By KATHY CHANG
WOODBRIDGE — As early as the third grade when Eric LeGrand’s mom, Karen, let him cross Homestead Avenue, he remembers hitting homeruns and playing basketball at the neighborhood park across the street in the Avenel section of the township.
Today, the park is named after Eric LeGrand, the Colonia High School graduate and former defensive tackle for the Rutgers University football team, who continues to inspire others after his devastating injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down in 2010 during a football game against Army at Metlife Stadium in East Rutherford.
“It’s such an honor,” said LeGrand, 26, of the decision to rename the park from Fifth District Park to the Eric LeGrand Believe Park.
LeGrand and township officials came together for a dedication ceremony last month. A cake in the shape of LeGrand’s football jersey number 52 was made by Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, Hudson County. The bakery gained popularity as the setting of the TLC television series, “Cake Boss.”
“When mom approached me [about] this whole naming of the park, I was like really?” recalled LeGrand. “As long as I [remember], we would just come here and play games.”
Reflecting back, LeGrand said he and a bunch of friends would hop the park’s fence hitting foul balls into residential backyards.
“Sorry for those houses that I used to hit when I would hit home runs,” he said, bringing laughter from the crowd.
Mayor John McCormac said Ward 3 Councilman Cory Spillar, who lives near the park and is a lifelong resident of Avenel, came to him with the idea.
“It was probably the best idea I’ve heard in 10 years as mayor,” he said. “It was a very easy ‘yes.’”
McCormac said LeGrand inspires all with what he does speaking to those who have suffered similar injuries.
“Eric pursues and perseveres on,” he said. “He has become a remarkable role model, a remarkable inspiration for everybody around the country … we are incredibly proud of what he means to Woodbridge.”
Spillar said nine months ago he was eating dinner with his family, which includes his two daughters Emily and Elizabeth, and they were talking about Frank Pelzman’s Memorial Park in Avenel.
“Emily asked, ‘Why is it called Frank Pelzman Park?’” recalled Spillar, who explained that Pelzman, a longtime councilman and former township mayor, was a great man and he did a lot for the township.
The park, formerly known as Avenel Park, was named after Pelzman in 2006.
Spillar said then his daughter asked for the name of the park up the street.
“It’s called Fifth District Park … it really doesn’t have an identity to it, and I would love to do something with all the development [of the Avenel Arts Center at Station Village] going on,” he told his daughter.
Spillar said his daughter asked, “How about we name it Emily Spillar Memorial Park?”
“I answered, ‘Well, Emily normally when a memorial is attached to your name it means you’re not here anymore,’” he said. “I told [my daughters I want to] name it after someone in Avenel.”
Spillar said almost simultaneously Emily and Elizabeth suggested naming the park after LeGrand.
“It was a touchdown,” he said.
The Eric LeGrand Believe Park will be equipped with handicap-accessible playgrounds, making it the second park in the township to have that feature. The other park is located in the Sewaren section of the township.