Five years later, former Rutgers standout Eric LeGrand still believes he will walk again

Eric LeGrand's recovery (3:39)

Eric LeGrand on his injury and recovery. (3:39)

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's September 14 New Orleans Issue. Subscribe today!

IT'S YOUR NOSE this time. You try to do what you can for it, sitting alone in your bedroom, arms resting on each side of a $40,000 wheelchair. You are parked beneath a giant TV, watching football. You scrunch your eyes and flex your cheeks, wriggle each nostril, stretch your mouth, until your entire face is dancing. But the itch won't go away, so you call out to your ma for the third time in the past hour.


She was just in your bedroom, her fingers sweeping your dreadlocks out of your face. She was just grumbling, "It's 80 degrees in here, Eric," as the portable heater hummed next to the bed with metal rails where you sleep. She was just scratching the eczema around the edge of your forehead -- the reprieve of nails digging across your skin, the joy of being able to feel -- and applying layers of ChapStick to your lips.

You hear her scream back, exhausted, from downstairs: "WHAAAAAAAT!?" You hear her familiar thumping up the steps and through the wide doorway to your bedroom and adjoining man cave, with the FREE ADMISSION TO THOSE WHO BELIEVE sign on the door and the autographed footballs from a dozen NFL teams in cases on the wall. Your jersey from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is also on the wall, with paintings of you when you were a defensive tackle for Rutgers, No. 52. You hear her huffing, finally, behind you.

You can move your head, and your shoulders, but you do not turn to see your ma. You often shrug your shoulders, sometimes wildly, as an expression of excitement, of giddiness, in tandem with the enveloping ring of your laugh: "Tahh-hah-hah!" You shrug when you're making fun of your ma, when you're "giving her s---" after she huffs up the stairs, when you smell a fart that you couldn't feel and can't control, owning the embarrassment the only way you know how, when you're watching football and a defender doles out a punishing hit, like you used to: "Damn! Tahh-hah-hah!"

Such a hit stole your legs, your arms, very nearly your life. But watching football stirs something inside of you, and every time you see a big defensive play, a big hit, you shimmy to life, wiggle and shrug your shoulders and move your head within the confines of the chair, smiling.

Your muscles spasm when your arms or legs are lifted out of rest, and you're still strong enough to knock over anyone who's doing the lifting. You're 270 pounds, 25 years old, a quadriplegic with an incomplete spinal cord injury, your C3 and C4 vertebrae fractured during a kickoff return five years ago -- a hit you are still very proud of.

Doctors told your ma, Karen, there was no more than a 5 percent chance you'd move your extremities again, much less walk. But occasionally now your fingers twitch. To touch the mini-joystick in front of your face, you push out your bottom lip, zapping your 400-pound wheelchair to life.

"What do you want for dinner?" your ma asks.

Your lip nudges the joystick and the chair whirs forward. "Chinese," you answer.

Your ma covered the joystick with a hospital glove because you thought it was gross to keep touching the naked plastic with your mouth, especially when you were using your tongue. Its taste, its texture -- like licking something you could only imagine licking, like maybe a shoe.

"Eric, I know what you're gonna order -- fried shrimp and french fries is not Chinese food!"

Your wheelchair is an extension of your body, designed to provide a semblance of your independence, to open doors and the elevator that takes you downstairs. You can tilt back, lie flat, extend your legs; you can raise the chair on its axis to a height like you were standing, move your body into different positions so you won't get a pressure sore that could kill you if it went undetected.

Your ma jokes that you used to need her only to fold your laundry when you drove the half hour home every week from Rutgers to Avenel, New Jersey, and to come to the stadium and cheer. Now you need her every waking hour.

"My extent of Chinese food is fried shrimp and french fries," you say. Then you raise your voice, impersonating her -- That isn't Chinese food, Eric! All you do is get fried shrimp and french fries! Tahh-hah-hah. You're trying to lighten the mood.

"Hah-hahhh. Shut up!" she yells.

You understand what it is to be irritated. You'd rather not be the source of hers. But you can't change that, at least not yet.

With your smartphone an inch from your face, you say, "Call Bamboo China."

Your ma trails a tissue across your face, her finger delicately scratching your nose. You feel relief as she bends down and says, softer, "Eric, what else do you need?"

NOTHING DISSUADES YOU from loving football.

Not your muscles spasming without control. Not the two hours it takes for you to get ready every morning. Not the nurses cleaning your dangling body, cradled naked in the air in a Hoyer electronic lifting system. Not your ma draining your urine and sterilizing your Foley catheter leg bag so you won't get a UTI. Not the pills your ma takes out of a little rectangular plastic container and drops, one by one, onto your tongue: Neurontin, a precautionary medication for nerve pain; Ditropan to relax your bladder so it doesn't shrink; and a stool softener so you can hopefully use the bathroom from the shower chair around the same time every morning. Not the nurse coaxing your bowels when the stool softener doesn't work. Not watching the video of the moment your life changed, seeing the hit, hearing the hollow thunk of the old you coming to an end.

You've seen the replay "about 1,000 times." You can go through your hit by memory, which you have to do, a lot, as part of the talks you give, in front of people you hope are motivated by your perseverance. The play has become something you laugh about, that you use not as a cautionary tale but as a moment of self-deprecation, and discovery. You used it on Twitter, the very picture of you paralyzed on the field, and turned it into a meme: "BRUHHH" written over the photo along with the tweet: "Beyonce got everyone like this when she performs Drunk in Love."

You offended people. But it was damn funny to you. This is your life, not theirs. "I hit that guy hard," you say. "At least I went out on a good hit, you know? Tahh-hah-hah."

You speak about your injury as though it were just another memory, like when you went to Turks and Caicos recently with your family and they lifted you out of your chair and you floated, arms and legs starfished in the ocean, staring up at the sun, feeling like you were on the moon.

"I wish I could play," you say, waiting to go live for your weekly Sirius XM radio show, College Sports Coast to Coast. You also co-host The Kyle Flood Show during the Rutgers season, provide commentary for RU and host an ESPN podcast twice a week. "Football made me who I am," you say. "I don't miss practice, I'll tell you that. But playing the game of football -- oh, I'd do anything to go back to it. I'd just do anything." Getting signed ceremoniously by your old coach Greg Schiano when he was with the Buccaneers was one of the greatest moments of your life. When Coach Schiano calls, your heart still drops. "He wants to know how I'm doing," you say. "But he wants to know the real s---: how therapy is going, not that I'm just doing OK."

You have an intern, Ed, who helps with the show. Ed sets up the equipment, puts your headphones on and mans a computer to show you the stats. You are on air, loud, perpetually in a good mood, making a crack about Alabama, rooting instead for the underdog. "I'm all about the magical season, man," you tell the audience. Off air you tell Ed it is difficult to watch Rutgers get its ass kicked. Then you burst into song: "'You've been hit by ... you've been hit by, a smooth cri-mi-nal.' Tahh-hah-hah."

You nod toward Ed, who sees your eyes focused on the pizza box by the computer. Ed takes a slice of cheese, folds it and brings it toward your mouth.

FIVE YEARS HAVE passed since football.

You see the play often in your mind: inside an NFL stadium, mid-October, gray sky. Rutgers kicker San San Te booted the ball into the air. You'd been facing a double-team on kickoffs the whole game. As the ball sailed to its destination, you ran as hard as you could, building speed.

You remember approaching the target, pushing two other men out of the way. You were in your red jersey, wrists and ankles taped in white. You aimed for the returner's rib cage or the side of his shoulder pad, you're fuzzy about which. You tilted your head down, like you were going to clench the ball in your teeth. A teammate got to him half a second sooner, turning him slightly, and you hit the crown of your head on his shoulder blade.

You fell slowly to the turf, your limbs following behind like they were being lowered on strings. Your head began to thrash. You couldn't breathe. It was your first and last game in an NFL stadium. You'd never been injured playing football.

You still keep in touch with Malcolm Brown, the kick returner for Army who was on the other end of the hit. He sent you a text after you gave the commencement speech at Rutgers last spring, when you graduated with your degree in labor studies, classes you took online.

I just listened to your speech, and it really hit home, as I prepare to lead soldiers. Thank you for continuing to be an inspiration, and congrats on graduating from RU, man.

Are you about to get stationed somewhere? you typed back, with the stylus you use to operate your phone, like a tiny cigar between your teeth.

Yeah ... I'm graduating tomorrow. I have advanced courses in artillery, the big guns, a total of about four weeks, after that, Ft. Hood, where I'll be stationed for three years. ...

"I think he's gettin' married soon," you say.

Your ma told you much later, long after you came out of sedation, when the pain was gone, when Malcolm Brown was in a locker room wondering if you would live, when your new world took the shape of a hospital room, that she knew the hit was really bad. You still can't shake hearing your ma say that she thought you could die.

When you woke in the hospital, you didn't know your vertebrae had been fused and an air tube had been shoved down your throat. You didn't know that your ma took you out of the first room they had you in because there wasn't a window, there wasn't enough light, didn't know that she refused to let the doctors tell you what they told her: that you'd never breathe on your own again, that you might never eat solid foods again, that you had no more than a 5 percent chance to walk again.

Five weeks later, the tube was out and you were breathing on your own. Your ma put the word believe everywhere in the room. You laughed (Tahh-hah-hah!) as your ma and your sister played Bob Marley and danced as Marley sang "Every little thing gonna be all right."

Make him laugh, make him smile, your ma told people who came to visit. You watched as the room gradually filled with stuffed animals and letters and signs that your ma balanced on the windowsills, and pictures, hundreds of them, that she diligently put on the walls. You were in a good mood in the hospital. Your ma made sure there was no other mood for you to be in.

Your whole life, you have been in a perpetual state of calm. You told your ma you were the man of the house at 5 years old, after your father had moved out. You brought fireflies into your bedroom in a jar, even though your ma told you not to, and opened it to see what would happen. You went on a diet to get under the 145-pound Pop Warner limit, and your ma gave you chocolate chip cookies as a reward. Now you shrug when people ask how you really feel, how you compartmentalize this.

You sing along constantly with the radio, even though you can no longer change stations. You put pictures on Instagram that physical therapists take with their phones, ones of you with this smirk that projects something like, Oh, yeah? Watch me do this, and an accompanying message: "Even on the days when you don't want to. On that steady grind. This is my life and I'm going to work my ass off and make the best of it. #bELieve."

You know your ma is proud of her son, but you might never know just how much. You are alone in your bedroom, waiting on the Chinese food, when your ma opens up about you:

"He has no privacy. All day, people are dressing him, bathing him, showering him -- and you know what? I hear the nurses in his room. He's making them laugh. It's like a party in his room. The other morning they came at 7. I was so tired. I told them, 'I'm going back to bed.' They were laughing so loud, I went in there and said, 'Guys, come on. What're you doing?' That's just his personality. He makes things easier. People first meet him, they're nervous, they don't know what to say. But once he talks, you know what? They relax."

FIVE YEARS SINCE football, and you can't help but complain about the house always being so damn cold. You figure you deserve at least one complaint.

In a pair of thick sweatpants and a jacket pulled over your T-shirt, in black socks and Nike sandals, you wheel into the upstairs elevator. The door opens one floor down into the kitchen. You stop next to the counter, shivering. Your body can no longer regulate its temperature. You can overheat too, quickly. You don't sweat much anymore because of the injury, which means you can't stay outside in the direct sun for longer than an hour.

Your ma comes into the kitchen from the outside deck. You know that she finds respite out there, alone. You know that she has been in the cool night air, sitting on the couch with her shoes off and feet up, her neck craned and her eyes closed, smoking a Salem. She had almost quit smoking before you got hurt.

Your ma takes each piece of shrimp from the container and holds it to your mouth. She brings a cup full of Pepsi to your lips, after you finish the shrimp in one bite, her own food getting cold.

This house with white window trim, pretty bushes out front, was built to accommodate you. Your old house, on this lot in Avenel, would've been too expensive to renovate, so it was knocked down. The Eric LeGrand Believe Fund, set up by Rutgers University as a trust after your injury, paid for the house to be split into zones so you can keep your room hot while your ma keeps her bedroom 15 degrees cooler down the hall.

Your phone beeps, maybe an inch from your face, in a Velcro holster attached to your armrest. When you are talking, you are staring at your phone, speaking out of the side of your mouth, your teeth clenched around the stylus, which your ma also covered with a glove. Your agent at IMG is on the other end, about your idea for a second book: Life in a Chair. "You can't call it that because you're gonna walk again," he says. "That's right," you say, three years after you told an audience at the ESPYS, accepting the Jimmy V Perseverance Award, that you would. The doctors haven't changed your prognosis. You don't pay them any mind. You surround yourself with people -- your agent, your physical therapists, your ma -- who don't pay them any mind.

You hear your ma rummaging through the backpack draped over the handlebars on the back of your wheelchair, lifting out your plastic pill container and snapping open one of its lids, holding it just above your mouth. She drops the pills together onto your tongue.

BEHIND THE CENTER console of a modified van, you watch yourself through the rearview mirror. Your eyelids flutter, your head lolls forward and back as you fall in and out of sleep. Your ma jokingly complains that she drives you everywhere but spends most of the time talking to herself. There are no seats in the back of the van. Your wheelchair is anchored to the floorboard using four metal clasps and two seat belts, one for your legs and one for your chest.

"Eric, you're going to be late. I'm sorry," she says.

"I told you!"

"Tell Buffy it's my fault."

Buffy is a physical therapist who has worked with you for four years, and she has a reputation for being irascible.

"That ain't gonna help," you say. "You won't listen to me. My mind is sharp -- 90 percent of the time, I'm right. You know this."

"You aren't right! I teach you life lessons. You have never even worked."

"Life lessons? You ever broke your neck? Tahhhhh-hah-hah!"

You're late because you had to stop at the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation a few miles away. When you got injured, the foundation reached out to Rutgers. You are its face now, filling the role of Superman himself. You and your ma formed a fundraising arm called Team LeGrand, and this summer you held the fifth annual Walk to Believe 5K at Rutgers, which raised $70,000 for spinal cord research, $5,000 more than last year. You believe you can always raise more.

The sliding van doors open at the push of a button. Your ma gets out. She places a small pillow beneath her knees in the back floorboard, bends down and unclasps the anchors by your wheels. "I'm not 25 anymore, Eric," she says.

You wheel out of the van, down a ramp that unfolds from the door. "That sun feels good!"

Inside the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in East Brunswick, you laugh and your arms flail as two therapists lift your body from the chair and onto a large exercise mat. You're on your back, staring at the ceiling, fighting against the paralysis. Here, you taught yourself to shrug again. You had to work at it, dozens of sessions, but you can lift your shoulders almost to your ears now. You call physical therapy The Grind.

The therapists, sweating and red-faced, struggle to get you into a harness, then back into the chair, wheeling you to a ramp that leads to an oversize treadmill. Your harness is secured to a metal T-bar hanging from the top of the treadmill. You are standing, fully, 45 percent of your body weight on your legs. Buffy is on your right, another therapist on your left, a third therapist behind you. Another therapist sits at a computer monitoring the treadmill's speed, and your weight.

"3, 2, 1 ..." Buffy says, and the treadmill churns, at 2.8 mph. Buffy moves your right leg and the other therapist moves your left, holding on to your knees and ankles, while the third therapist presses into your back, steadying your pelvis. The simulated walking helps activate your nervous system and keeps your muscles alive -- the reason your legs haven't withered. Your arms are tied to troughs, at the wrists, so gravity does not pull them out of socket. Thump ... thump ... thump ... This lasts for an hour in five-minute intervals. You say you can feel the pressure of your Jordans on the treadmill, like you're walking in space.

Afterward, you are wheeled back to the mat for stretching. Buffy gets behind you, and Willie the therapy dog comes over. You can feel the pressure of Willie on your chest, but not when Buffy puts your hand into the Lab's thick fur.

YOUR CLOSEST FRIENDS know how to handle you. They know how to lift you, how to undress you down to your boxers, how to put you in bed. They bring you home in the morning sometimes, after going to the club. You're 25; you still love to party. Only now you are in your chair at the edge of the bar, or on the dance floor moving your shoulders and wiggling to the music, your best friend, Nate, with two Long Island iced teas, tipping one into your mouth, telling you sometimes to slow down.

You went with a crew of friends to Las Vegas once, after your injury, and got drunk and drove your chair up Nate's leg and left tread marks on his white pants as he screamed. You played Pop Warner with Nate. Now you use him as a wingman, to flirt with women, though you never had any inhibition. You constantly think about women. You think about Vegas, about the pool and the umbrellas, about the thumping music and the bikinis, about what your sex life could be if you weren't stuffed with a catheter. You do not want to have sex until you can walk.

"It's good to be me right now," you say. "Business is good."

At least one part of your life since the injury has become more exciting, because of the interest in your story. In your bedroom, there is a table full of trophies and awards for courage, and pictures of the famous people you've met. LeBron James signed a basketball for you. You gave Beyonce a bELieve bracelet at a black-tie dinner. You met Jay Z too. And the weirdest thing: Once you were wheeling down a sidewalk in Miami and a car pulled up, and Lil Wayne ran out, grabbed you and hugged you. He said: "You're not only going to walk again, you're going to fly. We're going to fly."

AT 11 P.M. YOUR ma unfolds a mesh sling from the bathroom closet, wraps it under your legs and around your back and begins the process of putting you to bed. She gets you onto the air mattress and adjusts the pillows to support your head. She ties a band around your dreadlocks, turns the heater off and replaces it with a portable fan. The mattress starts to hum, begins its timed movement, every 45 minutes a different spot filling with air to prevent bed sores.

You close your eyes and remember what it was like to stand, to walk, to run; what it was like to have your legs pump for yards in practice, in games, to line up in all the big stadiums, to feel the breeze on your face, on your forearms; what it was like to hit somebody, to dive into a pile for a fumble, the grabbing, the clawing, the fighting that you considered life and death for the football.

In your dreams, you move without a chair, without the plastic taste of a hospital glove on a joystick. You feed yourself and you walk. But every time you approach a set of stairs, the dream comes to an abrupt stop. You can't go up. You're too nervous. You've forgotten.

You wake in the dark and you can make out the posters, the plaques your ma has arranged, the teammates' signatures on your No. 52 jersey, the only one ever retired by Rutgers. Your ma keeps letters in garbage bags because there are too many to read; the children write and say you will move again. Sometimes you sign autographs for them, using a marker clenched between your teeth.

You rustle, your shoulders ache, your dreadlocks tug at your scalp. You can't bear it any longer. You call for your ma to climb the stairs again and turn the heat back on.