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Plenty of New England fans knew the name Greg Schiano long before he would make official his entry into the Patriot universe, ready as he is to move in as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator. And maybe plenty of those fans also know the name Eric LeGrand, a onetime defensive lineman who played for Schiano in one of his earliest coaching incarnations.
But if all you know of Schiano is football and all you know of LeGrand is paralysis, then you only know a part of their story. Because the relationship between the two men says more about the coach about to join this Super Bowl champion staff than anything he will do on the sideline. They have an enduring bond forged through tragedy but cemented by love, a testament to a coach who stood by a recruiting promise made on a New Jersey living room couch, making sure LeGrand fulfilled an NFL dream.
For all the disappointment of Schiano’s abbreviated two-year NFL tenure in Tampa Bay, there is one thing he did unequivocally right: signing the injured LeGrand to an NFL contract.
“I have nothing but praise for him and for everything he’s done in my life,” LeGrand says over the phone, his voice unconstrained by the motorized wheelchair that holds his body, his spirit unbound by the physical limits caused by a fateful tackle.
“He really kept his word with me and treated me like one of his kids, and he wanted me to be a part of that, to have that part of my life to come true. He knew how hard I worked and how bad I wanted to get there, and I can’t thank him enough for that.
“Sometimes he gets the bad rap for everything that happened down there in Tampa, but you live and learn from those things, and I’m so happy for him to get this second chance in the NFL.”
. . .
Once upon a time, before LeGrand would sign and shortly thereafter retire as a Buccaneer, Schiano recruited the young high schooler to play for Rutgers, the state college in the place they both called home, the long-suffering program that Schiano vowed to build into respectability. By 2010, LeGrand’s junior year, Rutgers was a solid Big East team, having risen as high as No. 7 in the nation three years earlier thanks to one memorably shocking upset of then-No. 3 Louisville. It was coming off a fifth straight bowl appearance (and fourth straight win).
In the sixth game of that 2010 season, while making a tackle on special teams, LeGrand suffered a permanent spinal cord injury, leaving him paralyzed from the shoulders down. The effect was catastrophic, on LeGrand and his family most of all, but also on the Rutgers program, which would go on to lose its final six games while thoughts lay not on football but with the player lying in a Hackensack hospital.
Years later, I would learn just how deeply Schiano stood by LeGrand’s side. LeGrand, just 20 years old, was so frightened to be alone. So the Rutgers football community devised a plan, taking shifts to visit the hospital room, there just in case Eric opened his eyes. They would be there to allow his incredible mother Karen to take a few moments of rest.
But those support staff workers did their stints during the day; the overnight shift was reserved for one man. Schiano, aided by a rotation of volunteer drivers, would head the approximately 50 miles north to the hospital each night, working in the car on the phone or in his notepad.
He would sit by Eric’s bedside under the glow of medical machines and his own laptop, staying through the darkest hours until taking a short nap on the ride home. There would be a quick stop at his house to see his wife and children and maybe take a shower, then it was back to the football building to meet with his team. When I talked to Schiano about those weeks for a story I wrote about three years ago, he was hesitant to even discuss it, lest it sound like he was being heroic.
“I didn’t really think about it,” Schiano told me then, when he was working as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, the job he recently left. “That’s what you did.
“There wasn’t a grand plan. You saw Karen just hurting, you know, and so afraid for her son. I felt that way, and it was one of my players. I couldn’t imagine it being my son. I can’t ever remember saying, ‘This is the right thing to do.’ To us it was the only thing to do.
“I’ve often looked back at that year and said I didn’t do a very good job for the team and for the staff,” he went on, his voice cracking. “But I don’t know if I would change it if I could do it over again.
“I’ve thought through it, because I’ve thought, ‘Was it selfish for me to do that, so I could feel like I was helping Eric? I had all the rest of these guys that I was letting down.’ But when I would go into the team meeting and give those guys the update, I knew they needed that, too.”
. . .
Of course, Schiano comes to New England with baggage. The failed two-year tenure in Tampa certainly deserves scrutiny, revealing a hard-headed coach who had trouble connecting with the professionals in his charge, too often treating them like the college kids he’d been coaching for more than a decade.
There was a bizarre turn in the headlines in Tennessee, though that should in no way color this hiring. That was a fan mob that turned on Schiano upon his imminent hiring, waves of false outrage over Schiano’s time at Penn State unjustly accusing him of covering up the child sex abuse crimes of Jerry Sandusky, when really what they objected to was his barely-above-.500 career record at Rutgers, one that smacks of Belichickian genius compared with all the futility before and since.
And there was the weird exit from Ohio State, where Urban Meyer’s tainted exit over his handling of domestic abuse allegations against an assistant coach made it impossible for the reins to be handed to Schiano.
But this move? This makes perfect sense, hiring a college coach who practically ran a feeder program for New England, his players so prepared and so ready for the NFL grind that Belichick loved them all — the McCourty brothers, Duron Harmon, Logan Ryan et al. It was Harmon who told me only recently, Schiano was “still the best coach I ever had to dial up a blitz on third down.”
“That’s true right there,” LeGrand said with a laugh. “Third down, you know we’re coming. We’re coming for you.
“My God, I remember, yes, what it was like to play for him. He made us understand the game. Coach Belichick, when Devin came out, said he was the smartest player he’d ever drafted. Coach always had us prepared.”
Under Brian Flores, the Patriots defense was supremely prepared for this Super Bowl appearance, a defensive game plan for the ages limiting the high-flying Rams to a measly 3 points. Maybe that will be a hard act for Schiano to follow. But that’s just X’s and O’s. He can figure that out. In the game of life, he’s already doing just fine. Just ask Eric LeGrand.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.