Paralyzed ex-Rutgers player will speak at commencement

Eric LeGrand, paralyzed by a game injury in 2010, was invited to speak at graduation. He wrote that Rutgers "decided to go other ways for political reasons" in its choice of a keynote speaker.
Eric LeGrand, paralyzed by a game injury in 2010, was invited to speak at graduation. He wrote that Rutgers "decided to go other ways for political reasons" in its choice of a keynote speaker. (AP)
Posted: May 08, 2014

Rutgers University's president called former football player Eric LeGrand on Tuesday to apologize for what the university described as a miscommunication that led LeGrand to believe he had been picked as the school's keynote commencement speaker and then had his invitation rescinded.

The school said it had "resolved that miscommunication," and LeGrand will be one of the speakers at the ceremony May 18 in New Brunswick, N.J.

"This was an honest mistake on their part," LeGrand wrote in a statement, "and I am thrilled that I will be joining Gov. Tom Kean as a speaker at the commencement."

"I have only love and respect for Rutgers University," LeGrand posted on his Facebook page Tuesday afternoon.

Rutgers drew criticism Monday evening and Tuesday morning after LeGrand said the speaking opportunity had been offered and withdrawn.

LeGrand, who was paralyzed from a game injury in 2010, said he had been invited over the weekend to speak as Rutgers scrambled to find someone to replace former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who withdrew amid a protest against her selection.

Former Gov. Thomas H. Kean was announced Monday as Rice's replacement.

The university's plan was to have Kean deliver the keynote commencement speech, spokesman Greg Trevor said. LeGrand "would speak as a special representative of the Class of 2014."

Rutgers has had undergraduate speakers in the past, though not in recent years, Trevor said. The addition of LeGrand was "prompted by the change of the last few days," with "everything being in flux."

Rice, who was announced in February as the keynote speaker, withdrew Saturday morning, saying "Rutgers' invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time."

Some students and faculty members had objected to Rice's role in the George W. Bush administration's claims of the existence of weapons of mass destruction to justify war in Iraq. They also accused her of condoning waterboarding. Letters and online petitions were sent, and several dozen students held a sit-in last week in the administration building that houses Rutgers president Robert L. Barchi's office.

The confusion stemmed from a phone call LeGrand said he received Monday from Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann telling him the university had chosen Kean.

A Rutgers athletics spokesman said Hermann was not commenting, deferring to the university statement.

LeGrand, who said he was excited to speak at the graduation ceremony, where he is also to receive his diploma, took to social media Monday night.

"Rutgers offered me the commencement speech this weekend and I was going to accept," according to postings shortly after 10 p.m. on LeGrand's Twitter and Facebook accounts, "but they decided to go other ways for political reasons."

As news spread, so did criticism - State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) released a statement Tuesday calling LeGrand "the quintessential role model and a perfect choice to address Rutgers graduates."

A statement from State Sen. Sandra B. Cunningham (D., Hudson) ended with the same sentence as Sweeney's: "He deserves an explanation."

Barchi called LeGrand to clarify the invitation, inviting him to speak at the ceremony. He also apologized for the miscommunication, Trevor said.

Rutgers released a statement from the president around 1 p.m. "It was never our intention that Eric would be the only speaker," he said. "We have resolved that miscommunication and are delighted to have him participate."

"Eric holds a special place in the hearts of the Class of 2014 and the entire university community," Barchi's statement said. "We are thrilled that he will be joining us on stage to make this special occasion even more memorable."

LeGrand was paralyzed with a severe spinal cord injury from a head-on tackle in a game against Army in October 2010.

He had been told he would be a quadriplegic, breathing with a ventilator for the rest of his life. Weeks after his injury, he was breathing on his own. He began sharing photographs on social media of his physical therapy and slow recovery of some movement and sensation.

The NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed a ceremonial contract with LeGrand in 2012. Rutgers retired his No. 52 jersey in September - the first time the university had retired a number in the 144-year history of Rutgers football.

In a media statement about graduation, LeGrand said: "I look forward to celebrating this incredible milestone with my fellow graduates, the Class of 2014."

LeGrand completed his labor studies degree program in January. The ceremony will take place in High Point Solutions Stadium, where LeGrand once played.


jlai@phillynews.com

856-779-3220 @elaijuh

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