December 20, 2011

This article appears in the Dec. 26 issue of Sports Illustrated to purchase a digital copy of the magazine go here.

So I left tire tracks in the snow yesterday as I led my team out next time will be footprints

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 Sports Illustrated. Each week for the last 57 years, SI's editors have chosen the image for the cover of the magazine. For the 2011 year-end issue, that choice rested in the hands of the fans. Earlier this month SI's editors selected 15 iconic moments from the calendar year and, on Dec. 9, posted those moments, mocked-up as covers, on our Facebook page. For one week fans could go to the polls to rank their top five choices, knowing that the winning moment would appear on the cover. The project led more than 6,000 users to post comments on Facebook, and the thousands who tweeted mention of the campaign included some of those with a direct stake in the results: LeGrand, U.S. women's soccer captain Abby Wambach, surfer Kelly Slater and Michigan State receiver Keith Nichol. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and Clippers forward Blake Griffin alerted fans to their candidacies on their official Facebook pages.

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 @BigE52_RU, Big E Nation marks each milestone. (Last week, for the first time since his injury, LeGrand was able to briefly sustain a sitting position unaided.) Voice recognition software helps him text and tweet. His wheelchair is Bluetoothed. He takes classes via Skype and updates his Facebook page regularly. Indeed, the very digital technology that helped put LeGrand's story on this week's cover has normalized his life as much as that's possible. "He can control his Twitter, he can control his Facebook," says LeGrand's mother, Karen. "It helps him have a sense of independence. It's something that he can do himself without anybody's help."


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:

Social media reinforces tribal tendencies. In solidarity with Novak Djokovic, Serbia registered the third-largest number of visits by country, helping the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion place eighth. Meanwhile Rutgers and New Jersey, punchlines dating from Mister Magoo to The Sopranos, rose up in support of a universal, powerful cause, with only California supplying more visits by state.

Fans recognize great feats, players and teams regardless of provenance. No, the number of cheeseheads with Packers stock certificates gracing their walls can't compare to Barcelona's 170,000 members, 1,300 officially registered fan clubs, and 23 million Facebook followers -- and the global balloting reflected that. (LeGrand himself helps make this case; this month he tweeted, What's the score of the Barcelona vs Madrid game?) Just the same, if today's social-media platforms had been in place during the 1990s, Michael Jordan and the Bulls would have scored high for the same reasons Messi and Barça did: Borders evaporate when the greatest player in his sport, on the most recognizable team, wins a title by playing in the most likable style.

Fans and athletes now forge their own unmediated relationships. The supplicant-spectator who waits outside the locker room for an autograph is vanishing. A fan's heroes now reach out directly to him, as he does to them. When Darnell Dockett Ustreams from his shower stall, or Chris Paul offers instant commentary when his trade to the Lakers collapses, they're cutting out the middlemen. Fans know that a tweet is tapped out by the same hands that gathered in that touchdown pass or threw down that film-at-11 dunk. "Twitter is a digital locker room," says Steve Cobb, whose company Activ8Social designs marketing campaigns around sports and social media. "It's what a teammate says to a teammate. Fans love that they're not reading a watered-down p.r. statement."

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.

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