In this Nov. 19, 2011 file photo, paralyzed former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand, center, is greeted by coach Greg Schiano, right, before an NCAA college football game against Cincinnati in Piscataway, N.J. Eric's mother, Karen LeGrand, looks on at left.
TAMPA, Fla. — To put it mildly, Rutgers' Eric LeGrand was surprised when his former coach called to let him know the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were interested in signing the paralyzed defensive tackle.
"It came out of nowhere," LeGrand said Wednesday after the Bucs announced what Greg Schiano described as a "small gesture" to recognize LeGrand's "character, spirit and perseverance."
Schiano left the Scarlet Knights for the Bucs in January, but the first-time NFL head coach has remained in contact with LeGrand and his family.
"It's a symbolic gesture. They can't give me any money with the salary cap and all that kind of stuff," LeGrand said. "It's symbolic, something Coach wanted to do and I appreciate that. It just shows the man that he is."
Schiano telephoned the player's mother Monday night to inform her of his intention, then broke the news to an appreciative LeGrand in a conversation the following afternoon.
"I said, 'Are you serious? You want to do this?' He said: 'It's the least we could do,'" LeGrand said during a conference call from the apartment he shares with his mother in New Jersey. "I said, 'I don't even know what to say to you right now, Coach. This is amazing.'"
LeGrand, who's still undergoing therapy and pursing his college degree, won't be visiting Tampa any time soon.
The Bucs are shipping a No. 52 jersey to LeGrand, along with a helmet and contract. He expects to receive them by the end of week, when he hopes to post pictures on Twitter.
"It's something I always dreamed about, go to the NFL and retire and become a sportscaster," LeGrand said. "Dreams do come true if you really believe. You do the right things in life, good things happen to you. He really just did this out of the kindness of his heart. It's really what he wanted to do. I had no idea this was going to happen."
The defensive tackle broke two vertebrae and suffered a serious spinal cord injury on Oct. 16, 2010, during a kickoff return against Army. He became an inspiration to the Scarlet Knights, eventually being able to stand upright with the help of a metal frame. He resumed his studies via video conferences for the 2011 spring semester and last Oct. 29 led the team onto the field before a game. He also has done some broadcast work for the school.
"The way Eric lives his life epitomizes what we are looking for in Buccaneer Men," Schiano said in a statement released by the Bucs.
The coach said he couldn't help but think about LeGrand while preparing for last week's NFL draft. The player would have been a senior last season and may well have been a selection if hadn't been injured during his junior year.
The player said his mother struggled to keep the news from him after talking to Schiano, eventually letting his sister know.
"That's how she is — she has to tell someone," he said.
LeGrand himself hoped to sleep in before Wednesday's conference call, but when word of the contract began circulating his telephone began ringing off the hook.
Even rapper Lil Wayne weighed in, tweeting: "Today Eric LeGrand was drafted into the NFL. Mark this down as a beautiful day in sports."
LeGrand is on pace to graduate from Rutgers and one day hopes to pursue a career in broadcasting. He said he had not spoken with Schiano about a possible role within the Buccaneers organization in the future.
Meanwhile, he continues therapy and rehabilitation in hopes of defying the odds by walking again. He's at a point now where he can sit up by himself for 15 minutes, "which is a miracle because I'm not supposed to be doing any of this kind of stuff," LeGrand said.
"My goal is to walk. ... I don't know when it's going to happen, but I know down the road it is going to happen," he added, calling Schiano a father figure who has had a profound impact on his life since his arrival at Rutgers, which Schiano transformed from one of college football's worst programs into a consistent winner.
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"When you're faced with adversity ... he's going to make sure you face it front on and deal with whatever the situation is," LeGrand said. "In life you can't control what card you're dealt. You've just got to deal with that card you're dealt. That's helped me in my situation."
Now, Schiano has added another chapter to an inspirational story — one that has touched far more people than if LeGrand had not been injured.
"That was the whole goal. That's what you work for and dream for playing football," LeGrand said. "I wanted to get to the NFL. I believe I had a shot at it, and unfortunately the injury happened. But the fortunate thing is I was able to help a lot more people out there in the world by not playing football than I was when I was actually playing."