In the hours after he said he was offered the chance to deliver the commencement speech at Rutgers University's May 18 commencement, Eric LeGrand had plenty of ideas racing through his head.
All the former Rutgers football player could think about was how he would share his story — and how he has persevered through his paralyzing injury — as a way to inspire his graduating classmates.
"I was just going to tell them my story, about the whole process," LeGrand said. "Starting in 2005, being recruited by Rutgers and what it meant to me to play here and go to school here. And then the way everybody supported me through my injury, I was just going to give inspirational words about how they should attack life. All the things I've learned so far. All the (graduates), they're my age so I was going to try to (say) words they could remember, words that would inspire them to do great things in life."
LeGrand was in Florida on Saturday enjoying dinner when he said his phone buzzed with a number he didn't recognize. He didn't answer it at first, but when the number came across a second time LeGrand answered and he said it was Gregory Jackson, chief of staff for Rutgers President Robert L. Barchi.
"Saturday I get a call from Greg Jackson and they offered me the job to give the commencement speech," LeGrand said. "I was like, 'Wow, thanks for the opportunity,' and he said, 'Let's touch base Monday and talk about it.' So I was telling my friends and my family, everybody was so excited."
LeGrand was in the beginning stages of planning his speech Monday when he said he received a call from Rutgers athletics director Julie Hermann, who he said told him Rutgers officials decided to go in a different direction.
Just before 5 p.m. Monday Rutgers sent a news release announcing that Barchi had named former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean as the keynote speaker at the university graduation ceremony. The announcement came two days after former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opted not to deliver the commencement address amid a string of protests stemming from her role as national security adviser to former President George W. Bush during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"Gov. Kean's career as a public servant, educator and statesman speaks to the civility, integrity and vision that we hope will guide our graduates as they pursue their careers or further their studies," Barchi said in a statement. "Gov. Kean is a national role model as a statesman who built bridges across partisan, racial, ethnic and ideological divides for the sole purpose of improving the quality of life for the people he served. We are honored that he has accepted our invitation to address our graduates."
Barchi consulted with the university's Board of Governors and picked Kean without input from faculty or students, according to Pete McDonough, vice president for public affairs at Rutgers.
"As Dr. Rice was pulling out, Gov. Kean's name emerged rather quickly as a potential speaker," McDonough said. "His name came up, it received general acclaim and Bob just reached out to him. Was there a formal board process? No, but the board leadership was consulted and agreed to it."
LeGrand said he was given no other reason for why school officials apparently decided to go in another direction, adding that multiple attempts to reach Jackson were unsuccessful Monday.
Jackson didn't immediately return a phone and text message left on his cell phone from the Asbury Park Press late Monday night.
"Julie Hermann and (Rutgers football) coach (Kyle) Flood were pushing for me to do it, the whole athletics department was," said LeGrand, who broke the news to his 129,000 Twitter followers Monday night by tweeting: "Rutgers offered me the commencement speech this weekend and I was going to accept but they decided to go other ways for political reasons."
Reached by phone shortly after, LeGrand expressed disappointment.
"I'm very upset about it," he said. "I was all excited all weekend thinking about what I was going to say. It's rough."
LeGrand had his life altered during his junior football campaign, sustaining a paralyzing neck injury while making a head-first tackle in a game against Army on Oct. 16, 2010 at MetLife Stadium. Since then he's become a national celebrity for his "bELieve" attitude in the face of adversity.
In January, LeGrand earned his degree in labor studies to cap six years of determination. Had he given the commencement address, it would've come in the same High Point Solutions Stadium he called home during his collegiate football career, overlooking the No. 52 hanging from high atop a coaching booth.
"I wasn't planning on going (to the graduation ceremony) until they offered me (the speaking duty)," LeGrand said. "I know that President Barchi wants to hand me my degree but now I'm hesitant. I feel like they offered me, and then changed their mind. I don't know why."
Sargeant also writes for the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press.