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Aug. 12, 2014
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Two of the most inspiring players in the history of Penn State and Rutgers football will be re-united when the schools meet for the first time as Big Ten opponents on Sept. 13 at High Point Solutions Stadium.
Penn State's Adam Taliaferro and Eric LeGrand of Rutgers, forever linked through horrific spinal cord injuries suffered on the field and their courageous recovery efforts that followed, will serve as honorary game captains when the Nittany Lions visit the Scarlet Knights in the opening game of the 119th season of Big Ten Football. Penn State and Rutgers will be meeting for the first time as Big Ten foes. Both players will be on the field for the pre-game coin toss.
"It's going to be pretty cool," said LeGrand, whose No. 52 is the only retired jersey in Rutgers history. "Adam is a role model for me. From meeting him for the first time, seeing him on his feet again when doctors told him he'd never be on his feet, he has really pushed me during my recovery.
"He's still a big inspiration to me."
For Taliaferro, the feeling is mutual.
"For me, it's an absolute honor to share this with Eric," he said. "Eric has inspired me ever since his injury and continues to do so each and every day."
As a true freshman cornerback, Taliaferro suffered a career-ending spinal cord injury making a tackle against Ohio State in a game on Sept. 23, 2000. Paralyzed by the injury when he fractured his 5th cervical vertebrae and bruised his spinal cord, the Voorhees, N.J. native was given a five percent chance by doctors of ever walking again.
He has made a full recovery.
LeGrand was paralyzed while making a tackle on a kickoff against Army at MetLife Stadium on Oct. 16, 2010, fracturing both his C-3 and C-4 cervical vertebrae. Though he remains confined to a wheel chair, paralyzed from the neck down, LeGrand said he has gained some trunk movement and occasionally has sensation in his fingers.
"What makes this so special for me is that Adam was in touch with me from the very beginning," said LeGrand. "I remember when I was first transferred to Kessler Institute; he came to see me the first month and a half. He has been supporting me and encouraging me from the start."
It's LeGrand's relentless determination to walk again that has Taliaferro convinced the Scarlet Knights' former defensive lineman will eventually do so.
"I remember seeing Eric a couple of days after his injury," Taliaferro recalled, "and I remember the first thing he told me is `I'm going to be just like you. I'm going to walk out of this.' For him to still have that same tenacity to this day, as I said, Eric continues to inspire me. I believe in my heart he will get up and walk someday."
LeGrand will also be working as a radio analyst for the Rutgers Radio Network during the Penn State game, doing a pre-game, halftime and post-game report.
A little more than 11 months after his injury, Taliaferro completed one of the major goals he had set soon after the injury. On September 1, 2001, he walked, then skipped and jogged onto the Beaver Stadium turf in front of a jubilant record crowd of more than 109,000, leading the Nittany Lions onto the field against Miami (Fla.).
Taliaferro began taking a full academic course load again at Penn State in the 2001 fall semester while continuing his rehabilitation. In May, 2005 he walked across the stage at the Bryce Jordan Center and was awarded his degree in labor and industrial relations.
A member of the Penn State Board of Trustees, Taliaferro earned his law degree from Rutgers School of Law-Camden in 2008. He works for Bristol Myers Squibb. Taliaferro and LeGrand have both created foundations to help find a cure for paralysis while helping improve the quality of life for people with spinal cord injuries.
Taliaferro created the Adam Taliaferro Foundation in 2001, which provides emotional, financial and education support for student-athletes who suffer head or spinal injuries. The foundation also provides educational and financial support related to the research, prevention and care of spinal injuries. For LeGrand, it is Team LeGrand of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. Rutgers University also established the Believe Fund to assist LeGrand during his recovery efforts.
Scarletknights.com contributed to this story.