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Posted: Thursday December 1, 2011 12:39PM ; Updated: Friday December 2, 2011 12:40PM

My Sportsman: Eric LeGrand

Story Highlights

The 21-year old has shown significant progress since suffering a spinal cord injury

LeGrand remains paralyzed from the shoulders down, and uses a wheelchair

Strangers have been moved to acts of intense creativity when meeting LeGrand

By David Epstein

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Ryan Powis, Eric LeGrand, Malcom Brown
Eric LeGrand greets Army players Ryan Powis and Malcom Brown (right) at midfield before Rutgers' game versus Army. A year ago, LeGrand's collision with Brown left him paralyzed below the shoulders.
Paul Bereswell/AP

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 5. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.

It's not whether you get knocked down, it's whether you get up.

A trusty sports adage, good for any circumstance. The game is cruelly binary in its construction: win or lose. And yet, the saying tells us that the heart of the matter resides not in one of those outcomes, or even in what you did to contribute to it, but simply in whether you could stand. The proverb finds a golden lining, no matter how disappointing or lopsided the result. But even that utilitarian maxim can be made to seem utterly inappropriate.

Such is the case of Eric LeGrand. On October 16, 2010, LeGrand, a Rutgers junior defensive tackle, collided violently with an Army kick returner. The hit left LeGrand paralyzed below his neck.

How tortured can an aphorism be before it has no meaning at all? How far down the lofty-adage vine must we go to find something that works here?

It's not whether you get knocked down. It's actually not even whether you get up, it's whether you keep breathing.

That one would fit, albeit just barely.

Lying on the field, with his spinal cord damaged and his C3 and C4 vertebrae broken, LeGrand started to drown. He struggled to breath. His mother, Karen, came down from the stands, dressed in her son's scarlet number 52 jersey, and started to pray.

Coach Greg Schiano prayed, too. He asked God to please just let Eric be knocked unconscious. In this age of acute concern over brain trauma in football, it's a horrifying sign when the head coach is praying that his player merely be knocked out. No such luck.

As the gurney rolled out of New Meadowlands Stadium, LeGrand thought to muster a Mike Utley thumbs up. But think it was all he could do. The strongest guy on the Rutgers team -- a guy who squated 605 pounds -- could not raise his thumb. "A thousand pounds," LeGrand says. "It felt like a thousand pounds." LeGrand was put on a respirator to help him breathe, and doctors told his mother that he would likely need it for the rest of his life. They told her that his chance of walking was between 0 and five percent for the rest of his life.

The rest of his life started the Wednesday after the injury. That's when he woke up. The tubes down his throat kept him from making sounds. But the first words he mouthed to his mother, "I'll be back."

Whether or not a quadriplegic ever walks again has more to do with the precise details of the spinal cord injury and the initial treatment than anything else. Nonetheless, Eric LeGrand is back. He was back from the moment he woke up and started mouthing inspirational words. No sooner did he start mouthing than he realized he had tubes down his throat and started to fight them with everything he had, which, at the time, meant only his tongue. He wanted to breath at his own pace. It's not even whether you keep breathing, it's whether you keep breathing how you want to breathe.

A month later, LeGrand lasted an hour-and-a-half off the ventilator when the doctors said he could only go a few minutes. By last Thanksgiving, he was off it for good. He regained the ability to take deep gulps of air and to sigh as he saw fit.

Then in the summer, he sent pictures of himself from his Twitter account, standing with the help of a specialized metal frame. He got 12,000 new followers overnight. Maybe it was the Cheshire Cat smile, but LeGrand nation exploded.

In his new life, LeGrand has inspired more people than he ever could have imagined, even if he'd turned out to be the top pick of the NFL draft. Everywhere he goes, people whisper, "Is that him?" before they approach, just to talk. It's as if he's wearing positivity as cologne and nobody can get near him without catching a whiff and walking away with some of it on them. Last week, LeGrand was talking to middle school students in Jersey City when a blind boy asked him a question. "I can't see, how can I accomplish anything?" the boy asked. "You can talk, and you can think," LeGrand told him, and the boy lit up.

Random strangers have been moved to acts of intense creativity. When one friend visited him, he came with a startlingly adept drawing of LeGrand -- smiling, braids dangling. It was done by a waiter at the local Bertucci's pizzeria. "A waiter wanted you to have this," the friend told him. A waiter wanted you to have this. The drawing took it's place along with four hand paintings of LeGrand that people have sent, beside the masses of letters, cards and footballs. Karen LeGrand is still bemused at the notes that come from Germany.

Perhaps most impressive is LeGrand's sense of humor. Sometimes he'll feel an involuntary muscle spasm starting in his arm. "Look at my hand," he'll tell a visitor. And the hand will pop forward as if he wants to shake. "Oh my God!" is the typical response. "Then I tell them I'm just kidding," LeGrand says, "that I'm not controlling it."

And still, he's remarkably honest. He'll tell you that he misses the noise of the crowd after a big stop but even more the time after the game when he could relax with teammates, and that moving back in with Mom was the hardest thing about the injury. He'll tell you that a great thing about his injury is that now he sees extended family every week when before he hardly saw them at all.

If sports are supposed to charge us with emotion, make us laugh and cry in a safe environment, then Eric LeGrand is an amazing athlete. He has elicited whoops from school children and forced veteran journalists to cover the phone so that he couldn't hear them weep. Not simply for happiness or sadness or a feeling of why-me luck -- though those certainly play a part -- but because of how heartening it is to see someone try at something so wholeheartedly and without self-pity. The crying, perhaps, because the person on the other line is suddenly taking account of everything worthwhile in his or her life, and realizing that if a bit of LeGrand perseverance could be bottled and sprinkled into everyday life, then the world would be a better place. Picture LeGrand in his wheelchair, with his mother Karen by his side, answering his Bluetooth with a joyful "What up, dog?" Because, if you're like me, it's probably the most profound thing you'll think about today.

For making me rethink the old sports adage -- it's whether you get up -- Eric LeGrand is my 2011 Sportsman of the Year.

 
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