NFL TEAM SIGNS PARALYZED PLAYER

Eric LeGrand’s football coach at Rutgers helped him emotionally in the months after his on-field paralysis. Now the coach is symbolically helping him realize his dream of making it to the NFL.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, now coached by ex-Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, announced Wednesday they’ve signed the former defensive tackle who was partially paralyzed in a 2010 game to their 90-man off-season roster.

Schiano, who joined the Buccaneers this year after more than a decade with Rutgers, offered the symbolic deal to his former player by phone on Tuesday, LeGrand told reporters in a conference call.

“I said, ‘Are you serious? You want to use this on me?’” LeGrand said. “(Schiano) said, ‘It’s the least we can do.’”

“Honestly, it’s amazing. It really is,” he said.

LeGrand collided with an Army kick returner while making a tackle on October 16, 2010, injuring his spinal cord and leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. At the hospital, medical personnel told him he he’d be a quadriplegic and would need a respirator for the rest of his life.

But LeGrand progressed, breathing on his own after five weeks. He operates a wheelchair, and he’s been able to stand upright with the help of a metal frame. With medical bills paid with donations to two foundations, including Rutgers’ Eric LeGrand Believe Fund, he says his ultimate goal is to walk again. He told SI.com in November that he wanted to return to the spot on the field where he was injured, lie down, and get up and walk away.

He returned to the Rutgers field in his wheelchair twice: on October 29, leading his team onto the gridiron; and on November 19 for Senior Day festivities before the Scarlet Knights’ win against Cincinnati.

LeGrand, who intends to graduate from Rutgers in the fall and hopes to pursue a career in football broadcasting, said Wednesday the signing is only honorary and no money is involved. The team is sending him a helmet and a jersey with his No. 52. He says he’ll be sure to tweet a picture when the items arrive at his New Jersey apartment later this week.

Schiano said that heading into last week’s NFL draft, he “couldn’t help but think that this should’ve been Eric’s draft class.”

“This small gesture is the least we could do to recognize his character, spirit, and perseverance. The way Eric lives his life epitomizes what we are looking for in Buccaneer Men,” Schiano said in a Buccaneers news release Wednesday.

LeGrand had hopes of making it to the NFL as a player. He had 60 tackles 11 for a loss 2.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries in 31 games before his injury as a junior.

He’s not sure whether the Buccaneers will have any non-playing role in mind for him. He says he appreciates the gesture from Schiano, who he says has been “like a father to me.” The coach had talked to him almost weekly, and also keeps in  touch with his family, LeGrand said.

“(Schiano had taught me that) when you’re faced with adversity, to not back down. … He helped me and my whole situation,” LeGrand said.

And now, symbolically at least, he’s following his coach to the pros.

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