Eric LeGrand, the paralyzed Rutgers football player, is featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s year-end issue. His return to the field in October was picked as the best moment of 2011.
For the first time in the magazine’s 57-year history, fans made the choice.
LeGrand garnered the most votes from fans in 178 countries and led more than 6,000 users to post comments on Facebook.
The defensive lineman beat out soccer star Lionel Messi, surfer Kelly Slater and New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter.
LeGrand has been undergoing rehabilitation since he was paralyzed from the neck down making a tackle against Army last year.
The cover photograph shows LeGrand in his motorized wheelchair leading his team onto the field against West Virginia. The photo was shot by Associated Press photographer Mel Evans.
According to the New York Daily News, fan bases from around the world mobilized to support their candidates, Sports Illustrated said.
When F.C. Barcelona posted mention of Messi’s candidacy on its Web site and its Facebook page, votes poured in for the Champions League winners from around the world – not just from Spain but also from Syria, Kazakhstan, Peru, Latvia and Indonesia.
Others with a direct stake in the voting results took to Twitter to galvanize their fan bases, including LeGrand, U.S. women’s soccer player Abby Wambach, Slater and Michigan State receiver Keith Nichol (he of the dramatic Hail Mary catch vs. Wisconsin).
Like F.C. Barcelona, Jeter and Clippers forward Blake Griffin alerted fans to their candidacies on their official Facebook pages.
Support for the candidates came from across the sports world (Wambach received Twitter support from many of her U.S. teammates as well as men’s national team mainstay Jozy Altidore) and beyond (musicians Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper tweeted on behalf of Slater).
During the final two days of voting, a surge of support – highlighted by tweets from two of New Jersey’s most prominent politicians, Gov. Chris Christie and Newark mayor Cory Booker – nudged LeGrand over the top.
Since his injury the upbeat LeGrand has used the same digital tools that helped galvanize voters to put his story on the cover to not only survive his injury but also thrive.
“Voice recognition software helps him text and tweet. His wheelchair is Bluetoothed,” Sports Illustrated writes.