NEW JERSEY FOOTBALL LEGEND AND PHILANTHROPIC LEADER ERIC LEGRAND SHARES HIS TOUCHING STORY THROUGH HIS NAMESAKE BOURBON
BY ERIK SCHONING PHOTOS BY ALEX BARRETO
An epic comeback is one of sports’ most cherished treasures, and few stories are more moving than Eric LeGrand’s. The former Rutgers football star, who sustained a spinal cord injury at MetLife in October 2010 that left him paralyzed from the neck down, overcame a crushing prognosis, eventually shattering all expectations for his recovery and becoming a motivational speaker, sports analyst, and author, focused on serving as a source of inspiration for anyone who suffers a life-altering injury. Last year, he partnered with liquor industry veteran and longtime friend Brian Axelrod to launch a bourbon that would pay tribute to his story, toughness, and grit: Eric LeGrand Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
LeGrand met Axelrod ten years ago while collaborating on an apparel project, and the two instantly hit it off. Axelrod recalled when LeGrand initially pitched his bourbon idea: “When Eric first approached me about getting into the alcohol space, I thought, ‘You and everybody else!’ [laughs] But I sat on it for a night and woke up the next day knowing it made sense. I told him, as long as there’s a charitable component and we can help some people, let’s do it.”
For every case of Eric LeGrand Kentucky Straight Bourbon sold, the company donates $5.20 to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to finding a cure for spinal cord injuries. The organization was instrumental in helping LeGrand with his recovery process. (The $5.20 is a subtle nod to LeGrand’s jersey number at Rutgers: 52.) In its first year, the company wrote the charity a check for $10,000. As the brand grows, the checks will, too.
Axelrod has over 20 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry, and his list of celebrity brand collaborations include Jay-Z and Conor McGregor.
But when the time came to launch the project with LeGrand, he knew this collaboration would be different. The brand didn’t need any flashy promotions or marketing campaigns; their mission was simply to put Eric’s story on the bottle, one that has become a legendary tale of perspective and perseverance.
“We knew we wanted to name the bourbon after Eric so that we can carry on his story, not only now but forever,” Axelrod said. “As long as that bottle is on a shelf, his story can be told. I figured there’s no need to come up with a gimmick. You can’t get much more authentic than putting his name on the actual bottle. Plus, he has a great last name.”
Bourbon is in many ways the ideal spirit to mirror LeGrand’s journey. Unlike vodka, which can be made and bottled relatively quickly, bourbon requires time and patience. It’s not a drink one can make overnight. LeGrand himself is on a lengthy and complex journey, determined to one day walk again. As Axelrod pointed out, there’s a grit and toughness to bourbon that perfectly matches the name on the bottle.
In 2012, Eric LeGrand was named the most influential person in New Jersey sports by the Star Ledger. The state has demonstrated overwhelming support for LeGrand in the years since his injury, and that support has carried over to his namesake bourbon. The brand is the first spirit company to partner with Rutgers Athletics, LeGrand’s alma mater, and high-end restaurants across the state are incorporating the bourbon into their signature cocktail menus.
“We knew that people would purchase the product to support Eric, but we’re noticing that people are coming back,” Axelrod said. “Retailers are telling us that LeGrand Bourbon is getting several repeat customers. People who bought one bottle are coming back to buy two and three. We want this to be people’s bourbon of choice. We couldn’t be happier with the love that the state of New Jersey has shown us.”
Axelrod believes the most successful star-endorsed spirits are made when the celebrity is heavily involved in the project. In a crowded market, it’s not enough to simply slap a prominent name on a product. Unlike other big-name collaborations, there’s no major distribution group backing Eric LeGrand Bourbon. Behind the scenes, it’s simply Axelrod and LeGrand working as a team, and this attention to detail, they believe, scores big in the finished product.
The two have what Axelrod calls a “true partnership.” They speak every morning, and Axelrod drives to LeGrand’s house to pick him up for sales or partner meetings. From interfacing with customers and distributors to devising marketing plans, the two handle it all. Axelrod attributes their success as a team to the simple fact that they are friends first and partners second. When the day-to-day challenges of business owner – ship inevitably hit, LeGrand’s unique life experience makes him particularly suited to handle any hardship with poise.
“It’s hard to have a bad day,” Axelrod said. “You want to get mad when things go wrong, but then you’re constantly reminded that whatever you’re going through is not so bad. Eric will tell you the same; he will tell you he’s blessed. He’ll say that there are others who are in worse situations than him. So it definitely keeps you grounded and gives you a positive outlook on life.”
This positivity through adversity has been a cornerstone of LeGrand Bourbon from the beginning, an opportunity to share Eric’s story, promote spinal injury research, and celebrate his tenacity and grit. And why not savor a high-end bourbon while you’re at it? If there’s anything to learn from LeGrand’s story, it’s this: life is for living.
Eric LeGrand Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey ericlegrandwhiskey.com