Friday, September 14, 2012

A Sort of Homecoming

Public Service Announcement:  For any and all who want to participate on Sue's Crew IV in the 14th Annual Run For Mom 5K, which will take place at Nomahegan Park in Cranford at 9:00 o'clock on the morning of October 6, even if you have not yet registered on-line get me your t-shirt size TODAY.  The order for our supercool team shirts is being placed by the close of business this very day.   You sign up for the race here.  You can place your request for a team shirt in your size simply by sending me an e-mail or reaching out to me through this very space.  It would be nice to read a friendly comment for a change so....contact away!

Disclaimer:  You may or may not have noticed that the posting time for my little daily doses of silliness is 12:00 a.m.  I assure you that while my alarm clock goes off in the wee small hours of the morning, I am neither awake nor writing anything at midnight.  A magician does not reveal the secrets of his trade for fear that a nightclub's worth of patrons will start checking under tables and in back alleys for his secret catch of rabbits so I shall not disclose just how it is done - although seeing as I finally figured it out, none of you will have any problem doing so.  I mention that for this reason.  As I write this I have no idea whether the Scarlet Knights of the State University of New Jersey shall awaken this morning 3-0 and the proud owners of a road victory over their Big East rivals the USF Bulls or 2-1 and the owners of the first defeat of the Kyle Flood Era.  RU is on my mind these days not for what they are doing this Autumn on the gridiron, which thus far has been quite enjoyable to watch, but for what has transpired on the Raritan's banks in Autumns gone by.

This weekend the rookie head coach of the Tampa Bay Bucs shall bring his NFL team north to play the Giants.  Greg Schiano is no stranger to these parts.  He is a Jersey boy born and raised who twelve years ago took on the Herculean task of making lemonade out of the gigantic lemon that was the Rutgers football program.  He raised the ire of a rather vocal percentage of the fan base when - in late January 2012 - a few days before National Letter of Intent Day - he left RU to accept the aforementioned coaching gig with the Bucs.  In his eleven years at RU they played in six bowl games, winning the last five of them.  They also ended one season - 2006 - and began another - 2007 - ranked in the Top 25.  In my highly unscientific opinion, he did one hell of a job.

I am of the opinion though that Schiano the football coach - in spite of his success - has never been the equal of Schiano the man.  A couple of Septembers ago, I participated in a 5K race on the Rutgers campus, which was organized to raise money for the Cancer Institute of New Jersey.  The race materials advertised Coach Schiano as the M.C. of the morning's festivities and the official race starter.  The race started at 8:30 on a Sunday morning. 

I went to sleep Saturday night close to midnight - having tried in vain to stay awake to watch the end of RU's game at Florida International.  Having seen what time the game ended - in Miami Florida - I did not expect to see Greg Schiano a few short hours later in Piscataway New Jersey serving as the MC for the 5K race.  Yet there he was.  Not only was he there he was ALL there.  He did not mail in the appearance.  He gave all of us a pep talk worthy of halftime on Homecoming.  He honored his commitment. 

In the final couple of years he spent at RU, his name became intertwined with that of Eric LeGrand.  LeGrand - himself a Jersey boy - was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of an injury he suffered while attempting to make a tackle during RU's game v. Army in October 2010.  Rutgers won that afternoon but did not win again the rest of that season and Schiano spent as much time - if not more - in LeGrand's hospital room than he spent anywhere else.

From that day to this one, Eric LeGrand's progress has been nothing short of extraordinary.  Next time you wake up having a sh*t day, spend five minutes or so right here.  An amazing young man.  Simply amazing.  Last week, after Tulane University football player Devon Walker was seriously injured during the Green Wave's game against Tulsa, LeGrand reached out to Walker and his family to offer his support.  RU Coach Kyle Flood did likewise

LeGrand's injury brought an abrupt end to his on-field work for Coach Schiano.  But it did nothing but strengthen the bond between the two men.  Less than one year ago, when Rutgers hosted its (former) rival West Virginia on October's final Saturday, LeGrand led his Scarlet Knights teammates out onto the field.  Did I mention that he did so in the teeth of a Nor'easter - a freak October storm so violent that some towns in New Jersey are still dealing with the damage it caused eleven months later. 

Earlier this year, Coach Schiano telephoned Eric's mother to tell her that on May 2 (LeGrand's RU number was 52) the Bucs were going to sign Eric to a free-agent contract so that he could realize his dream of having been a member of an NFL roster.  Silly sentiment?  Not from Coach Schiano's way of thinking:  This small gesture is the least we could do to recognize his character, spirit and perseverance. The way Eric lives his life epitomizes what we are looking for in Buccaneer MenWhen the Bucs opened training camp in July LeGrand retired from the NFL.  He did not want to leave his teammates one man short on their 90-man roster.  When he announced his retirement, LeGrand said, "Every man counts. I am still a Buccaneer for life, just not as a player."

Sunday afternoon on the very field where his playing career ended, LeGrand will participate in the pre-game coin toss pursuant to an invitation extended by the Giants.  Sunday will mark the first game Greg Schiano has coached at Met Life Stadium since the RU/Army game in which LeGrand was hurt.  The Giants invited him to take part in the coin toss and his mother Karen and him to watch the game as their guests.  His mom - who used to watch him play every week at Rutgers - is making her first trip to Met Life Stadium since that fateful afternoon two Octobers ago.  Coach Schiano is thrilled:   This week, I know the Giants have helped out, and the Giants have provided a place for he and his family to watch the game, which I think is awesome of them.  Just that he can be there and watch with all the familiarity with both teams and all that. It's just a good New Jersey thing, and a good thing overall for football."

Far too often in life, bad things happen to good people.  Every now and again though those who deserve good things realize their dream of attaining them.  Is it luck?  Is it a belief in the power of positive thinking?  I have no idea.  I know though that Greg Schiano and Eric LeGrand are both damn easy men for whom to root.  And I intend to do just that this Sunday afternoon....

....well for the coin toss at least.  The Giants really, really need to win this game.

-AK

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