AVENEL, N.J. -- An elevator inside a house? Even to boys whose world is teeming with gadgets and gizmos, this was an irresistible proposition. So it was no problem to get my sons excited about seeing such a contraption. Helping them understand why it was there, and for whom, was a little more complicated.
The elevator -- and the house -- belong to Eric LeGrand, the former Rutgers defensive tackle who was paralyzed from the neck down while making a tackle on a kickoff against Army on Oct. 16, 2010. I met Eric last year through our mutual friend and representative, Sandy Montag of IMG, and ever since then Eric and I have stayed in touch. Eric can't move his thumbs -- not yet, anyway -- but through the magic of voice recognition technology, he can make phone calls and send text messages. I had told Eric a while back that I wanted my sons to meet him, and last month we were presented with a great excuse. My oldest son, Zachary, who will turn nine on Monday, was assigned an end-of-year school project that requires each member of his class to make a presentation about a U.S. state. Zachary's state was New Jersey. What better way to learn about a state than by meeting one of its most famous citizens?
So on Monday night, Zachary and I, along with Zachary's younger brother, Noah, who just turned seven, visited Eric's house in Avenel, N.J. In advance of our trip, I had to explain to the boys some unpleasant truths about who Eric was and what had happened to him. I wanted to keep everything upbeat, so on Sunday night I showed them videos of Eric giving inspiring interviews as well as his speech at last year's ESPYs. But the boys kept asking to see the play where he got hurt. So I showed that to them, too. I could see the pall come over their faces as they watched Eric make the head-on tackle, and then fall to the ground and go limp. They asked to see it several more times, and I did my best to explain the science behind what they were watching. It was a conversation I didn't want to have but couldn't avoid. Which was sort of the point of this exercise.
As it happened, the timing for our visit was perfect. Last Friday, Eric moved back into the house where he had been living with his mother, Karen, before he got hurt. After he was paralyzed, Eric and Karen moved into a small, two-bedroom apartment down the street while their house was torn down and rebuilt to accommodate Eric's new life as a quadriplegic. The $500,000 cost was covered largely by the Believe Fund that was set up by Rutgers when Eric got hurt. The refurbished house is a living, breathing testament to the kindness of strangers.
When we arrived, I told Zachary and Noah that if they asked nicely, maybe Eric would show them his new elevator as well as his other fancy electronics. But I also admonished them to show respect for the reason why Eric needed these things. This was not like an X-Box or a PlayStation, I said firmly. This was Eric's life.
Sure enough, as soon as Eric came to the door to greet us, Zachary and Noah started peppering him with questions about his motorized wheelchair. Eric showed them how the joystick in front of his mouth can control not only his chair, but all the gadgets and gizmos in his new house. "You know," he told them, "just like an X-Box or a Playstation."
Shows you what Dad knows.
This is what it is like to be around Eric LeGrand. You're worried about doing or saying the wrong thing, yet he constantly puts you at ease. I was amazed at how my boys immediately shed their shyness and cottoned to Eric as he took us on a tour of his new digs. The first thing on the tour, naturally, was the elevator. We walked in with Eric, the doors shut behind us, we traveled up one floor, and the doors opened. "Watch this," Eric said. Then he powered his wheelchair in reverse and spun around. My boys were impressed.
We went into Eric's bedroom so he could show us the track lifting system fixed to the ceiling. Eric explained that his mother can hook a sling under his arms, whereupon the chains carry him into bed. "So it's like you're flying?" Noah asked. "Yes," Eric said. "Just like I'm flying."
Because he had just moved back into the house, there was not much furniture, but Eric showed us where everything was going to go, from his couch to his 90-inch movie screen to his Tampa Bay Buccaneers locker. (His former coach at Rutgers, Greg Schiano, is now the Bucs' coach and signed Eric to a free agent contract in May of last year.) Eric can use a device on his wheelchair to operate most of the electronics in the house, including a lever that opens the door to the upstairs balcony. It's as close to self-sufficiency as a person in his condition can get.
After the tour of the upstairs living area, we went back downstairs to eat dinner. I had encouraged Zachary and Noah to ask Eric anything they wanted. I was worried about what they might say, but I never cringed. Eric was thoroughly disarming. "Did you feel any pain when you got paralyzed?" Zachary asked.
"You ever get the wind knocked out of you?" Eric replied. "That's what it felt like."
"You couldn't breathe in the beginning?"
"I felt like I couldn't breathe. I also couldn't move, which was really scary."
"I have a question," Noah interjected. "You said on the video that you wanted to go to the spot where you got hurt and walk off the field. Why do you want to do that?"
Eric flashed his dimpled smile. "Wow, nobody has asked me that," he said. "I always said that I want to finish every play. That was the only play I didn't finish, so I want to go back there and finish it. That's a good question. I haven't gotten that one yet."
It went on like this for about 90 minutes. As I was admiring how easily Eric interacted with my sons, it occurred to me that he isn't that much older than them. Eric will turn 23 on Sept. 7. That means he was 20 when he got hurt. He has been cast as this avatar of hope and inspiration, yet he is really just a big kid. As his mom raised a cheeseburger to his mouth, Eric saw Noah lift a pickle off his plate. "You don't like pickles? Me either," he said.
Aside from a brief hello at the Big East basketball tournament in March, I hadn't spent extended time with Eric since December. I was astounded at how much progress he had made. Besides losing a lot of weight, he demonstrated how much more mobile his upper body is. He told me he can balance himself while sitting up, and he has moved every one of his fingers. "That means the signal is getting through," he said. At one point, he lifted his elbow several inches off his arm rest. He said if someone scratches his back now, he can feel it through the numbness.
Eric has been plenty busy the last few months appearing at speaking engagements, which helps pay the bills. Every other day that he is home, he goes through several hours of therapy at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in Saddle Brook, N.J. As he described his rigorous daily routine, which begins with an hour on a treadmill aided by his therapists' hands, I could see the wheels turning in my sons' heads. "So it's like you're starting over," Zachary said. "You're like a baby."
"That's right," Eric replied, "I'm starting over like a baby. Learning to walk again. Don't worry, you'll see me walk off that field one day."
Eric's physical therapy isn't just hard work. It's monumentally expensive. Eric said he had heard there was only one other person in the country who was getting this kind of daily treatment for a spinal cord injury. ("He must be a millionaire," Karen sighed.) The cost is covered partly by Medicare and Karen's insurance, and the Believe Foundation is a big help. (You can learn more about the foundation on its Facebook page here) But a major portion of the cost is covered by the NCAA's long-term disability insurance. The policy has annual caps, but it will last for the balance of Eric's life, giving him his best chance at a recovery. Said Karen, "If he wasn't hurt playing college football, we couldn't pay for half the things that are in here."
So many businesses and individuals contributed to renovating Eric's house that Karen has lost track. P.C. Richards gave appliances. Kholer provided all the fixtures. Blinds 2 Go gave them a huge discount. This helps explain why Eric is so cheerful. Every day over at Kessler, he sees people with the exact same injury as he has, but who aren't getting anywhere near the kind of treatment he is getting. "I know I'm very fortunate," he said. "A lot of people in my situation can't have a new house like this, can't travel all over and have speaking engagements. They're just home not doing anything and deteriorating." Looking over at my boys he added, "My whole life growing up, I always loved helping people, making people laugh. To know that I can inspire guys like you, young kids, that gets me going every single day. That's why I hope you get an A on this project, Zach."
Once dinner was over, I told Zachary and Noah to ask their final questions. So Zachary asked, "Did the guy on Army apologize?"
"It wasn't his fault. I hit him," Eric said with a chuckle. He went on to explain that the player, Malcolm Brown, had reached out to Eric over Facebook and visited him at Rutgers. Eric added that the hit he made on Brown was so powerful that he broke Brown's collarbone. "I broke my collarbone, too," Noah said. "Playing soccer."
As we got ready to leave, Eric asked Karen to bring copies of his book,
Now it was Karen's turn to answer. "Really?" she said. "There's nothing about Eric that's sad."
With that, we piled back into my car and headed back to Connecticut. About a half-hour after we pulled away from the house, my phone buzzed. It was a text message from Eric which read: Thanks for stopping by with the kids it was great to meet them. I turned to tell Zachary and Noah what Eric had written, but they were sound asleep. They had learned some unpleasant truths, but some important ones as well. I don't know what grade Zachary will get on his project, but I like to imagine that he and Noah left Eric's house a little wiser, a little more grateful, and a little less sad.