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Former Rutgers player, now paralyzed, will speak at graduation after all

Former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand, during the ceremony Sept. 14 in which his jersey, No. 52, was retired. (Mel Evans/AP)

A former Rutgers University football player — whose fight to overcome a paralyzing injury has made him a national symbol of perseverance — will address the university’s graduates after all, officials said Tuesday.

Earlier, Eric LeGrand said he had been invited to speak at this year’s Rutgers commencement ceremony but then was disinvited for what he was told were “political reasons.” Former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R) had been announced as the commencement speaker instead.

But on Tuesday, the university said there had been a miscommunication.

It said LeGrand will indeed be a commencement speaker. Just not the commencement speaker.

LeGrand, who will receive his bachelor’s degree at the May 18 ceremony, will instead address the crowd as “a special representative of the Class of 2014.” His talk will come before Kean’s.

LeGrand, through his agent, issued a statement saying he was happy with the outcome.

“This was an honest mistake on their part,” he said, meaning Rutgers. “And I am thrilled that I will be joining Governor Tom Kean as a speaker at the commencement on May 18th.”

That resolution came only after LeGrand had expressed his unhappiness with Rutgers on Twitter late Monday.

“Rutgers offered me the commencement speech this weekend and I was going to accept but they decided to go other ways for political reasons,” he wrote.

Somehow, it appeared, Rutgers had found a way to mishandle its graduation speech twice in one year.

The school had invited former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to give the address. But students and faculty members at the school objected to the choice, and to Rice’s $35,000 fee, because of her role in the Iraq war. On Saturday, Rice withdrew, saying she did not want to be “a distraction for the university community at this very special time.”

That same day, LeGrand told reporters, he got a call from an assistant to Rutgers President Robert Barchi. “They offered me the job to give the commencement speech,” LeGrand told the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press. “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.”

But then, the school’s athletic director called to tell him that Kean had been chosen instead. “I’m very upset about it,” LeGrand told the Asbury Park Press on Monday night.

LeGrand, 23, was a high school football star who played defensive tackle at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. On Oct. 16, 2010, he was paralyzed from the neck down after colliding with another player in a game against Army. Since then, LeGrand has regained movement in his shoulders and started a charity dedicated to raising money for research on spinal-cord injuries. He has also become a motivational speaker.

On Tuesday, LeGrand and the university agreed that his apparent disinvitation had been a misunderstanding. But they disagreed about whose misunderstanding it was. LeGrand’s statement said it was the university that told him the wrong thing. But a Rutgers spokesman, Greg Trevor, said LeGrand had misunderstood what he was being offered.

“When the initial conversation took place, the words ‘commencement’ and ‘speech’ were used together in the same sentence,” Trevor said. “So the conclusion was, ‘Oh, this is the commencement speech,’ as opposed to another form of address to the graduates.”

Trevor called that “an understandable misunderstanding” on the part of LeGrand.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.

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