Eric LeGrand (left) Shaquem Griffin (right)Courtesy of Eric LeGrand and Shaquem Griffin
I first saw Eric LeGrand, former defensive tackle, on ESPN being honored at the Espy’s and was a big fan of his outlook and incredible story for years. After we met virtually earlier this year, I reached out to interview him. Days later, Shaquem Griffin’s team reached out. It just seemed like kismet. Here I was, a woman with no knowledge of football, and two men making history in the NFL were suddenly in my midst. I intended to write separate pieces about Eric LeGrand and Shaquem Griffin, their philosophies, work and philanthropy, but after talking to both of them separately and seeing so many powerful common themes in their lives, it became obvious that whether they know each other well or not, they had kindred ideals, that we can all learn from.
Although they are two great men with disabilities contracted to the NFL, their similarities run much deeper. Eric LeGrand and Shaquem Griffin share a spirit of generosity, warrior strong work ethic and a powerful sense of faith and family.
For Eric, it was the foundational support of his mom, aunts, and the friends he’s had since kindergarten in his hometown in Woodbridge, New Jersey. For Shaquem, his brothers, mom and dad, the latter of whom actually trained him for the football field, alongside his famous twin brother, Shaquill in Florida, at UFC and then later, Seattle playing three seasons for the Seahawks.
Shaquem Griffin’s father was coach to both brothers Shaquem and Shaquill, (who up to now had always played for the same teams) but did not treat either brother any differently or hold Shaquem to a different standard, he says about his father’s treatment of the brother's:
“No, we [weren’t] compared, but it was very competitive. He trained the both of us. It was more ‘You’re gonna get everything your brother’s gonna get and you gonna keep up or you’re gonna fall behind’ so it was more of a competitive spirit than anything. And I wasn’t gonna lose.”
Despite fair play at home, Shaquem acknowledges that he was, in fact, treated differently than his peers in the NFL due to his limb difference: “It’s part of business, though. Even when I found my agents, I knew what was at stake, in terms of being drafted or not drafted. Worrying about myself and my goals and what I can do for myself…I went in [with] the knowledge of ‘I’m gonna be judged’ because I’ve been judged my entire life, so go in and turn it into something positive for me. You never gonna know what people are going to say about you until you get there. So the only thing you can do is keep a positive mindset, no matter what you get.”
Shaquem also opened up about why he and his family chose to get his hand and tissues amputated:
“Well for me, [before my amputation] I wasn’t able to play football because I still [had] tissues in my fingers, so it was always considered fragile, whatever I touched or hit on. There was a night when I hit my hand on my bed and my mom stopped me and I needed an operation because the next day, it was removed. My mom told me, don’t put on socks, don’t try to play with your brother, she had to put bandages [on me] and told me I had to wait a certain number of days before I could play. I tried to play football with like 30 bandages and I got in trouble. And I’ve played football since.”
Shaquem continues: “‘My brothers - it was always the four of us. We’re always outside, playing something, two of our friends coming out in the front yard playing so it was like, I didn’t wanna just sit in the house and not play.”
Shaquem anticipated a loss at age four when his hand was amputated, but was in for a surprise: “ I thought that once I had surgery, I wouldn’t be able to play football. I think that was the actual push because even though I lost my hand, I was able to push and do what I do now. So it wasn’t about what I was losing, but what I was gaining.” When we talk about disability, most talk about loss, so it’s fascinating to learn, what did Shaquem gain through amputation? Griffin answers:
“Man, pretty much everything! [laughs] The things I couldn’t do [before amputation] were more of the active things because I didn’t wanna get hit. [My fingers were] only tissue because I didn’t have fully formed fingers and it couldn’t be touched at all until I got [my hand] removed. And the limits [were] unlimited. Whatever I could do, I did it.”
While Shaquem had a limb difference from age four, Eric acquired his disability a little over ten years ago, at the age of twenty. While Shaquem had his parents’ and brother’s influence and love, Eric was nurtured by his mother’s unwavering support.
LeGrand’s book Believe was published in 2013. In it he talks about the constancy of his mother’s support, and he penned a heartfelt letter to her in 2015 in which he says to his mom:
“After my injury [more than] five years ago, you had a choice to make: Either let me figure out things on my own after being paralyzed, or take control of the entire situation and make sure I had the best of everything. You chose the second option, which meant you couldn’t work...You’ve dedicated your life to helping me be great and be the man that I am today, and I cannot thank you enough for everything you’ve done for me.”
What was the experience of going from a non-disabled athlete to a spinal cord injury survivor and wheelchair user?
Eric LeGrand tells Forbes: “The transition from being able bodied to having a spinal cord injury is definitely a drastic change. I never thought about it before. The change makes me appreciate so much more. Being in a wheelchair now opens up my eyes to so much more. The little things matter so much more to me than did from birth till I was 20 years old before my injury because it’s hard going from perfectly able bodied to be in a wheelchair just a wave of emotions but at the same time being thankful for where I am today.”
LeGrand was famously injured on the field mid-game. How does LeGrand think the NFL can make it safer for players?
He says helmets have improved in the last 10 years thanks to specially-engineered padding and injury prevention, “starts in the youth leagues. Getting these coaches certified to coach, testing to be a coach, back when I was growing up anybody could just be a coach and just say “Get out there, run full speed into each other.” Oh no, no, no...you can’t have that. You teach [football players] the proper techniques at a young age.”
A theme prevalent in Eric’s book Believe is loyalty - exemplified by his mother’s aforementioned constant support, his best friend Nate and even his college Alma mater, Rutgers.
LeGrand: “I’m so grateful for the friends I have in my life, friends I’ve had since kindergarten. Extended friends I met at Rutgers and my amazing family. My friends and family are so special. They’re always there for me.”
What advice does Eric LeGrand have for people without a support system? He observes:
“You gotta love yourself because people aren’t always going to be there for you. Even if you don’t have a support system you can love yourself for who you are! You can still continue to do good in this world. Maybe you don’t have support but maybe you have one person or two people. Don’t push them away. Be around those people; support them as they support you. You may not have a mom, you may not have a dad, you may not have a family but you have somebody that influences you, tries to make you a better person, gravitates towards them”
Another support system that Eric credits is his relationship with God:
“I definitely have a greater relationship with God. I always had faith and belief in God and always prayed and things of that nature, but after my injury I really opened myself up to the greatness of God, what he does in people’s lives even if we don’t understand why. But if you do the right things and be a good person there are places I got to go, people that I met, things I got to do are just blessings and goes to show you if you continue to do good in this world and do right by people, God will bless you.”
Shaquem says his faith and prayer is also a “motivator”:
“The way that [Faith has] impacted my career is I found time to sit back and use prayer as a big motivation for me. It was tough in college and my mom and the rest of my family would form a prayer line and pray for me and that really saved me. I felt the power and love and it really inspired me to keep pushing.”
What mantra or advice do these hard-working men have for us and what is the best advice they’ve been given?
Eric LeGrand has been given his fair share of advice: “Being a former athlete you’re always given advice, lessons thrown at you, demands thrown at you.”
There was a time very early on in Eric LeGrand’s football career, when he wanted to hog the ball, but it was short-lived and he learned to be a team-player:
“My coach told me if I don’t block for the other players I’m not gonna be able to score and I wouldn’t get the ball anymore. He taught me a lesson that you can’t just do what you wanna do anymore you gotta do other things to contribute to the team to make the team better and be successful.”
Eric says versatility is important and his advice could easily apply to anyone in business: “Bill Belichick always says the more you can do [on the field] the better it makes you, more useful. If you’re stuck on one thing then that’s it. The more you can do the more people can find ways to use you.”
Yet, when asked what the best advice he ever received is, Eric shares his own:
“[My advice] is [seeking] the peace of mind you get from knowing you gave it your all and you did the best you could do. You should be able to look [at] yourself in the mirror at night, put your head on the pillow at night and say I gave it my all. I did the best that I could give, and only you know if you could have done better; then when you look at yourself in the mirror in the morning you can say ‘Today I’m gonna make it my best day.’ And if you do that day after day, just watch where your life takes you.”
Shaquem Griffin’s advice is also about mindset: “Something in general that I live by, the things I learned over the years, is just knowing that the mindset that you have is solely up to you. You know, you choose what you wanna be, you choose who you wanna be. You know, somebody around you could be doing something negative, somebody around you could be doing something positive. Whatever the situation may be, no matter what you’re going through, you have to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Am I going to be positive today? Or am I going to be negative because something bad happened.’ I think that, for anybody going through something bad, know that you still have that choice. It hasn’t been taken away. If you’re not feeling up to yourself or you're not feeling good, you can change it. There’s always one positive that can come out of anything. You gotta make that mindset and say that it will be positive.”
One way Griffin feeds positivity is giving back. Griffin has teamed up with the Hartford to gift much needed equipment to kids and adults with disabilities. Recently, Griffin zoomed with equipment recipients in Tampa, JT, an 11-year old boy from Tampa with Cerebral Palsy and Samantha, a 33-year old woman with Cerebral Palsy and Hyperacusis. There’s an additional eight adaptive sports clubs who are receiving funds this year from the Hartford, for local youth in communities that will be receiving individual grants.
At the Hartford, “the Ability Equip program provides access to adaptive sports and adapted equipment to use to people and clubs across the country. In the last two years, they’ve donated equipment to over 20,000 members and people affiliated with the adapted sports clubs, who have benefited from our Ability Equip program. We’ve been able to provide equipment grants to twenty adaptive sports clubs across the country which then they can invest their funds into equipment and programming and really elevate the awareness of the adaptive sports movement within the United States.” Shaquem Griffin is their newest spokesperson and is impressed with how long the Hartford has been committed to giving back.
Griffin says: “Hartford has been donating, supporting men, women, and children [with disabilities] for twenty-five years, that’s longer than I’ve been born.”
Eric is also committed to giving back by teaming up with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation: 11th Annual A Walk to Believe Virtual 5K Run, Walk & Roll on June 12th 2021 where “runners, walkers, and rollers of all ages are encouraged to participate virtually in support of Eric LeGrand and the 5.6 million people living with paralysis.” So far he’s raised close to $100,000 dollars.
Eric LeGrand also represents the Rutgers-based Bluespot AI, an accessibility initiative which provides more accessibility details in public spaces than usually available, as LeGrand says, they offer “proper information about restaurants, is there a bathroom, stairs, a ramp?”
I asked both athletes what they would like to be doing in five years time. For Shaquem, he shared he would like to focus on his future as a Linebacker, and see a world where he’s not defined by his limb difference, but defined by the greatness of his play on the field:
“For me, personally, just become a great ball-player but what I want to happen is to create some type of change and create a different viewpoint of me and my arm. Instead of two different things, I want to be viewed as one. I want to be viewed as a person. People saying, “that’s the one-armed football player” - because I’m not separated from anybody else, I’m on the same field with you. So why do I need to be considered as such? As if I’m different? So my goal for the next five years eliminate people saying [I’m] “the one-handed football player.”
This focus is paying off as multiple teams have shown interest in Shaquem most recently according to NFL.com.
Eric says in five years time: “I’d like to become the best speaker and motivator I can, grow my coffee business,”
LeGrand Coffee does not open til later this Summer 2021 in his hometown of Woodbridge, but it’s been performing well online and gotten quite a bit of press. Still, the new coffeehouse entrepreneur admits he only had his first cup of coffee last August. So why would someone who never drank coffee before want to open a coffee shop?
“I wasn’t a coffee drinker but I always love cafés where I would sometimes sit all day. Why not create an atmosphere like that myself?”
Eric says he’s opening his coffee shop because we “need to bring people together and show unity and what better way to do it than over a cup [of] coffee where people come in all shapes and sizes - it doesn’t matter they’re all coming together.” He adds “So many business plans and ideas come together over a cup of coffee so I wanted to be able to create that [environment].”
Last year, Eric LeGrand appeared in Katy Perry’s music video for a song called Resilient whose lyrics are fitting not only for Eric but also for Shaquem Griffin.
“'Cause I am resilient
A full flower moment
Won't let the concrete hold me back, oh no
I am resilient
Born to be brilliant
You'll see me grow right through the cracks, yeah
'Cause you're gonna watch this flower grow
Right through the cracks”
Make no mistake, these two superstar “flowers” are not delicate. They are warriors. For both humble, heart-driven public figures, it seems that their faith, family, and philanthropy are the fertile soil and support that helps them to continue taking action, living life with a sense of service, giving back, growing and flourishing. For most football and disability, are not usually synonymous, but Eric and Shaquem have both changed the game with great heart, tenacity, and soul.