Jay Paterno: Rutgers' LeGrand Needs 'Positive Belief' to Fight Back as Taliaferro Did
This past weekend saw some dramatic and tragic collisions on the football fields of the NFL and the NCAA. None more jarring than the injury that paralyzed Rutgers student-athlete Eric LeGrand.
I have never met Eric or his family. But it wasn’t that long ago when our student-athlete Adam Taliaferro suffered a similar catastrophic injury. As a team and coaching staff we felt the same pain and confusion being felt at Rutgers.
Serious neck injuries take on much bigger dimensions than other career-ending injuries. They have potentially life-altering consequences.
As a coach -- these injuries shake your foundations. You think back to the young man before the injury: the speed, agility, and skills. Images of him bouncing around a practice field or playing in games linger.
You question everything you do. You lose sleep wondering why we coach and encourage young men to play such a violent and sometimes dangerous game. For weeks, every time a play ends and someone is slow to get up, a knot forms in your stomach.
Football is a physical game and efforts have been made to try and reduce the danger, but it is still there. Some complain, saying, This is football; it is a part of the game. But at the collegiate and high school levels the players are young men with their whole lives ahead of them. We should do all we can so they do not emerge scarred or changed.
Six years ago an injured Michael Robinson was put on a backboard, his neck immobilized. He was taken off the field in an ambulance. Recalling Adam’s injury -- it was a scary sight. But after being cleared, Michael pleaded to play a week earlier than the doctors really wanted him to.
I reminded him, “This is your BRAIN we’re talking about. A knee can be fixed; a shoulder can be mended. But your brain cannot; your spinal column cannot.” Michael waited another week. He was fortunate enough to play again and continues to play now in the NFL. Others are not so lucky.
Seeing a photo of Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano with Eric’s mother made me recall the responsibility coaches have to these young men and their families. In the moment captured in the photo, the pain is visibly etched in their faces.
It brought to mind recruiting conversations with Adam Taliaferro’s parents Andre and Addie. Addie confessed that she never watched his high school games because she didn’t want to see him get hurt. She’d sit in the car outside and follow the game by listening to the announcer.
It was a conversation that kept coming back to us after Adam’s injury.
What hurts is that there is no going back. In a world of many second chances it is hard for human nature to accept points of no return.
But acceptance is where sorrow yields and we begin to forge the strength needed for life’s new reality.
Shortly after Adam’s injury we visited him in the hospital. Adam’s father met us downstairs and instructed us to steel ourselves, to hide the shock and sadness we might feel when we saw him. He wanted nothing but positive energy to flow from us.
It took all we had to stay positive seeing Adam in bed unable to move. He could see and hear us and respond. It was still a shock to us, but we managed to keep our promise to Andre.
I told him: “Adam, no play you could have ever made will bring the crowd to their feet like they will when you lead the team onto the field next fall.”
Outside of the room athletic director Tim Curley asked about Adam’s chances of walking again. The doctor put the odds at one in ten thousand.
Andre Taliaferro smiled and said, “That’s okay Doc; my son is one in a million.”
What I do know is that Eric’s recovery will take the power of positive belief from himself, his family, his teammates, his hometown and the entire Rutgers University community. That support will make the difference.
Less than a year after Adam’s injury he led the team out of the tunnel to the loudest ovation I’ve ever heard. He broke into a playful jog, his face smiling for the world to share.
At the same time, more than 400 miles away, a close friend was seated in a sports bar near Fenway Park after a Red Sox-Yankees game. Fans from both teams were there. As the Penn State game came on the television screens the bar went silent as everyone stopped to watch Adam come out of the tunnel. Most of the normally hard-boiled Yankee-Red Sox fans had tears in their eyes.
This young man had touched so many, his moment shared by people he knew and many more he’d never met. Somehow we were all better for having witnessed that moment of seeing hope realized.
From Penn State to Eric, his family, his team and the Rutgers community, we are pulling for you and will be watching for your moment.