Eric LeGrand's voice was strong and true. "I will walk again – no doubt,'' he said. Just out of physical therapy, he was enthused about setting a personal record. For three minutes, 27 seconds, he sat upright after being lifted into position. "This,'' he said, "is a great day.''
Truthfully, every day is a great day for Eric LeGrand, the relentlessly optimistic Rutgers University football player who was paralyzed from the neck down after making a special-teams tackle against Army on Oct. 16, 2010. His determined attempt at recovery has amazed doctors. He has inspired his university and fans worldwide.
And he's probably the biggest reason why Greg Schiano found it difficult to leave Rutgers for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"These are more than just players,'' Schiano said. "These are like my sons.''
Last week, the deal was almost done. For Schiano, everything felt right. He was on the verge of becoming the ninth head coach in Bucs' history. But such a momentous decision called for a family meeting. That's when his four children asked the most difficult question of all.
"What about Eric?''
In 11 seasons, Schiano's core values of trust, belief and accountability were infused into Rutgers' program. He transformed hopelessness into respectability. Over time, people learned about Schiano, the coach.
But in a matter of seconds on Oct. 16, 2010 – the lightning-quick sequence for a frighteningly tragic injury – people began to discover Schiano, the man.
"Before Eric's injury, I knew Coach Schiano, but not really,'' said LeGrand's mother, Karen. "I mean, I knew he was a good person. If he wasn't, I never would've let Eric play there.
"But when this happened, when our lives changed completely, that's when I began to see what he was all about.''
After football practice, Schiano spent every night at the hospital, often relieving LeGrand's mother, so she could sleep. He'd set up camp at the bedside, keeping the conversation going, working on his laptop when needed. Someone from Rutgers' staff was there around the clock. Schiano arranged for the best doctors, the best care, the best rehabilitation facilities.
"Whatever we needed, Coach Schiano was there,'' LeGrand's mother said. "He made a really devastating situation just a little bit easier. He means the absolute world to us.''
On Thursday, when news broke that Schiano was headed to the NFL, LeGrand and his mother were stunned. It stung a bit.
"But you can't deny that it's a great opportunity for him,'' LeGrand said. "He is Rutgers football to me. He's always going to be my coach. That's true forever.''
LeGrand, at his peak a 270-pound defensive lineman who could squat 605 pounds, said he's the same person as always.
"I haven't changed at all, I just can't walk right now,'' said LeGrand, speaking through his Bluetooth, unable to stifle his laughter at the irony.
When he's not in therapy as an outpatient at the Kessler Institute in West Orange, N.J., or finishing his degree requirements on Skype, he's hanging out with his girlfriend or going to the movies. He's omnipresent on his voice-activated Twitter and Facebook accounts. "I'm always on the go,'' LeGrand said. Next weekend, he will attend Super Bowl XLVI with a friend who's able to manage his needs.
"I'm neutral, just looking for a good game,'' LeGrand said. "I'm a Denver fan. I'm a Tebow guy.''
Then LeGrand offered this:
"Oh, did you know that I'm famous?''
He really is.
When he violently collided with an Army kick returner, his spinal cord was damaged and his C3 and C4 vertebrae broken. He struggled to breathe. He wanted to give a thumbs-up, but couldn't raise his thumb. Doctors put him on a respirator and predicted he would need it for the rest of his life. The chances of ever walking again: Between 0 and 5 percent.
LeGrand's mother still remembers the first words he mouthed to her.
"I'll be back.''
Now he's off the respirator. He can move his head and shoulders. He can stand with support for up to 40 minutes. His back muscles are gaining strength. At Kessler, snug in a harness, he's lowered onto a treadmill, his feet just touching the conveyor belt. Therapists move his legs to simulate walking, essentially retraining his nervous system.
Last Oct. 29, in the middle of a snowstorm, LeGrand led the Rutgers team onto the field against West Virginia. He was in his $40,000 motorized wheelchair, controlled by a mouthpiece. He wore his No. 52 jersey. In his lap, he carried an ax, a symbol of Schiano's "keep chopping'' mantra.
In a Sports Illustrated fan poll, it was selected as the top sports moment of 2011. So there was Eric LeGrand, famous forever, on the SI cover.
"That was nothing but fitting,'' Schiano said. "Everything that he's up against, having such an incredible attitude, he's such an inspiration. His situation was the single hardest thing I've gone through as a man, forget being a football coach. Eric has taught me a lot. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about what I believe.''
LeGrand's mother knows she's fighting a losing cause, but she believes Schiano belongs in college football.
"I know it's all a great thing for Coach Schiano and his family, but I guess I'm still a little bit heartbroken,'' she said. "He's such an influence on Eric. He turned him from a boy into a man.
"I told Coach Schiano, 'That's why I'm upset you're going to the NFL. Those guys are grown already. They don't need you. College kids need you.' I guess we're just going to miss him being around.''
LeGrand and his mother live in a two-bedroom, ground-floor accessible apartment in Woodbridge, N.J., about a mile from their home, which is being rebuilt. It will have a special bathroom, his own exercise room and a separate area to accommodate the flood of memorabilia, cards, posters and souvenirs sent from around the world.
For five months, he lived at Kessler, where he saw people with no visitors, no friends and very little hope.
"How can I feel bad about myself?'' LeGrand said. "I've got so many people on my side. I've seen other people who have nothing. I feel like I have a lot. I feel this happened for a reason, maybe so I could give hope to others.
"You don't want to be 21, going to therapy every day, not able to walk. But that's where I am. So I'm fighting back. Coach Schiano taught me to always keep fighting.''
Schiano said he will bring LeGrand to Tampa next season for a Bucs game. Asked if there might be a place for LeGrand in the Bucs' organization, Schiano paused, smiled and said, "I never thought about it. Who knows what's down the road?''
LeGrand has bigger dreams.
He will again lead Rutgers onto the field, but not in a wheelchair, only when he can walk through the tunnel himself.
He will also return to Giants Stadium, the site of his injury. He will lay down on the field where the collision occurred. Then he will get up and walk to the sideline.
"Coach Schiano is going to be there waiting for me,'' LeGrand said. "I'm going to shake his hand and give him a hug. It doesn't matter so much that you got knocked down. It's all about how you get up. Like Coach Schiano always says, you've got to keep chopping.''