May 11, 2014
Ever since he was a child, Eric LeGrand’s life was always about his physicality, his body. It still is, but in a new way. This is what happened in the last hours of the life that he once lived:
On the nights before Rutgers University home football games, the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown New Brunswick, New Jersey, welcomes busloads of Scarlet Knight players and staff members for an overnight stay. And on Friday, October 16, 2010 at the Hyatt, the players were hard to miss; each one was dressed in a Rutgers gray and red jumpsuit.
Although the hotel is just a few miles from campus, it’s far enough from girlfriends, Friday night parties, and grease trucks (a.k.a. food trucks) to help the players focus on the next day’s game. In one of the hotel’s conference rooms, they loaded their plates with food and, before they ate, head coach Greg Schiano led a short prayer.
Eric filled his plate with carbohydrates—lasagna, white rice, and two slices of bread. Then he raced to be first at the blender. It was his pre-game ritual: get to the blender before his teammates contaminate the jar with protein powders, peanut butter, bananas—all of which Eric found unpalatable. His recipe was simple: chocolate ice cream and milk, for a milkshake to take to his room.
The Scarlet Knights were three and two on the eve of facing Army at the new, 82,000-seat MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, the home field of the New York Jets and Giants. The game is among the nastiest on Rutgers schedule; it’s one of only two for which most Rutgers defensive players are required to wear shin guards and long white socks with their uniforms. Eric preferred white mid-calf socks and black ankle braces—his “swag.” He hated the idea of everyone around the country seeing him on television without his usual game-day look.
By October, the soreness had set in from a season that really began in August, and Eric wished he could have a break. His body ached as he remembered the hundreds of up-downs in the sand pit on the practice field and the days of running up and down the stairs of the team’s home field, High Point Solutions stadium, carrying his 295-pound teammate, Charlie Noonan, on his back. Now, after playing nearly every play on defense, lifting workouts were harder. But for a defensive lineman like Eric, who could squat 605 pounds and bench press 415 pounds, the workouts were just part of the daily grind that he hoped would lead him to the next level of play. “I was the strongest kid on the team, with all the weights added up,” Eric would later say. “I was in the best physical shape of my life, training my body to play in the NFL.”
Eric was twenty and stood six foot two, at 275 pounds. He wore his hair in shoulder-length braids. His smile was infectious. It was not typical for a defensive lineman at his height and weight to also play on special teams. But during his sophomore year, Eric led the team with thirteen tackles on kickoff coverage. He was quick getting down the field and unafraid to make a big hit—exactly the type of player Schiano wanted on kickoffs. Heading into his junior season as a rising star for the Rutgers defense, Eric was still in a three-man rotation at the nose guard and defensive tackle positions, but he knew that would end, and he was preparing for a pro career. “In college football, you only need one year,” he said. “I would’ve had my senior year to start and then go off into the draft.”
On Saturday morning, the team boarded the buses and headed to East Rutherford for a 2:05 p.m. kickoff. It was a sunny day with temperatures in the upper fifties. As they did before every game, Eric and his teammate, Scott Vallone, dressed and headed to the field to play a simple game of catch. Eric paused his warm-up routine to say a few words to the television cameras. “We’re here at the Meadowlands, the new Giants stadium,” he said, dressed in a white, long-sleeve Nike shirt, a red “R” embroidered on the neck. “We’re out here ready to go, being focused, and we’re gonna keep on choppin’ all day long.” The phrase “Keep on choppin’” was instilled in a Rutgers football player’s vocabulary—it was Schiano’s way of telling the team to stay focused, regardless of the situation.
The game was a battle from the beginning. More than 40,000 fans were roaring in the stands, including Eric’s sister, Nicole, and Karen LeGrand, sporting her number 52 red jersey with “LeGrand’s Mom” written in white letters on the back.
The Knights quickly fell behind, and spent the afternoon trying to catch up. They were trailing in the fourth quarter, when on a third-and-four, Eric filled the gap and stopped the fullback head on. He got up to celebrate but felt dizzy as he started to head off of the field. He focused, only to realize that he was heading toward the Army sideline. Disoriented, he turned around and headed to the Rutgers bench. He was fine. He did his job.
Rutgers tied the score at seventeen each, with just 5:16 remaining. On the ensuing kickoff Eric lined up in his usual position, next to the kicker, San San Te.
It was 4:46 p.m. Eric watched his kicker’s feet.
The Army returner, Malcolm Brown, caught the ball inside the five-yard line and started sprinting up field. Eric ran around the outside to avoid his oncoming opponents. At the twenty-five-yard line, he bounced off an Army player and fell to the ground on his left side. He rolled onto his back. His arms dropped to his side and his legs remained frozen in mid-air. After a few seconds, as if gravity was pulling down on his legs in slow motion, he could feel his heels gently hitting the turf.
He struggled to whisper to the trainers and coaches surrounding his rigid body. “I can’t…I can’t breathe.” One of the trainers held his hand, hoping Eric could feel their palms touching, squeezing together. But Eric did not know it.
Within minutes, his mother was brought down from the stands and onto the field. With Nicole by her side and Schiano telling her to “just pray,” Karen watched as Eric was carted off the field on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance that would take him to Hackensack University Medical Center. A paramedic placed an oxygen mask over Eric’s mouth and nose, and everything suddenly went black.
At the hospital, doctors immediately started to prepare Eric for surgery. It would last nine hours, into early Sunday. Doctors told Karen that her son had fractured his C3 and C4 cervical vertebrae and was paralyzed from the neck down, with less than a five percent chance of walking again. They told her he would more than likely need the assistance of a respirator to continue breathing, for the rest of his life.
Eric woke up three days later. He was groggy from the drugs and was surrounded by tubes, machines, and wires, but also by his family and friends. He was smiling. “I knew I was hurt but I was just happy to be with everyone, all of these people I hadn’t seen in awhile,” Eric said.
His mother didn’t let anyone in the room who might bring Eric down. She told Eric he had broken his neck and he would need to rehabilitate. Not much more. Weeks passed, and in early November, Eric’s doctors said it was time for him to leave the hospital and begin his recovery at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange. But in the ambulance to his new home, for some reason, Eric’s stomach ballooned. “I knew I wasn’t ready,” Eric said. Still, that night, Eric and his family gathered in his room at Kessler to watch Rutgers play against the University of South Florida, the second game since his injury. During the fourth quarter, Eric started to get restless and anxious. He asked his sister, Nicole, to move his right leg an inch, or his left leg over a little more. Still drowsy, Eric fell asleep. He woke up on a stretcher on his way to St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston. His fever spiked to a perilous 105.5.
When Eric awakened at the hospital, the fever had ebbed, and his sister was sitting on the edge of the bed.
“Nicole, where are we?” Eric asked.
“We’re in the ICU, at the hospital,” she replied. “You caught a bad fever.”
Eric wanted to get up out of bed.
“Nicole, get off of me, I want to get up real fast,” he said.
She replied, “I’m not on you, Eric.”
Eric didn’t understand.
“Nicole, get off me! I said I can’t get up,” he said.
Scared and nervous, she told him to go back to sleep. He put his head back, and closed his eyes.
By now, Eric knows exactly which way his body will turn during the night: Left side, middle, right side. Back to the left side. Middle. Right. Left side. Middle. Right. Every hour. Every night.
The bed rotates as air leaks out to change its firmness, to ensure that Eric’s body isn’t “falling asleep” while he slumbers. Often we wake up with pins and needles in our arm and can’t completely feel our fingers; the same thing can happen to Eric, except that he doesn’t experience those sensations and he can’t move around to get things back to normal. The rotations are one of the reasons Eric doesn’t sleep that much. The spasms are another.
As the bed rotates, sometimes he can feel them coming. Eric’s legs will kick straight up, uncontrollably. Or his abdominal muscles will contract, forcing the top half of his body upwards and pushing him into a seated position. Sometimes Eric tries to fight against the spasms because they can be painful, but they are out of his control.
Mornings are the worst. The bed has been rotating for hours, every hour. Eric doesn’t need much sleep—about five hours a night is enough—but his mom does, so he doesn’t wake her. The nurses and aides don’t get to his house in Avenel, New Jersey, until nine a.m. He can’t reach over to his nightstand to get his phone to pass the time. He can’t get up and use the bathroom. He can’t roll over into a new position and go back to sleep—the bed won’t rotate for at least another half hour. He lies there, tossing and turning with his head. It’s all he can do. The inspirational quotes and “BELIEVE” posters on the wall seem to mock him as he lies there, staring at the ceiling.
It frustrates him—the dependence on others, the loneliness, the things in his old life he remembers so vividly but can no longer do.
Some mornings, there is no sign of the person the world knows: the radiant Eric, speaking in front of thousands at the ESPY awards, as he did in 2012; the confident Eric, moving himself around in his mouth-operated wheelchair; the focused Eric, concentrating on each exercise movement at therapy.
It’s 8:15 a.m. Karen LeGrand awakens to her son calling for her in the next room. She no longer works, and helps take care of her son. He tries not to bother her, but he wants to watch TV before the process of getting ready begins. It takes two to three hours, usually until around noon, before Eric is primed to start his day. His electric bed pushes his body into an upright position, allowing his aide, a young woman Eric’s age named Raven, to slide a sling under his legs. Silver chains connect the sling to a rail system, which looks like train tracks suspended from the ceiling. The harness allows Raven to raise Eric out of bed. His suspended body slides on the ceiling tracks ten feet across the room to the bathroom, where the lift system lowers him down into a shower-safe wheelchair seat. He does his business in the bathroom and Raven cleans him up afterwards. Then she wheels him into his open shower. Raven fixes his hair and brushes his teeth.
His nurse, Clementina, helps to slide Eric’s body back into the sling to bring him back to the bed. Rolling his hips and legs back and forth, Raven and Clementina shimmy his pants up. They pull his arms and head through his shirt. They transfer him from the lift system to his chair. Clementina cleans his ears with a Q-tip and applies some Chapstick to his lips. They fix him up in the chair, making sure everything is pulled and tucked and comfortable. His arms and hands are arranged on the armrests on the side of the wheelchair, and his legs are positioned in place in the footrests.
Clementina attaches his iPhone to the wheelchair stand by a strip of Velcro—his phone is his lifeline to world, since he can no longer just get up and go places. She puts a stylus pen, covered with a cut-off finger of a rubber glove, in his mouth. He secures it between his teeth. Eric doesn’t eat breakfast. Frosted Flakes used to be his favorite, but he doesn’t get hungry early in the day anymore. By the time he is dressed and prepared for the day, it’s time for lunch, the first of two daily meals.
At therapy, five days a week, for four hours each day, Eric works to do things he had done all his life, like walk. He is a participant in the Christopher and Diana Reeve Foundation’s NeuroRecovery Network, which raises money and provides special treatments for spinal cord injuries. His therapy sessions begin with a harness, a treadmill, and four to five specially trained physical therapists. The sessions are called locomotor training, and researchers at the NeuroRecovery Network believe these rehabilitation treatments can help spinal-cord injury patients like Eric gain significant functional improvements, and with them a better quality of life. Gail Forrester, Eric’s doctor, who helped the Kessler Rehabilitation Institute become a part of the NeuroRecovery Network in 2007, says there are about 300 people in the program nationwide. The network has six other locations and a waiting list of six months to a year to be admitted.
All this treatment has a high cost, of course. Eric’s insurance policy from Rutgers expired two years ago, but he is covered by his personal health insurance and a lifetime catastrophic injury policy from the NCAA. From his wheelchair, Eric is transferred into a harness suspended above a special treadmill, where five people will help him exercise his body and operate the machine. A large brace supports his torso and back, and royal blue harness straps, secured from the hips to above the top of his shoulders, lift him up. His arms hang down at his sides, palms facing in and fingers, long and straight, pointing directly towards the ground. With his feet on the treadmill, the harness lifts about 120 pounds of his weight, or about 45 percent, while the rest of his body weight rests on his legs. While his physical therapist, Sandra “Buffy” Wojciehowski, straddles the treadmill belt and steadies her feet on the sides of the treadmill behind Eric’s body, two others position themselves in small chairs near the belt, where they each will control one of his legs. Buffy grasps the straps on the harness, her biceps flexing, as she presses her body weight against Eric’s back. Another physical therapist bends Eric’s arms at the elbows and straps his forearms and hands onto wooden boards at the sides of the treadmill. Waiting for the signal from Buffy to start the belt, yet another therapist sits at a computer next to the treadmill. It’s almost time to get moving.
Strapped in, harnessed up, sneakers tied, Eric stands upright. He stares at himself—his new body—in a long, floor-length mirror hung on the wall in front of the treadmill. With the treadmill set at 2.8 miles per hour, the physical therapists bend his legs at the knee with each step, pressing on specific nerves and placing each foot on the belt. Buffy says that the next fifty-five minutes on the treadmill will “excite his nervous system” by maximizing his weight bearing and optimizing the sensory cues in his legs and lower body. Eric spends those fifty-five minutes walking, talking, and most importantly, watching. He sees his reflection in the mirror, and while he focuses to keep his body still and his head and shoulders upright, he envisions his future.
It has been two years and more than 360 sessions since Eric started the locomotor training therapy. He’s still in the first of the three phases of the program. Before it, he had eighty-eight sessions of traditional therapy— double the number of traditional sessions of most patients, but still could not yet sit. He never scored higher than a zero to three, out of fifty-six points, using a measure called the Berg Balance Scale. The scale measures the total of performance in fourteen different tasks. The individual scores are based on a five-point scale, ranging from zero, meaning the patient cannot perform the task, to four, meaning he or she has normal performance.
Eric is the only patient at Kessler with his precise level of injury. Doctors measure that level on a system called the ASIA scale. The scale is based on motor function tests and how much sensation the patient can feel in different parts of the body. The ASIA scale uses a Grade A to E measuring system, with Grade A representing the most impairment, or complete lack of motor and sensory function below the level of the injury, including the anal area, an important indicator, and Grade E, indicating the least impairment, or that all neurological function has returned. Eric is a Grade B, meaning he has some sensation below the level of injury, which was not the case immediately after he was hurt.
That level, in turn, is indicated by the part of the vertebrae that has been fractured. Vertebrae are grouped into different sections, based on the location in the spine. Usually, the higher up on the spinal cord the injury is, the greater the impairment. The higher vertebrae, located in the neck region, are called the high cervical nerves, and are labeled as C1 to C4. Eric fractured his C3 and C4 vertebrae. The C3-C4 contains the phrenic nucleus, which is important for breathing because it passes motor information to the diaphragm and receives sensory information from it.
As a part of the NeuroRecovery Network, Eric has made clear progress. After twenty sessions of the locomotor training therapy—which Buffy describes as dynamic and activity-based—Eric was able to sit, if only for ten seconds. Then, it took more than 100 sessions for Eric to move one to two inches forward, in what is called a “functional reach” test. Eric can now sit for more than seventeen minutes, without assistance.
The last time Buffy applied the functional reach test, she recorded Eric moving his trunk forward as far as eleven inches. “It gives him his personal space, he’s got his bubble back,” Buffy said of Eric’s progress. “He doesn’t have to have someone constantly in his face and in front of him keeping him steady and held up.”
And if he feels unbalanced, Eric has gotten strong enough to hold himself up for a few extra seconds, just long enough for him to call for help. When he starts to fall over while sitting, he said, it is because of the pain and exhaustion he feels in his neck and shoulders, not his balance. Instead of using his upper and lower back muscles to hold his torso up in a sitting position, Eric must squeeze and contract the only muscles he can—his neck and upper shoulder muscles—to hold himself up. The exercises and the pain leave him with knots and large areas of tension in these muscles.
Though he hasn’t moved onto the next phases on the treadmill, Eric posts videos on Facebook and Instagram to show how far he progressed. In a video captioned, “Mama always said to keep your hands off the table…” Eric sits, bent at the hip in his chair with his arms crooked and his forearms resting on the table, palms down. As the video starts, he shrugs his shoulders upwards and with each downward motion, his arms slide on the tabletop towards his body. His torso straightens, his head lifts and his hands slide more than twelve inches, nearly off of the table.
The video is only eleven seconds long, but already has 4,012 likes, 121 shares, and 294 comments. The word “believe” is posted in the comments twenty-seven times. “Amazing” is written thirty-two times. Some form of the word “inspire” appears forty-one times.
The video does show remarkable progress—Buffy says Eric is doing more than it is conventionally thought someone with his injury could do. There are not many patients in the NeuroRecovery Network whose injuries are the same as Eric’s, so it’s hard to compare his results, but there are also not many with the same positive outlook. “Very few patients that I have seen in the six and a half years that I have been doing this have been so optimistic all the time,” said Buffy. “Everyone has had a bad day, but Eric has never come in here and is just having one of those days.” She also attributes his outlook to the support he’s received. “They’re making it as easy as possible for something that is so difficult.”
In Las Vegas, in February 2014, at the CSM Symposium for physical therapy professionals, Buffy and a group of six other doctors and researchers presented their work with locomotor training and the neuro-recovery scale. The room was packed, with triple the attendance from last year’s presentation. When Buffy played a video of Eric working during therapy, she said the audience started to buzz with whispers and comments like, “Is that him?”
Since his injury, Eric has become an inspirational speaker and spokesman for spinal cord injuries. Traveling to these engagements, or anywhere, for that matter, can be difficult. Eric got his first car, a Nissan Altima, in April 2010, just a few months before his injury, when it was easy to just get up and go wherever he pleased. Now that’s one of the hardest parts, and he has to coordinate and plan transportation every time he wants to go out. For places nearby or within driving distance, a Chrysler Town & Country equipped with a wheelchair lift and ramp does the job. But for longer trips, like visits to California or Arizona for awards ceremonies or speaking engagements, air travel is the only option.
Most airline carriers are accommodating, but it doesn’t mean the process is simple. Eric’s Permobil C500 power chair weighs 350 pounds and can’t fit on a standard airplane. It must be taken apart, Bubble Wrapped, and stowed underneath the cabin, which is where the troubles begin. Some attendants don’t know what buttons to press to unlock the wheels and it’s a risk putting the $6,000 chair in an unsupervised space for a long trip.
Without his chair, Eric must be transferred to an airplane wheelchair, which is smaller than a standard one and just barely fits down the aisle (and just barely fits Eric’s big body and frame). He’s strapped into the chair and taken down the jetway as someone holds his legs up, since sometimes they hang off and touch the floor. On the plane, Eric sits in a regular seat. He sits on a seat cushion to prevent sores during the flight and is buckled into the seatbelt. His feet rest on the floor and his hands rest on his lap. He tries his best to stay warm.
After a spinal cord injury, it’s difficult for the body to control its temperature, in both hot and cold weather. So the frigid temperatures during the rough New Jersey winter were particularly tough for Eric, who piled on layers, even in the house.
He braved the cold winter temperatures on Friday, January 31, two days before Super Bowl XLVIII. He headed to New York City for an exclusive, invitation-only party hosted by ESPN the Magazine. With Brandon Hall, his longtime friend, driving his all black, wheelchair-equipped Chrysler van, they pulled right up to the gates lined with police officers at Basketball City at Pier 36. Click. Click. Click. Brandon unbuckled Eric’s extra-long seatbelt and the van door slid open. Patiently, he sat and waited as his friend walked around to the other side of the van to release the ramp.
Inside, Eric was among stars and celebrities. Robin Thicke and Kendrick Lamar took the stage to perform; Elena Delle Donne of the WNBA and C.C. Sabathia of the Yankees mingled with friends; NFL players past and present, like Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick, stood tall above the crowds of people.
Brandon held a beer to Eric’s lips as he waited for the performers to take the stage. Chris Berman came over to say hello—he’d met Eric before. It was not long before dozens of other people come up to him, asking how he was doing and posing with him for pictures. Some laid a hand on his arm or embraced him with a pat on the shoulder. Others reached for a handshake. There was an awkward pause each time, a slight hesitation from the other person, as Eric’s hands and forearms remain glued to the armrests on his wheelchair. Eric simply nodded his head continued the conversation. He’s used to it.
The first time Eric visited Mikey Nichols at the Morristown Medical Center, Mikey didn’t say much. But for the most part, Eric understood.
On January 4, 2014, the seventeen-year-old senior forward for the Monroe Township High School hockey team took a shot and then was checked from behind. He collided headfirst with the boards. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a C5 vertebrae fracture.
Eric tried to talk with him, but it was only a few weeks after the injury and Mikey just needed to sleep most of the time. He was pale and sickly looking. Mikey lay in the hospital bed, surrounded by tubes, machines, and wires.
“Mom,” said Eric. “Is that what I was like?”
Karen LeGrand nodded her head, “Yes.”
It had been almost exactly three years earlier that Eric had appeared in his first on-camera interview since his injury, in January 2011. The ESPN anchor, Tom Rinaldi, sat across from Eric at the Kessler Rehabilitation Institute, just a few days before the 2011 BCS National Championship Game. It’s one interview Eric says he will never forget.
Eric sat positioned in his wheelchair, with his shoulders, neck, and head supported by a brace and tilted back, to help regulate his blood pressure. He was down to a mere 185 pounds. His cheeks were pale, making the redness in his lips stand out on the screen.
“There is a difference between what we know and what we believe,” Rinaldi said as he started the segment. It was the first update on Eric’s condition in a month and the first time he publicly declared he was going to walk again.
“I believe it,” said Eric.
And he has his reasons.
Eric remembers vividly the sound of his own breathing with the help of a ventilator. “I couldn’t sleep with it,” he said, recalling the constant clicking and hiss of the respirator as he released each hoarse, scratchy breath. “But the first couple times I asked to get off of it they wouldn’t do it.”
Eventually, the doctors agreed to allow Eric to try to breathe on his own. They warned him he was only going to be able to last one or two minutes.
The doctors pulled the tubes out of his throat and nose, and Eric instantly felt as he had during sprints on the treadmill, or during coach Schiano’s grueling workouts. He was breathing heavily, almost gasping. He said he felt as if he had just run seventeen miles; his heart beat rapidly and a burning sensation spread throughout his chest as he tried to fill his lungs.
He lasted for ninety minutes.
He was worn out, and it was time for him to go to sleep, so the doctors reattached the ventilator. But this time, while the machine was giving him air it wasn’t breathing for him. Just five weeks after his injury, he was free of it.
“When I accomplished that goal,” he said, “I felt like I could do pretty much anything.”
Eric misses his old body. “I miss my straight stomach,” he said, “just looking down at my chest and seeing my big legs.” Even though he is almost the same weight as when he played football, his muscles are less defined, and he has what is called a “quad belly.” The abdomen has involuntary muscles that hold the internal organs in and upright. But when you’re paralyzed, those muscles aren’t contracting and all of the organs in your midsection fall forward, creating the look of a rounded stomach. It’s hard to see when Eric is sitting, but it is more obvious when he is standing upright and strapped in the harness on the treadmill.
Eric’s athletic physique, his commanding stature, is one of the things that had drawn his college girlfriend to him. He started dating Rheanne Sleiman, a Rutgers soccer player, five months before his injury. She was gentle and caring, and then strong enough to deal with cataclysmic change to their relationship. He can recall her crying only once after his injury. In the months that followed she would sometimes stay over in Avenel, sleeping by his side. Last fall, she moved back home to Vancouver. They remain close and keep in touch.
Even with his level of injury, a relationship is not without its potential pleasures. He has learned about various options, such as epidural stimulation, which courses an electrical current through to the lower spinal cord area, that can help with any number of tasks he is relearning—like walking—as well as with intimacy. As Roger Kahn wrote in his 1972 book, The Boys of Summer, about Roy Campanella, the catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers who was left paralyzed after a car accident: “The paralysis had not left Campanella impotent but had robbed him of the motion, the push-pull, so to speak, of sex.”
Like most people, Eric envisions a family of his own.
“It’s definitely something I think about late at night,” he said. “I always think about who would be willing. I still want kids—and it’s physically possible—it’s just about finding the right person who wants to start a family with me.” If he has a son, Eric says, he will allow him to play football.
“I would tell him he better give it his all,” he says. “Or don’t play.”
On an especially brutal winter evening in February 2014, with mounds of snow piled more than three feet high on the streets around his home, Eric sat in his room in Avenel. He was dressed in sweatpants and a sweater, with another layer underneath. The thermostat in the room read eighty degrees. The television was on, but a constant, low vibrating sound also hummed throughout the room, from a small portable heater on a table next to Eric, the knob turned to the highest setting. Eric brings it with him everywhere, except, of course, when he goes to Miami, which he does from time to time. The steamy Florida weather makes Eric feel good—it’s the perfect eighty-degree temperature for his body.
During his next trip to Florida, Eric will have a chance to go skydiving. He’ll be freefalling in Daytona Beach, a jump that his friend Alan Brown is coordinating. Brown lives in Miami and has spent twenty-six years in a wheelchair as a C5 and C6 quadriplegic, after a swimming accident. As impossible as skydiving may sound for someone with paralysis, it is actually quite common. Skydiving instructors and companies have a special process to lift the legs up for the landing and special safety harnesses equipped for a paralyzed body.
But before that, Eric will graduate from Rutgers with a degree in labor studies, in May, two years after his classmates and teammates graduated. He tried first for a communications degree, in line with his dreams of being a sports commentator, but switched to labor studies to provide himself with a “backup.” He finds the process of how people form unions “interesting,” he says, and has also studied ADA regulations. He attended class through Skype, took proctored, verbal exams and typed up seven-page papers on his iPhone, using his pen-in-the-mouth method, aided by spellcheck and Apple’s Siri. He completed all of his credits in January 2014, with the help of his academic advisers.
We were talking about graduation one night and I asked, simply by habit, “Are you gonna walk?”
The blood rushed to my cheeks, as I thought of what I had just said. But the question didn’t faze him. Instead, he nodded and said he was going to “walk” in May, in his wheelchair, not for himself but for his mom and the rest of his family, so they could celebrate the moment together on a grand stage.
In fact, Eric will speak at the commencement ceremony, sharing the stage with a former New Jersey governor, Tom Kean. He was invited, then understood that he had been disinvited in favor of Kean, and voiced his displeasure on Twitter. Soon, what Rutgers called a “miscommunication” was patched up. The school’s president, Robert Barchi, said that it had always intended that both men give speeches, and that “Eric holds a special place in the hearts of the Class of 2014 and the entire university community.” Eric told reporters he planned to inspire the students with words, to tell them about “how they should attack life.”
He does a lot of that. During the winter of 2014, he hosted a pilot for a new series called Mission Possible, which focuses on the stories of athletes with disabilities. He’s also been working on his broadcast career, with contracts under discussion with various networks for college football analysis—his dream job. HBO will be debuting a documentary about his life in the fall, and he’s been contacted by big-time brands for collaborations and commercial deals. June 14 will mark the fourth annual “Walk to Believe” at Rutgers, a fundraiser for the research and treatment of spinal cord injuries that begin as a benefit for Eric.
Plaques, trophies, framed letters, and awards cover every tabletop and nightstand and almost every inch of wall space in Eric’s room, but they don’t even begin to cover the long list of conferences, dinners, events, and ceremonies that he’s attended. His appearances provide him with a paycheck, but also a forum to share his story and raise awareness for spinal cord injuries and the search for cures for paralysis.
He expects the whispers when he enters the room, and he’s used to the people who stand back a few feet from him, hesitant to approach and unsure of how to react. He never writes a speech. He doesn’t need one.
“It’s my story,” he said.