If you know only one thing about the top sports moment of 2011, let it be those 93 characters. Yet the story of Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand, author and subject of the above tweet, rests on much more than a single moment. It's an ongoing miniseries of moments, parceled out by LeGrand himself using the same digital tools that helped galvanize voters to put his story on this week's SI cover.
In October 2010, LeGrand, then a junior defensive tackle on special teams duty, collided with an Army kick returner. Spinal cord damage, two fractured vertebrae and paralysis led doctors to believe he'd be a quadriplegic on a respirator for the rest of his life. But within five weeks LeGrand had resumed breathing on his own, and last summer, after tweeting out a picture of himself on his feet, braced by a metal frame, he picked up 12,000 new followers. A year after he was injured, rehab had taken him further than the most sanguine medical professional could have imagined. On Oct. 29, in the midst of a surprise autumn snowstorm, the 21-year-old LeGrand, in his motorized wheelchair, led the Scarlet Knights onto the field at Rutgers's stadium for the game with West Virginia. In LeGrand's lap lay an ax, a nod to coach Greg Schiano's exhortation to his players to "keep chopping."
Perhaps the fans who voted for LeGrand in SI's year-end cover campaign made a conscious point of elevating a moment of inspiration from a sport otherwise mired this year in an almost unfathomable tawdriness. Or perhaps they simply wanted to recognize his courage and upbeat outlook. Whatever the case, his appearance marks a first for
From SI's Manhattan offices, what unspooled last week looked like the ultimate Jumbotron dot race. Cardinals third baseman David Freese, whose two-out, two-strike ninth-ining triple and 11th-inning walk-off homer in Game 6 of the World Series sent the Cards to a Game 7 that they wound up winning, quickly vaulted to the front. Then LeGrand joined Freese in the lead. Meanwhile, two surprising candidates took firm position in the top five. Wambach, who hit a stunning 122nd-minute goal against Brazil in the Women's World Cup quarterfinal, received Twitter support from many of her teammates as well as men's national team mainstay Jozy Altidore. And the surfing community saw a chance to get Slater, who won his 11th world surfing title this year, his first SI cover. Slater also found love from the music world, with both Pearl Jam and Ben Harper tweeting on his behalf.
Then on Dec. 14 came a glimpse of how flat the sports world has become. Spanish soccer club F.C. Barcelona, in the running for having won its third Champions League title in five years behind the remarkable Lionel Messi, posted mention of its candidacy on its website and Facebook page. Almost instantly votes began to pour in from around the world -- not just from Spain but from Syria, Kazakhstan, Peru, Latvia and Indonesia, to name a few. Within hours the world's most popular soccer club and the globe's most admired athlete had outstripped the field.
Only during the final two days of balloting, when the international votes leveled off and two of New Jersey's most prominent politicians weighed in on LeGrand's behalf -- Governor Chris Christie and Newark mayor Cory Booker both tweeted their support -- did a late surge nudge the former Rutgers player over the top. And so a campaign that had touched more than 78 million Facebook fans and Twitter followers came to honor someone who has used just such platforms to stitch together a community that inspires him as he inspires it. As LeGrand tweets out updates on his comeback from
The voting on Facebook provided insight into today's social-media-savvy fan. He (or she) harbors no antisoccer xenophobia -- two of the top five moments came from The Beautiful Game, and even Stateside, Messi and Barcelona drew more first-place votes than the Bruins, the Mavericks or even the Packers. The modern fan will give extreme sports a shot, as Slater's support demonstrates. Golf, by contrast, has work to do to mobilize its digital fan base: Rory McIlroy, young though he may have been when he won the U.S. Open, placed last in the voting.
Other things we can conclude about fans as a result of last week:
The cover of SI has been a privileged place since 1954. Now that it can be accessed in print, on the web, in tablet form and on smartphones, by a fan base the world over, its impact and importance are greater than ever. But last week's balloting underscored that in the end, whatever the platform on which a story gets delivered, the story itself is what matters most.
When Eric LeGrand walks again -- not if he does, as he'll hasten to tell you -- he knows exactly what he'll do. "I'll go to Giants Stadium and find the exact spot on the field where I went down," he told SI's Jon Wertheim in October. "I'll lie there for a second. And then I'll get up on my own power and walk away."
It would be quite a moment. A moment made for a reelection campaign.