WHEN COLONIA (N.J.) HIGH coach Ben LaSala—an old-school, ass-kicker-but-teddy-bear type—received the news that Rutgers junior defensive tackle Eric LeGrand had been paralyzed from the neck down in an Oct. 16 game against Army, he froze. LaSala will tell you that LeGrand, who graduated from Colonia High in 2008, wasn't simply the best player he's ever coached; he might have been the best kid. LeGrand had been trying to make a tackle and led with his helmet. He collided with a Black Knight's shoulder and fell to the ground, unable to move anything other than his head. "You're 51 years old, you've coached 29 years, you have sons and daughters, you figure there's not a lot you haven't seen," LaSala, whose son Joseph is LeGrand's best friend, said last Friday. "Let me tell you, I had no idea how to react."
Football had been LaSala's life; now the game had betrayed him. Could he continue to coach? "I've thought about it a lot," he told the Newark Star-Ledger that weekend. "I don't even know how I'm going to deal with this." LaSala gave his players the option of taking a break from football. None did. Their coach had a harder time moving on. "I'm crying 20 times a day and I'm not a crier," said LaSala, after nearly losing it again during the tackling drills. "I heard every sound, watched every kid. It was all so magnified. All because of Eric."
In the end LeGrand was the reason LaSala stuck it out. "Football is also what put me into contact with people like Eric," he says, pausing to collect himself, his voice suddenly toneless. "I'm trying to see football's positives outweighing negatives. Does that make sense?"
At the Patriots' homecoming game last Saturday, LaSala and athletic director Ronn Weisenstein wanted to acknowledge LeGrand's injury without diverting too much attention from the kids on the field. "You don't want to ignore it," says Weisenstein. "You also don't want a freak injury, horrible as it was, to become [a referendum] on football."
Before the game, a P.A. announcement was made about LeGrand's injury. (As of Monday, he remained paralyzed.) Most of the 1,500 or so fans wore buttons and rubber bracelets in LeGrand's honor. Like 16,000 other players around the state, the Patriots wore decals of LeGrand's Rutgers number 52 jersey on their helmets. LeGrand's Colonia jersey hung behind the Patriots' sideline. In the stands, parents were palpably nervous. Some prayed. Some held hands. Some took long, hard looks at the 10-foot backboard—the type of plastic stretcher on which LeGrand was taken from the field—jutting out from the back of the fieldside ambulance.
The Patriots beat South Plainfield 28--18; more important, there were no serious injuries. "We were lucky to get that one," LaSala said while walking off the field, unshaven, a Rutgers 52 cap pulled low over his eyes. "This game, it wasn't easy."
He was right. It was uneasy.
WATCHFUL EYE Every hit loomed large for LaSala, who wore a hat honoring LeGrand.