Last month, Eric LeGrand came to visit at Weehawken High School. The paralyzed Rutgers football standout gave an upbeat and positive presentation to the students in the high school auditorium.
Every year in June, ever since he was injured on the turf at MetLife Stadium, never to walk again, LeGrand has held his “A Walk to Believe” on the campus of Rutgers University to raise money for a host of different organizations that help in the treatment and research of people stricken with spinal cord injuries.
The event was first held to raise money for LeGrand’s hospital costs, but since 2011, it has been held to raise funds for other charitable organizations with LeGrand in the forefront. This year, there was a five-kilometer walk as well as a competitive 5K run.
LeGrand made such an impression on the Weehawken students during his visit that they asked around and wanted to help LeGrand’s cause.
Weehawken Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Zywicki, a Rutgers graduate and a big football fan, first reached out to LeGrand to see if he wanted to speak to the students. He graciously accepted the invitation.
Then, it was Weehawken’s turn to give back.
“We threw it out there to see if our students would be interested in doing the walk,” Zywicki said. “There wasn’t enough time for the students to do any fundraising for the walk, so they were going to just participate. But we were bringing together two groups, our football team and our Peer Leadership group.”
The Peer Leadership coordinator is Christine Mantineo. The football team is guided by a brand new coach and athletic director in Nick DeStefano. The Weehawken school district paid for the bus as well as the entrance fee for all participants. There were 19 football players and 20 from Peer Leadership who volunteered to spend their Sunday last week participating in the walk and representing Weehawken.
There were a few more teachers who went to act as chaperones, so it was a healthy contingent from a small community such as Weehawken.
“Eric was very inspirational when he came here,” said DeStefano, who just began his dual duties in Weehawken a few weeks ago. “The kids have been talking about him since he was here. So we rallied this group together. It was only my fourth day on the job, so it was helpful to me to get to know the kids more. I thought it was a great turnout. We had the football team in uniform and Peer Leadership wearing special T-shirts. I think a lot of people were impressed with the way they behaved and acted in public.”
Not to mention the combination of two student groups who do not necessarily go together. This wasn’t exactly peanut butter and jelly getting on that bus.
“We were really excited to go,” said senior Grace Denfield, who is the student president of Peer Leadership. “This may have been the first time I got to see the football team outside of school. But being able to see this come together was really exciting and really special. It was amazing to be able to do it on such short notice. But we were able to pull it off. I was so proud with the way we represented Weehawken.”
Denfield is headed to Richard Stockton University in the fall with the eventual hope of becoming an occupational therapist.
“I think both groups did a great job,” Denfield said.
Denfield said that she was impressed with the amount of people who have disabilities taking part in the walk.
“It was great to see so many people with disabilities walking and having good time,” Denfield said. “It was amazing. It was definitely a good feeling to be able to help.”
Shane Epstein-Petrullo agrees with Denfield. He’s a freshman on the football team.
“Eric was a really inspiring person to listen to,” Epstein-Petrullo said. “I know he’ll have a lasting impact on me. He makes you want to be a hero like him. It was awesome. He came to us, so then we went to him.”
It was also special that LeGrand took the time to greet the Weehawken students after the walk and shared some ice cream with the students.
“It was really special,” Epstein-Petrullo said. “It was also great to interact with our new football coach. We got to know him better. It was a great feeling to know that we were all doing something to help the good cause.”
Sophomore Angel Carrillo is another football player who went to participate in the walk.
“Just going to Rutgers and seeing Eric again meant so much to me,” Carrillo said. “His speech to us made everyone get so pumped up. He made everyone feel so alive and positive. The whole Rutgers experience was amazing. It made me want to go to Rutgers. It was great that we all got along with the Peer Leadership members. We got along well and had fun.”
And the students went out of their way on a rainy Sunday afternoon to help a good cause. It could be the beginning of a great relationship between a former college football star and a budding high school football team. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com