VILLANOVA, Pa. – On Thursday, Feb. 12, Villanova University’s Office of Disability Services presented former Rutgers University football player Eric LeGrand with the Fr. Bill Atkinson, OSA, Humanitarian Award. LeGrand, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury during a game in 2010, has become a major figure in the disability community raising awareness for people of all abilities. In front of a capacity audience in the Villanova Room of the Connelly Center, LeGrand delivered a message of advocacy, awareness, and determination.
Villanova’s Office of Disability Services established the Fr. Bill Atkinson, OSA Humanitarian Award in 2012 to recognize an individual, group, or organization that exemplifies the spirit and service that Fr. Atkinson embodied throughout his life. In the history of the Catholic Church, Fr. Atkinson was the first quadriplegic to be ordained as a priest.
On Oct. 16, 2010, LeGrand suffered a severe spinal cord injury during a game against Army at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. He collided with the ball carrier on a kickoff and lay on the ground for several minutes before being carted off, apparently only able to move his head.
LeGrand fractured his C3 and C4 cervical vertebrae. He was immediately put on a respirator to help him breathe, and doctors informed his mother, Karen LeGrand, that he would more than likely need the aid of the machine to continue breathing for the rest of his life. Doctors also informed her that her son had a suspected 0–5% chance of walking for the rest of his life. The next day when LeGrand woke up, he managed to mouth the words; "I'll be back," to his mother.
Since that time, LeGrand has been – as his Twitter handle describes – “a man on a mission to walk again and trying to inspire as many people as possible along that journey.” He has become a major figure in the disability community raising awareness for people of all abilities. LeGrand has received numerous honors and awards including the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at ESPN’s 2012 ESPY Awards and the Unsung Hero Award by the New Jersey Hall of Fame (2012). He was also named the 2012 Most Influential Person in New Jersey Sports by the Star Ledger. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed LeGrand to a symbolic contract as an undrafted free agent in May 2012. In 2013, Rutgers retired the No. 52 jersey worn by LeGrand – the first number to be retired by Rutgers in the 144-year history of their program.
On May 18, 2014, LeGrand received a degree in labor relations from Rutgers University and was asked to speak to his fellow graduates at Rutgers' spring commencement exercises.