Martin Fennelly Columns
Schiano orchestrates best Bucs signing ever in LeGrand
TAMPA - There are bad football stories. Four New Orleans Saints players were suspended by the NFL on Wednesday for participation in a bounty program. Jonathan Vilma has been suspended for the entire 2012 season. There are sad football stories. Future Hall of Famer Junior Seau is dead, apparently by his own hand.But there was also a good football story Wednesday. Once upon a time it was sad, but now it's good, as good as it gets. Former Rutgers player Eric LeGrand is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. The Bucs have signed him as an undrafted college free agent. LeGrand will wear No. 52, his college number. LeGrand said the contract, a Bucs jersey and helmet were on the way to his New Jersey home. And Greg Schiano is his coach again. "It just shows you the kind of man he is," Eric LeGrand said. Schiano said what he did was the least he could do. That's not true at all. It was a wonderful roster move, a symbolic gesture, yes, but a beautiful thing. It spoke a bond that will always be there. LeGrand won't be at Bucs rookie minicamp this weekend. He is grinding nonetheless. "I practice my sitting up, too," he said. "I'm up to 15 minutes, sitting by myself, which is a miracle. I'm not supposed to be doing any of this stuff." Eric LeGrand's life changed on Oct. 16, 2010, after he made a hit in a Rutgers game and didn't get up. He fractured two vertebrae and lay paralyzed. He was placed on a respirator. Doctors thought he'd be on it the rest of his life. Greg Schiano's life changed, too. He all but slept by LeGrand's hospital bed, night after night. He helped LeGrand get the best care, the best everything. He told him to keep working, just like he always told him on the football field. Before and even during the draft, Schiano thought about LeGrand, about his spirit, determination and character, which is just what he wants in everyone he coaches. And so now it is done: Eric LeGrand, Buccaneer Man. "That was always my goal in life, to get to the NFL," LeGrand said in a conference call. He lives with his mother in a New Jersey apartment while their home is renovated (torn down and rebuilt, really) to make it wheelchair accessible. LeGrand works every day, as if his new life was a football game, constant therapy and rehabilitation. He has come so far. He also has become a national inspiration. He is standing with help. He is sitting. He's quick to thank his coach, whom he sees as a father figure. "It's hard sometimes when you want to feed yourself, or you have an itch and you want to scratch yourself," LeGrand said. "But then you think about all the kinds of stuff I was taught at Rutgers, to just kind of fight through it. Tough times don't last, but tough people do." It was still hard watching the NFL draft. He kept thinking that this was his draft year, it maybe could have been his night, his name getting called, him walking across that stage in New York. "When I was watching the draft, everything just came down on me," LeGrand said at a news conference at Rutgers. "This was what I've dreamed about since I was 5 years old." Guess what? His name got called anyway — by Greg Schiano, who, when you think about it, had never really stopped being his coach. Eric LeGrand says his new house, underwritten by donations, "is kind of like a dream house for my mom." He hopes that it's ready by Christmas. Well, Christmas came early. With all the bad and sad, there are still good things going on in the house of man. This is one. "My goal is to walk," LeGrand said. "I know it's going to happen." It's the best signing in Bucs history, if you ask me.