Once-Paralyzed Player Circles Back To Aid The Injured

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Last weekend, Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand charged full-speed into an Army player helmet-first, fell, and did not get up. LeGrand is currently paralyzed from the neck down. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Adam Taliaferro, a former football player at Penn State, who was also paralyzed as the result of an injury he sustained on the field. Taliaferro regained mobility and went on to earn a law degree and create a foundation in his name that helps catastrophically injured student athletes with financial and emotional support.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Though NCAA rules prohibit college players from intentionally butting or ramming each other's helmets, the prevalence of injuries from illegal hits is an agonizing reality. Last weekend, Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand charged full-speed into an Army player, helmet first, fell, and did not get up. LeGrand is currently paralyzed from the neck down. The scene on the field was chilling.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

(Soundbite of football game broadcast)

Mr. BOB PICOZZI (Football Announcer): San San Te to kick off. This is a good one. Inside the five, it's Malcolm Brown - ooh, with a great open field hit by Eric LeGrand, who is shaken up on the play.

HANSEN: What follows is almost 30 seconds of silence, as announcers Bob Picozzi and Curt Warner watch, along with the fans in the stadium and the viewers at home, as the situation unfolds on the field below. The stadium is hushed, the players down on their knees on both sidelines. First trainers, then coaches, then doctors cluster around LeGrand.

(Soundbite of football game broadcast)

Mr. PICOZZI: Whoa, if you play on those kickoff teams, Curt, you have sometimes your - you got 40, 50 yards of momentum, running at full speed. And then you initiate the contact by throwing your body in mid-air, sometimes the end result is unfortunate.

HANSEN: Eric LeGrand was taken off the field on a stretcher in a medical cart. Adam Taliaferro, a similar thing happened to you in 2000 when you played for Penn State. Do you remember those moments right after you were hit?

Mr. ADAM TALIAFERRO (Attorney; Former College Football Player, Penn State): I certainly do. I remember hitting the ground and not being able to move anything. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life.

HANSEN: Adam Taliaferro was paralyzed for five months. Now he's a lawyer and an advocate for catastrophically injured athletes. Adam Taliaferro, thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to us today.

Mr. TALIAFERRO: I appreciate you having me.

HANSEN: How are you doing today?

Mr. TALIAFERRO: Things are going well. You know, my injury was 10 years ago, and I had a very similar injury, you know, to what Eric is going through right now. And I've been blessed to have had a great recovery. And we're just hoping and praying for the same with Eric.

HANSEN: Sure. What was it like in those days and weeks following your injury?

Mr. TALIAFERRO: You know, it was a lot of uncertainty. I mean, initially, you know, the doctors gave myself and my parents a lot of bad news. And, you know, they had basically said, you know, I likely won't walk again. And when you hear that, you hear those types of things going around, you really don't know what to think. I mean, from day one, I told myself I'm going to do everything I can to walk again. And I was just blessed to have a great amount of support from just so many people.

HANSEN: Your coach, Joe Paterno, has reached out to the Rutgers coach, Greg Schiano. What advice do you think Paterno is giving him?

Mr. TALIAFERRO: I think, for one, coach is telling him that they need to make sure that they make Eric still feel like he's part of that team. Eric, you know, he's been at Rutgers for three years, and Penn State was great about -they would come visit me every week when I was in the hospital. And I felt like I was still part of that program, and that I felt like they never forgot about me during my entire recovery. And I hope Rutgers does the same exact thing for Eric.

HANSEN: Are you planning to speak with Eric LeGrand?

Mr. TALIAFERRO: I actually hope to see him at the end of next week.

HANSEN: And what are you going to say?

Mr. TALIAFERRO: You know what? I'm going to say: You know, Eric, I've been through a similar injury like yourself. And I just want to be there to say hey, you know, when things aren't going well and you're getting a lot of bad news, that there are stories where people have recovered. And I want to say, hey, I'm no different than you, Eric. And if I can do it, you certainly can, as well.

HANSEN: You were injured 10 years ago, and there have been advances since then and helmets and rule changes and, you know, all kinds of things to protect the players against this horrific kind of injury. It must make your heart sink to see that it's still happening.

Mr. TALIAFERRO: Yeah. You know, you hate to see guys go down. And when they do, you just pray that they get back up. But when it happens and guys don't get back up and they suffer these kinds of injuries, it makes me, you know, just shudder just to think about, you know, this kid's life has changed for the rest of his life. But the unfortunate thing is, you know, this is football. It's a contact sport, and it's an unfortunate part of the game. It's just one of those inherent risks we all know going into the game. We just hope that it never happens to you.

HANSEN: But do you think some kind of limits should be put on, you know, I mean how hard you can hit somebody?

Mr. TALIAFERRO: You know, I honestly think that it's just - you know, football, it is what it is. And you've got a lot of big guys, and strong and fast guys that are running into each other. And it's just, you can try to penalize guys. You don't want guys that are going to intentionally try to hurt anybody, but if you look at my injury, you look at Eric's injury, we were actually the people that were hitting, and there was no malicious intent in any of those hits.

HANSEN: Thank you so much.

Mr. TALIAFERRO: No problem. I appreciate you having me.

HANSEN: Adam Taliaferro is a lawyer and co-creator of the Adam Taliaferro Foundation, which helps catastrophically injured athletes with financial assistance and emotional support. He spoke with us from Miami.

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