This week has been a rough one for the NFL.
Former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide, raising more questions about the effects of playing football. Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended four players, including a season-long ban for New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, for their alleged roles in a "bounty program." As the NFL Players Association filed a grievance after announcing plans for a vigorous defense, former quarterback and current NFL Network broadcaster said he'd prefer that his sons not play football.
But a heartwarming event occurred in the midst of all that negativity (even if the reason is a bit depressing). New Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano signed one of his former players, Eric LeGrand, to a contract with the Buccaneers. Though the move was symbolic — LeGrand has been paralyzed since suffering an injury during a Rutgers game on Oct. 16, 2010 — it helped highlight the player's remarkable, inspirational story.
"Leading up to the draft, I couldn't help but think that this should've been Eric's draft class," Schiano said in a release by the Bucs. "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."
Doctors initially told LeGrand that he likely would spend his life as a quadriplegic and on a ventilator. But he was breathing on his own within five weeks of the injury. He returned to the football field a little more than a year after his injury — on Oct. 29 of last year — and in his motorized wheelchair led the Scarlet Knights out of the tunnel. That earned him the cover of Sports Illustrated's year-end issue after fans voted his return as "Moment of the Year."
Since then, LeGrand has worked as a broadcaster on Rutgers games, delivered inspirational messages (such as a visit to the New York Jets training camp), received a book deal from HarperCollins Publishing and signed with sports marketing giant IMG. But the contract from the Bucs caught him by surprise.
"It came out of nowhere," LeGrand said during a conference call Wednesday. "Coach Schiano called my mom on Monday night, but he didn't tell me until Tuesday around 1 o'clock, and I was like, 'Are you serious?' He said, 'It's the least we could do,' and I was like, 'I don't even know what to say right now.' It was always my dream to go to the NFL, retire and become a sportscaster, so dreams really do come true."
LeGrand will receive a jersey with his college number (52), although he won't receive any paychecks because there's no money involved in his contract. Nonetheless, Schiano's thoughtful gesture and LeGrand's encouraging attitude were welcome pick-me-ups in a hellish week for the NFL.