Every summer, as the lazy days of vacation dwindle down to a precious few, and the beaches, parks and urban streets are filled with kids enjoying their last days of freedom, a little over one million high school boys begin a tortuous few weeks known as preseason football camp.
For most, it is simply an outlet for their desire to participate in athletics, a rite of passage considered almost a requirement as adolescent males begin the trek to manhood.
But for some it is much more. It is an opportunity for a better future than their parents are inching towards, or that their grandparents are currently mired in. It is a chance for a young man to escape the dismal dust choked coal mine towns of western Pennsylvania and southern West Virginia, or for the equally driven teenager to move beyond the citrus groves of South Florida.
For these young men, being offered one of the 5,000 or so Division I scholarships available each year is akin to you or me finally hitting the lottery.
That so many dreams are riding on the ability of a few hundred college football scouts to correctly predict the potential star ability of hundreds of thousands of players just a few short years removed from puberty, is almost as remarkable as the small number who will actually be singled out to receive a scholarship offer.
And yet, each fall those million or so student athletes who chose to play high school football strap on the shoulder pads and wage war against their cross town rivals. Some on a well manicured artificial surface made possible by the generosity of a successful alumnus, others on a muddy, uneven patch of ground barely recognizable as a football field.
Football in America is as iconic as homemade apple pie cooling on the windowsill of a farm house in Kansas, backyard barbecues on the Fourth of July, or waving the Stars and Stripes as war veterans pass by during Small Town USA’s annual Memorial Day parade. Every boy dreams of scoring the winning touchdown on homecoming day just as every dad has visions of his son busting over the goal line on the last play of the Super Bowl.
The reality, as we know, is that almost all of those high school players will never be the hero lauded at the homecoming dance, and even fewer will make Dad the most popular guy in the office the day after the Super Bowl. And yet, year after year, season after season, the dream lives on. If anything, it grows stronger. Why is that?
The answer is quite simple. America is, and always has been, a country built on dreams. The Founding Fathers dreamt of a republic rising from the wilderness of a new and seemingly limitless continent.
Nineteenth century immigrants imagined their children’s children leaving the coal mines, factories and farmer’s fields for a better life than what had been destined for them. The goals we set for future generations may have changed over the years, but the reasons have not. America, we all believe, is where all dreams, big or small, have at least a viable chance of coming true.
Such a conviction in the belief that all things are possible was undoubtedly the genesis of a dream to play Division I college football by a young man named Eric LeGrand, a defensive tackle at Rutgers University.
Eric, a star player at Colonia High School, a mere fifteen minutes down the road from Rutgers Stadium, chose to play for the Scarlet Knights, much to the delight of family and friends who could easily travel to his home games in Piscataway. LeGrand hasn’t let them down.
Now, in his third year, he has become a friend and mentor to the younger players on the team, an inspiration to the young men who attempt to duplicate his feats on the field at Colonia High, and the bane of any offensive lineman whose job it is to keep him out of the backfield.
Eric’s dream, however, has been reshaped by the hand of fate.
On Saturday, October 16, Eric’s football career, and possibly his life, was diverted from its apparent drive towards stardom.
During a kick-off return Eric, assisting in a tackle, fell awkwardly to the ground, his spine damaged, and his body not responding to his attempts at getting back up. He was rushed to a nearby hospital where he received emergency surgery to stabilize his spine. He remains in the Intensive Care Unit, friends, family, players and coaches by his side.
Life, regardless of how well we plan, of how well we prepare, offers few if any guarantees. It is difficult to know whether Eric would have succeeded playing football at the next level, but I’m certain it was his dream.
I am equally certain that his dream doesn’t have to come to an end. That’s the best quality of dreams. They are kind of like an artist’s lump of clay, being molded and shaped into something beautiful. Clay is added in some areas, taken away in others. So it is with dreams.
Misfortune may have left Eric’s football skills diminished, but that was only part of who he is; a bright, engaging young man, with a charismatic smile, persuasive nature, and a penchant for leadership. Qualities that will serve him well as he carves out, and reshapes his dream.
Asked recently how his time on the Rutgers football team has been progressing, Eric responded, "It is going by really fast. I've been thinking about it lately. It's moving. I have a half-year left and then I have a year left next year, God given, hopefully."
God willing, hopefully, Eric will find the strength to realize his dream may have changed, but it will forever remain his, and he will always have the freedom, love and support to pursue it.