"I want to make sure Eric is a part of what we do, somehow. Eric's always going to be a part of my life."-- Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano to me, upon being named coach of the Bucs in January, about the fate of Eric LeGrand, the former Rutgers defensive tackle who suffered a spinal-cord injury in a 2010 game.
When Greg Schiano told his kids they'd be moving to Florida, because he was going to become the coach of the NFL team in Tampa, one of them said: "What about Eric?''
What about Eric. It's something Schiano has been thinking about since the day LeGrand made a hard tackle against Army at the Meadowlands -- Oct. 16, 2010 -- and didn't get up. He broke two vertebrae and suffered a serious spinal cord injury, and his football career was over. Life would be challenging enough, never mind thinking about football.
LeGrand and Schiano got closer after the injury. A lot closer. "He was my coach before,'' LeGrand told me Sunday. "Now he's part of my family.''
How'd that happen?
"After I had the accident,'' LeGrand said, "I was laying in my hospital bed. My mom was with me every day. But she needed some relief at night, so about 11 o'clock, every other night, coach Schiano came into the room. I was so scared I couldn't sleep most of the time. But I'd look over and there he'd be. He'd talk to me, about everything. And if I'd doze off, I'd wake up and there he'd be, with his computer in his lap, doing the work he was supposed to be doing but he was seeing me instead. That happened every other night. We got close. He became a lot more than a coach to me.''
As LeGrand rehabbed and put the pieces of his life back together, he still thought about football. And he thought of it this spring. Had his career not been ended in the middle of his junior season, there's a chance he would have been picked on day two or three of this year's draft. LeGrand doesn't give in to pity much, but when he was watching the draft on TV late last month, he said at one point, "That could have been me.''
And so last Tuesday, when Schiano called to tell him something, football was still on LeGrand's mind. According to LeGrand, Schiano told him, "I want to offer you a contract. I want you to be our 90th man.''
"You're serious?'' LeGrand answered. "You want to waste that spot on me?''
But Schiano assured him it was not a waste. He wanted his new team to see the inspiration that LeGrand has become. As Schiano said in a Bucs statement: "Leading up to the draft, I couldn't help but think that this should've been Eric's draft class. This small gesture is the least we could do to recognize his character, spirit, and perseverance. The way Eric lives his life epitomizes what we are looking for in Buccaneer men."
LeGrand won't be paid by the team, he said. He probably won't be around them very much, though he does plan to go to Tampa and meet players, and, he hopes, begin to do some motivational speaking. He's training for a broadcasting career now, and he'd like to merge the speaking and broadcasting, in his ideal job.
In a 20-minute conversation, LeGrand came across as upbeat and not looking back or asking, "Why me?''
"This is not the way I wanted my career to go, obviously,'' he said. "But there's no use in looking back and replaying what happened. I'm working every day to get better. I'm to the point now where I can sit by myself for 15 minutes. [My brain is] sending some signals down below where the injury was, which has surprised the doctors a lot. They have no answer for it. Every spinal-cord case is different, and I am determined to do everything I can to be able to walk again.''
When the Bucs sent his contract the other day, LeGrand was so proud he snapped a picture of it and put it on Facebook and Twitter. He's still reveling in what happened. His goal now is to be able to show people there's life after a catastrophic injury, even though the football part of that life will be more symbolic than real.
"I think I've been able to touch a nation,'' LeGrand said. "That's what I want to continue to do. If I can touch one person a day, I'm happy.''
There will be a 5K walk in New Jersey, A Walk To Believe 2012, on June 2 to benefit LeGrand and help defray his medical and living expenses. For more information, visit www.awalktobelieve.org and click on "The Walk.''
Now for your email:
LIFE AFTER FOOTBALL IS NOT FOOTBALL'S RESPONSIBILITY. "I'm very sad for the loss of Junior Seau like everyone, but why is the league responsible for their well-being after their careers are over? Where does it start/end? Should a guy who only plays in a few games get the same counseling as a 20-year vet. Maybe the players should consider what 'life after football' looks like while they are in college and actually earn a degree.''-- From Tom, of Palmyra, Pa.
Valid point. It's hard, when you're in the middle of the hero-worshipping, big-money life many of these players lead, to have the sort of perspective that a Matt Light or Kurt Warner has. I agree with you: More of them should.
TAKE AWAY THE ULTRA-PROTECTIVE HELMETS. "One key piece to solving the injury problems in the NFL, particularly head injuries, is to make the protective gear truly protective for all involved, by being less weapon-like. Players wield their hard helmets and pads like form-fitting clubs, when those devices are supposed to be only for protection. If football were to switch completely to pads and helmets that are soft on both the outside and inside, they could be more protective by not serving as weapons. Air- or foam-filled helmets might not make players look like gladiators, but at least they could not use them to inflict injury on one another.''-- From Ken Bogan, of Ypsilanti, Mich.
You're not the only one to recommend taking away the helmets that exist now. I really wonder, though, if the players union -- and majority of players, particularly from position groups like wide receiver, who go sprinting across the middle to catch balls, often not knowing where the hit is going to come from -- would support a diminution of protection.
DENNIS THINKS I'M CONDESCENDING. "Mr. King, why are you are becoming more condescending to your readers? Fans 'bleated' that something has to be done about hard hits? Many, many fans have *believed* for years that vicious hits, especially those leading with the helmet, need to stop. That's insulting. Also, we need to wait for only a brain scan to understand why Mr. Seau killed himself? So you have ruled out any other cause? Financial hardship, girlfriend problems, drinking or drugs ... none are possible? Contrary to your apparent belief, NFL fans are not a bunch of stupid sheep.''-- From Dennis Williams, of Denver
I didn't call fans "stupid sheep." I said fans can't have it both ways. They can't have the mega-hits they long for, then bleat for the league to do something about the effects of those hits once players retire. As for the fans who believe the vicious hits need to be out of the game, I agree there are some of those. I do not believe there are a majority of fans who feel the way you do -- because every time the league comes down hard on a defensive player for one of those hits, my Twitter feed and email box are more full of those saying the league wants players to wear skirts, and Roger Goodell is ruining football as we know it. Trying not to be condescending, Dennis, and I'm sorry that you feel I am. I'm just trying to call 'em the way I see 'em.
SHOULD AGENTS BE DOING MORE FOR PLAYERS? "Great, thoughtful reporting on Junior Seau and problems ex-players deal with. My question is how is it that the players' 'teams' -- agents, attorneys, family, advisers, etc. -- the same ones who show up at the NFL draft for them, are conspicuously absent when the careers come to an end? Or are they? Can Gary Plummer be right to say he didn't even get an 'apple and a road map?' ''-- From Tom Williams, of Malverne N.Y.
Good question. I was on SiriusXM NFL Radio this morning with former player Ross Tucker, and he made the point that there are plenty of ways that players, during their careers, are prepped for life after football. Tucker attended three separate league-sponsored business and/or broadcasting programs during offseasons while he was a player. His point was that there's a lot to do for players who want to take advantage of off-field opportunities, or post-career opportunities.
Regarding the agents, I know many of them. And many are involved with their clients once they leave the game. But not all players want to be "baby-sat'' once they leave football. When NFL Player Association czar De Smith met with agents at the Scouting Combine this year, he preached to them that they've got to make sure their clients are educated for life after football, and that football is only a small part of their employment lives. So it's tough to mandate the union and league doing much more -- but I do believe the counseling aspect that London Fletcher discussed in my column yesterday is a good idea.
CARL THINKS I MALIGNED MARY JO WHITE UNFAIRLY. "I think you may have gotten this one wrong: 'It's good that Mary Jo White, a well-known and highly respected set of legal eyes, combed through the league's evidence in the case and pronounced it conviction worthy. But White was also retained by the league. What do you think she would have concluded had she been retained by the players association?'
If you give the woman the benefit of the doubt and assume she's a professional, it shouldn't make any difference who hired her. Your question assumes she's just a cynical hack who is in it for the check, and would say whatever the client wants her to say. Now, I don't know Mary Jo White at all, and maybe you're right and she's just as craven and venal as your question assumes, but unless you've got some proof, you're casting unwarranted aspersions on a former U.S. attorney who oversaw the prosecutions of John Gotti and the World Trade Center bomber. Is your question based on cynicism or evidence?''-- From Carl Amoscato, of London
Fair point, Carl. And you are right in that I implied that White would back whichever side hired her to give an opinion. For any inference that White is a hired gun, I apologize. That's not what I meant. I was basing my opinion on the fact that the league retained White, paid her, and put her on a conference call with NFL media about the Saints case. I'm not questioning the fact that she's one of the most respected jurists in the country, because she is. But I do believe if White had taken a look at the evidence, found it insufficient and told the league so, the NFL would never have allowed her to speak up, and never would have made public the fact that White had analyzed the evidence. Thanks for calling me on that one.
RETHINKING A LOVE OF FOOTBALL. "I appreciate your column. It is as much a part of my Monday as coffee. Over the years, I have been a big participant in the NFL -- fantasy football, watching the draft, etc. However, as I read about these players and injuries I notice myself enjoying the sport less. I think a large part has to do with the unusual offseason in regards to player safety. First is Gregg Williams, then the unfortunate death of Seau. Even before the news of Seau, I found myself enjoying the draft less. I was wondering 'What percentage of these players will become depressed in 20-30 years?'
From a sports fan point of view, you become attached to both the team and the player. It's tough watching a game where you know that the game destroys your favorite player. A perfect example for me is my sports idol from my favorite team, Walter Payton of the Bears. Not just aches and pains, but depression and dementia. My question is: Do you find yourself viewing and approaching the game differently than when you first started because of the concussions issue? As a related question, how does the study you did of the Bengals play into that.''-- From Andrew, of Columbia, Mo.
All good points. I write in SI this week about how I feel some guilt for the way I helped (in a small way, but helped nonetheless) make Junior Seau a Superman over the years, by writing about him as if he were Superman. Not to give it away, but that's been on my mind a lot over the past week. I am thinking about the game, and about all the head trauma, and I need to do some more thinking about whether it's in anyone's long-term interests to play this game.
Now, as for the Bengals study we did at the magazine last year, one of the things that impressed me 25 years out from that 1986 season is how well-adjusted and mostly prospering the large majority of that team is today. If you were looking to draw the conclusion that the league spits these players out and they're ruined 25 years after their football primes, well, you can point to the suicide of Bobby Kemp and the physical wreck that Reggie Williams and Emanuel King are, but many more are doing well, physically and mentally. So it's obviously a mixed bag.