This simple word became symbolic almost immediately after the head-on hit that left Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand motionless in a game against Army last October. As family members, coaches, players and fans helplessly watched and prayed for LeGrand, this word came to mean the path back to health.
When LeGrand was taken to Hackensack University Medical Center for emergency spinal surgery, and when he was admitted to the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation for a five-month stay, "Believe" remained a daily motivating factor for not only the immediate Rutgers community, but for college football fans everywhere.
David Tyree was one of them. The former New York Giant, famous for his "helmet catch" in the waning minutes of Super Bowl XLII, grew up in New Jersey and felt a calling to do something.
He did more than just something.
Tyree partnered with a close friend of Eric's, Nelson Diaz, a personal trainer named Brian Pabst, and Nelson's son, Michael Diaz, to form "bELieve 52." Their goal: Compete in the grueling Tough Mudder Competition in Allentown, Pa., to raise funds for Eric LeGrand's recovery.
They borrowed a motto from Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, who said, "If you have a whole football team of Eric LeGrands, you cannot lose." Tyree and his team kept this in mind as they prepared for the April 9 event. Tyree was a fearless competitor on the field, willing to give up his body on multiple occasions to make a special teams tackle, or yes, a certain catch during a Super Bowl winning drive. So he felt during training that the least he could do was sacrifice his body at Tough Mudder-Allentown as a tribute to Eric.
Formed by a Harvard MBA a few years ago, the Tough Mudder series is among the fastest-growing extreme endurance races around the nation. The races range from eight to twelve miles in length, with approximately 20 obstacles ranging from scaling 12-foot walls to crawling and under barbed wire to running through fire/smoke to an electroshock treatment of sorts at the end. That one was Tyree's only worry heading into the challenge.
It's a chilly, April Saturday morning at Bear Creek Mountain Resort, where snow is still present on the ski slopes, but that's not stopping nearly 10,000 competitors who will run the nine-plus mile course of hills, mud, fire, and random obstacles for the right to earn the orange Tough Mudder headband upon finishing (76 percent of those competing would earn it on this day). Team member Brian Pabst has led the training for "bELieve 52" over the previous months, which encompassed multiple strength and conditioning drills, largely without traditional weight-lifting equipment, such as hills workouts, jumps, and 400-meter runs with 45-pound weights. In addition to his daytime job running a non-profit organization, Tyree also trained on a hilly, six-mile loop around his house when not chasing his five children around with his wife.
The team tackles the opening Braveheart challenge run down the slope and scales a steep incline or two before hitting the "boa constrictor" obstacle, a series of long, narrow tubes caked in (surprise!) mud. Tyree and the others slide through only to be greeted with a pool of icy water at the end. While Tyree was not expecting the ice bath, it's the "Red Hot Ice Bath" obstacle that he would later describe as "the worst experience in my life"
Each contestant must eat one red habanera hot pepper without crying, and then jump into a vat of some hot red mess of unknown substance. Welcome to Tough Mudder, where the physical demands of the running, mud, and obstacles are nearly equal to the mental challenge of trying to stay focused and remember why you are running in this race in the first place. (Hint: Don't overthink it.)
While Tyree's natural competitive juices came through, he was also motivated by the sight of Armed Forces veterans with evident battle scars (for whom the Tough Mudder was founded), tackling the same obstacles as he did. Tyree has a sister and brother-in-law with more than 30 years combined of Marines experience.
Trudging through some more swampy mess, canvassing across monkey bars and under/over cargo nets, all while running up and down hills and trails at the resort, is not ordinary cross-training for most people. How about grabbing a random log for a quarter-mile walk/run to add to the day's excitement? Or try your luck at a balance beam that wobbles over waist deep muck? Or a 20-foot jump into freezing water? Should this be added to NFL training camps in the future? "Not if you want to win a Super Bowl," Tyree says later on. "But the mental toughness I could see as a benefit." (Asked to name the Toughest Mudder in the NFL, Tyree thought for a few moments and picked James Harrison of the Steelers because he had the "grind effect" that is necessary for the competition.)
The challenge ends in the spectator's favorite event (and the most feared among the participants): the 10,000-volt "electroshock therapy," where participants run through a gauntlet of electrical wire. The team makes its way through and crosses the finish line, suffering only the customary scrapes and aches that will subside over a few days.
While Team bELieve's goal is achieved on this day, with nearly $4,000 raised, Tyree and team know that it is just a small step in reaching the ultimate goal, which is for Eric LeGrand to race with the team in a similar event.
Encouraging news arrived on March 30, when LeGrand was released from the Kessler Institute to his aunt's residence, while still continuing care at Kessler's outpatient care facility. It's certainly a long, grueling and often frustrating process for Eric, family and friends, but as Tyree and so many others are showing, belief is a powerful force and a team effort.
To donate to the Eric LeGrand Believe Fund, click here.