suffering from paralysis. He has traveled the country giving support and words of wisdom to others in his position, reminding them to never give up.
He has visited many schools and churches to share his story and inspire and motivate others to keep a positive lifestyle, be thankful for what they have, and keep working hard to get what they want.
LeGrand's journey has gained the attention of the nation. He has been profiled by national media outlets like ESPN and HBO, and has received support and well wishes from many public figures, including New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter, former WWE champion Triple H, and even President Barack Obama.
He was also awarded the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the 2012 ESPY Awards.
Rutgers and its fans have been consistent in their support of the man known affectionately as "Big E."
Just over a year after his injury, LeGrand returned to Rutgers to lead the team out of the tunnel amidst a snowstorm before a game against West Virginia on October 29, 2011. LeGrand received a loud, standing ovation from the crowd.
The moment was immortalized when Sports Illustrated readers voted it the best moment of the year in sports.
On September 14, 2013, LeGrand became the first and only player in Rutgers football history to have his jersey number retired when his signature "52" lit up atop High Point Solutions Stadium.
LeGrand has become a legend and inspiration to the Rutgers community, and the Scarlet Knights faithful have not been shy to show their support. A Walk to Believe has become an annual tradition for fans and supporters of LeGrand to gather and celebrate his mission.
"The fact is Eric is a local guy who grew up in Middlesex County and was a local guy and chose to go locally to Rutgers to continue his athletic career," said Tom Robinson, a director of A Walk to Believe's leadership team. "It’s truly supporting one of our own."
LeGrand is flattered by all of the support he receives from the Rutgers community, including the fans, alumni, and the past, present, and future of the football program that he loves so much.
Several current players appeared at the event, as well as former Rutgers stars like Patriots safety Devin McCourty and Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. Even new head coach Chris Ash and his family, who had no connection to LeGrand prior to his Rutgers career, came to show his support.
"I really feel all the love [from the Rutgers community] and I’m so grateful for it because they don’t have to do it but they want to do it and they enjoy doing it," LeGrand said.
Despite appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and receiving an ESPY Award, LeGrand remains as humble as ever. While he continues to fight for his own recovery, he does not forget about the millions of others suffering from the same condition he does.
"It’s bigger than just me," he said. "Because over the years, we’ve seen other people with this injury and how it doesn’t discriminate. So our mission is to find a cure for this by doing what we can and raising funds."
Optimism is high in LeGrand's support group that progress is being made. James Maguire, a director for A Walk to Believe, is especially hopeful.
"There have been so many incredible breakthroughs recently in research and treatment for those with [spinal cord injuries]," Maguire said. "It just makes me believe that it’s not a question of if there will be a cure for paralysis, but rather a question of when."
LeGrand refuses to pollute his mind with doubt, instead using his story and events like A Walk to Believe to help others.
"I feel like this is my job to help other people and keep on grinding away at it until that day does come where I can get out of this chair,” he said. “So I don’t really like to get down about this whole situation. There’s a bigger purpose to this whole thing."
The argument could be made that many Rutgers fans feel the same compulsion to help. Robinson says finding people to aid in A Walk to Believe's mission is not much of a challenge.
"The number of times people will say 'Anything for Eric' once they hear that Eric is somehow involved…He's been such an inspiration to so many folks, and is such a testament to perseverance that we find in most cases people just need to be asked, and they deliver," he said.
Robinson and his team helped secure the support of several local sponsors, including Papa Grande Grille, Scarlet Fever, University Pain Medicine Center, and Olive Branch.
"One thing that hasn’t changed is his undying commitment and belief that he will one day be walking again. And that’s just what inspires all of us to continue to support and expand the team of support to help him and the others achieve that."
After the walk/run, participants were treated to a free lunch and music by Rutgers' gameday MC, DJ Yoshi.
But the main attraction of the postgame festivities was not the food or tunes. It was an appearance by the man himself.
Hundreds of fans and supporters patiently waited in line to greet LeGrand, share words of encouragement, and pose for pictures. And LeGrand was grateful and jovial with every one.
How does LeGrand keep making people smile? By sharing his optimistic outlook on life, of course.
"I just try and tell people each and every day is a gift and go out there and take it," he said. "There are no bad days, it’s about working hard and grinding."
As for the Rutgers community as a whole, they remain steadfast in their support of LeGrand. After all, you rarely see that many people at the stadium on a day without a football game. Maguire may have put it best.
"Rutgers truly is a family and we are so thankful for all of the Rutgers support."