Cheer up. Someone’s got things worse than you.
The cliché is so well worn, it needs patches.
Except when it comes from Eric LeGrand.
“There’s always someone who has it a lot worse than you. So be appreciative of what you do have,” he told students at the Frelinghuysen Middle School on Wednesday.
As most New Jerseyans know, LeGrand, 27, was paralyzed making a tackle for the Rutgers University football team, against Army in October 2010.
What they might not know is how hard he has worked to become a motivational speaker and aspiring sports broadcaster.
He had to re-learn how to breath. Completing his labor relations degree at Rutgers involved a painstaking process of Skyped lectures and dictated papers. It took three months to get the hang of signing autographs–clenching a pen with his teeth.
Yet one day, LeGrand insists, he will return to the 25-yard-line at MetLife Stadium, under his own steam. “I’m going to lay down, run, walk, crawl, whatever I can do, and finish that last play,” he told a rapt audience of 6th-, 7th- and 8th graders.
LeGrand’s talk was sponsored by the Morris Educational Foundation, as part of the Morris School District’s “All In” program, which promotes healthy relationships and a sense of belonging among students.
FMS pupils showed LeGrand a video they made celebrating his spirit, and gave him a signed poster proclaiming Believe.
That’s the motto of Team LeGrand, a charity for spinal injury patients he started in conjunction with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.
LeGrand plans to return on March 2, 2018, to address Morristown High School freshmen and the football team.
“I just think it’s crazy how he could go through all of that and stay strong. I would be a train wreck,” said 8th-grader MacKenzie Cregan.
Sixth-grader Dillon Walker believes LeGrand will walk again, if he keeps the faith. “He’s inspiring. If something bad happens, something good can always come out of it.”
Quoting his former coach, Greg Schiano, LeGrand defined success as “the peace of mind you get knowing you did everything you could to be the best you can be.'”
He urged students to give up put-downs, and help each other through life’s inevitable hard times.
“If you’re five years old or 65 years old, you’re going to face some type of adversity in your life. How you handle it ultimately defines your character,” said the Avenel native.
LeGrand’s character was forged in hospitals and rehab centers. Days after his terrifying injury, he saw a young woman being rushed to emergency surgery for a brain tumor.
She was trailed by anxious relatives and teen-aged friends. Early the next morning, he saw them stream past his room, bawling hysterically. The young woman had not survived her operation.
“I said to myself, whatever I need to do to get better, if I need to pray, if I need to relax, if I need to work harder, I’m going to do it,” LeGrand said, “so my family, my friends, and my teammates never have to leave the hospital like the way I saw that family leave the hospital. It put a lot of things in perspective for me, seeing that happen.”
Later, at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, he became fast friends with a 22-year-old named Jermaine, who was battling a spinal tumor. Jermaine didn’t make it, either.
“I said to myself right then and there, you know what, I will never complain about anything in this world again,” LeGrand said.
“You look at my situation, I have millions of people supporting me, around me, wishing me well….meanwhile, this kid Jermaine, couldn’t even get his parents to give him a home-cooked meal…
“It made me realize … we’ve got to be appreciative for the things that we do have. Don’t focus on the things that you don’t have. And if there is something that you really want, then you’ve got to go work your butt off to get it. There’s no ways around it.”
Being wheelchair-bound, dependent on others to dress and feed him, is not ideal, LeGrand acknowledged. Those are just plain facts.
“If you know you gave it your all” — at football, or math homework, or household chores– “you should be able to lay your head down on that pillow at night and sleep at ease,” he told the assembly.
“That’s how I live my life each and every day. Whether it’s speaking, or whether it’s going to therapy, or if it’s hanging out with my friends, I try to be the best version of me, each and every day,” LeGrand said.
“And honestly, I can say I go to bed with a smile on my face. I don’t complain about things in my life. I know how I fortunate I am to be where I am.”
And that fateful tackle?
“Down the road, I feel there’s something bigger and better,” LeGrand said, responding to a student. “No, I don’t regret making that tackle.”