"I beat him out on this," LeGrand said of Messi, "and now when I get better, I have to beat him out on the pitch."
In a year filled with dark scandals and sordid tales, the story of Eric LeGrand serves as a stark but uplifting reminder that sport still maintains the power to galvanize and inspire.
"Being chosen [as one of nominees], I thought that was crazy,'' LeGrand said while accepting the award at a news conference on Dec. 20. "And then my name started trending on Twitter and Facebook, I thought, 'Wow, I have a chance to win this thing."
The cover photograph shows LeGrand leading the Scarlet Knights onto their home field before a game against West Virginia on a snowy Oct. 29, one full year after sustaining an injury that doctors predicted would result in a lifetime of breathing on a respirator. Sitting in his motorized wheelchair and flanked by two of his best friends, teammates Khaseem Greene and Scott Vallone, LeGrand lights up the SI cover with his beaming grin and an axe in hand that symbolizes Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano's insistence that his players "keep chopping."
"I remember thinking about how cold I was going to be at first. But then as soon as I came out, I think my adrenaline just went rushing. I was happy just to hear everybody cheering, and it didn't even feel like that snow was there," said LeGrand, who was not going to be denied the chance to support his teammates.
"This is my team. This is my senior year," LeGrand told reporters. "This chair wasn't going to hold me back."
Fourteen months after being on the wrong side of life's collision course, LeGrand has made significant strides in his rehabilitation while also launching a burgeoning broadcasting career with the Rutgers Radio Network.
"I look back at that and just see where I am today, it's crazy," LeGrand said. "I would have never thought that I'd be driving around here at Yankee Stadium, just the way I am and being normal just like I was before."
Earlier this month, LeGrand once again defied the odds by sitting up on his own for 23 straight seconds. Most would bask in the glory of achieving a challenging accomplishment. Needless to say, most aren't LeGrand, who plans to stop at nothing in pursuit of his goals.
'I'll go to Giants Stadium [the venue at which he was injured] and find the exact spot on the field where I went down,' LeGrand told SI's Jon Wertheim in October. 'I'll lie there for a second. And then I'll get up on my own power and walk away."
As he continues to work in hopes of regaining that power, LeGrand continues to support the teammates with whom he used to play.
Still donning his No. 52 jersey, LeGrand was on hand for Rutgers' 27-13 win over the Iowa State Cyclones in the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Friday.
After receiving the glass championship trophy following the Scarlet Knights' triumph, coach Schiano looked up and pointed toward the press box.
"Eric! Eric!," Schiano shouted into the microphone at midfield. "This one's for you."
LeGrand, by any metric other than those shown on a stat sheet, has never really left the Rutgers football program. Such is only fitting for a man that, above all else, has demonstrated that some of sports' greatest lessons are learned outside the lines.
"That's our brother before and after the injury, and that's how we're going to treat him forever," Greene said. "Just having his presence around, it's amazing. He makes the locker room glow."
With his award-winning smile, of course.