Former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand – who suffered a paralyzing injury on the field during a game – urged the university’s graduating class on Sunday to not let anything hold them back during a heartfelt speech that drew tears from those in attendance.
Speaking from his mechanical wheelchair in sight of his No. 52 jersey – the only number in the history of Rutgers’ football program to be retired – LeGrand recounted his experience laying on the ground of High Point Solutions Stadium during that fateful 2010 game.
The 23-year-old defensive tackle said after he was injured, he could not lift his arm to give the crowd a thumbs up. LeGrand’s family was later told by doctors it would be unlikely that he would be able to move any part of his body below his neck again, The Star-Ledger reports.
LeGrand on Sunday shook his shoulders and leaned toward the cheering crowd as he spoke.
“I'm moving my shoulders here. I'm moving myself forward," LeGrand said, according to The Star-Ledger. "Don't ever let someone tell you you can't do something . . . Anything is truly possible in this world."
LeGrand, a labor relations major, was among the estimated 16,431 graduates in Rutgers’ class of 2014, school officials told The Associated Press. That number includes students from the New Brunswick-Piscataway, Newark and Camden campuses and the former University of Medicine and Dentistry.
But only a few thousand of them attended Sunday’s ceremony and received their diplomas at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway. Most Rutgers students attend smaller graduation ceremonies within their schools and colleges, where they pick up their degrees.
Following LeGrand’s speech, Rutgers President Robert Barchi said former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, the commencement speaker, donated his $35,000 speaking fee back to the university to set up a scholarship fund in LeGrand and the class of 2014’s honor, The Star-Ledger reports.
Kean replaced former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the ceremony. Rice was supposed to give a speech, but pulled out after Rutgers students and faculty protested her involvement in the Iraq War and her role in Bush administration policies.
Rice said she did not want her presence to distract from the graduation, the Star-Ledger reports.
LeGrand also caused a stir when he said he had been asked to replace Rice as the commencement speaker, but Barchi said it was a miscommunication and LeGrand would be the ceremony’s student speaker.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.