Jets relish visit from recovering ex-Rutgers player LeGrand

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Eric LeGrand found a cool, shady spot under a big tree on the New York Jets' practice field and smiled.

There was Plaxico Burress going out for passes. Darrelle Revis was shutting down every receiver who came his way. LaDainian Tomlinson was bouncing through the line with the football.

"I had never gotten the opportunity to come out here before, and I'm just enjoying it," LeGrand said Thursday. "These are stars, like you see Plaxico over there and Revis over there. I'm just like, 'Wow.' "

The former Rutgers football player, still in a motorized wheelchair while he recovers from a serious spinal injury, was a guest at training camp and watched the entire 2½-hour practice with some friends and family. Then, at the end, he was invited to be part of the team huddle and was presented with a green Jets No. 52 jersey -- his old number at Rutgers -- with his name sewn across the back.

For a moment, at least, LeGrand was back on the field and one of the guys again.

"Inspirational," Jets linebacker Bart Scott said of LeGrand. "He's been so strong through the process. I think he's embraced it and took the challenge on, and I think he should be an inspiration to a lot of people."

Scott has been selling "Can't Wait!" T-shirts -- the phrase made famous after a playoff win in New England -- on his personal website with proceeds going to the Eric LeGrand Patriot Saint Foundation. LeGrand was wearing a green one at practice, and Scott expects to present him with a check in the next week or so.

"It means a lot," said LeGrand, who met Scott for the first time before practice. "I truly appreciate it."

LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down while making a tackle on a kickoff return against Army last October at New Meadowlands Stadium. He was told then he likely would never walk again.

Slowly, LeGrand is working to beat those odds. He said the longest he has been able to stand was 45 minutes recently, and he's averaging about 30 to 35 minutes on his feet per hour.

"Everything's going well right now," LeGrand said.

He needs to continue to be able to stand for at least a half-hour at a time so he can start using a special treadmill that he said "basically retrain your legs to walk again." His progress has been an inspiration to so many others who have either had similar injuries or know someone who has. LeGrand constantly hears from those people, and it helps him keep trying to get better.

"It's really tremendous," LeGrand said. "I don't even know how to put it into words. I would never have thought this. It's unfortunate I got hurt, but also fortunate at the same time to be able to inspire a bunch of people like I've been able to do. It's truly a blessing. It's very humbling."

Jets linebacker Jamaal Westerman was a former Rutgers teammate of LeGrand's and helped set up the visit to training camp. Westerman visited LeGrand several times when the injury first occurred and has kept in touch with his friend through the entire process.

"We all believe that he's going to walk one day and lead us out of the tunnel," Westerman said. "With life comes adversity, ups and downs. But it's how you handle it, and he handles it with a smile every day even though it's not easy. I know that he handled his rehab with a smile and is working hard at it. One day, he's going to walk."

LeGrand believes that, too. And he said he's not bitter about his situation. In fact, he doesn't support the NFL's rule change on kickoffs to help prevent injuries.

"I don't think anybody should change the kickoff (rule)," he said. "My injury is like one in every 5 million. It was just an unfortunate thing, but I believe it happened for a reason. I know the changes are going to hurt a lot of the kick returners because a lot of people make their money off of that. I don't agree with it, but sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do, I guess."

LeGrand grew up rooting for the Denver Broncos and acknowledged he didn't like Tomlinson then, since he was a member of the AFC West rival San Diego Chargers.

"But finally getting to meet him," LeGrand said with a big smile, "I was star struck."

LeGrand plans to be on the sideline of every Rutgers home game this season, and he wants to attend as many road games as possible. And he'll keep believing -- along with his friends and former teammates -- the entire way.

"It's the only way to go through life, man," LeGrand said. "You can't get mad because things happen. The only way to get better is to be positive and fight through it because if you're negative, then you're just going to go right down the drain. That's the only way I know how to do it is just fight through it."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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