NEW YORK (WFAN) -- For the first time ever, Sports Illustrated let fans decide the cover of their year-end issue.
Ballots poured in from 178 countries -- and in the end it wasn't even a contest.
Paralyzed Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand took nearly 30 percent of the first-place vote, beating out a pair of well-known soccer stars and even Derek Jeter himself.
On Thursday, LeGrand told WFAN's Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton that making the cover "was like a dream come true."
The inspirational LeGrand said his mother received word from the magazine on Sunday. She managed to keep it under wraps by turning off his phone -- and hiding it -- so he wouldn't receive any congratulatory texts after SI announced the news Tuesday.
The surprise went off without a hitch. LeGrand wouldn't find out until later that day, after his scheduled interview with Rutgers coach Greg Schiano wrapped up.
"She goes, 'I couldn't find your phone but I found this,' " said LeGrand. "And it was the Sports Illustrated picture, the poster of me. And then everyone from the media, all of Sports Illustrated came in and they just started taking pictures of me."
"So they got me," he admitted. "They tricked me."
LeGrand has been fighting through his rehabilitation since being paralyzed from the neck down at the Meadowlands against Army last October.
He tweeted a picture of himself standing with the assistance of a machine in July. Just last week, LeGrand and his physical therapist at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J., announced that he's able to hold himself upright in the sitting position for around 20 seconds.
"Some people you walk by, they start clapping," said LeGrand. "Some people actually take pictures. It's just like they treat you on a higher level of respect because they know what I'm going through every day of my life just trying to get back on my feet.
"And I really appreciate that I don't get disrespected at all, I don't get looked down upon because I'm in a chair right now. It's just like a higher level of respect that they treat me with. And I really appreciate it all because without them I wouldn't be where I'm at today."
LeGrand has remained positive through it all. He takes college courses via Skype and is a proud member of Rutgers' radio broadcast team.
And there's that day he sees coming when he can revisit the site of his injury, lie down on the exact spot for a moment, then get up and walk away.
Or as he succinctly told Boomer & Carton: "I can't wait to be back on my feet."
Fans can donate to the Eric LeGrand Believe Fund at scarletknights.com/believe.
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