LEWISBURG, Pa. (STATS) – Robert Naylor isn’t jumping up and down when he emerges from the home tunnel. He isn’t signaling to the crowd to rise to its feet. He isn’t preparing to break into a run or sprint through a paper banner to bombastically announce the beginning of a new Bucknell football season.
Not far from him, the near-empty visitors’ bleachers are set behind the home locker room entrance of Christy Mathewson-Memorial Stadium. They ramp out into an overlooking brick campus mingling with towering oaks and the occasional surviving centuries-old elm of Bucknell Grove. The campus is as he left it. It only recently started feeling like that again.
He still isn’t as it left him.
His teammates aren’t smacking him on the helmet. In fact, he isn’t even certain of where his helmet is or how it was last removed – cut? clamped and carefully slid off? – yet he is a rostered member of the Bucknell Bison football team. The players aren’t pushing each other. There’s no yelling to pump each other up. They’re orderly, maybe somber, many with their heads tilted toward turf.
This might be the tamest team entrance in the history of college football, subdued even for the civilized Patriot League, where tailgates consist of the occasional Corona surrounded by family and fellow alums rather than underclassmen in trucker hats funneling Keystone Light from the top of a van.
As the tailgates are packed, food is covered in cellophane and returned to the cooler. Bottles of expensive liquor gleaming in the sunlight are placed in bags nearly as full as they were opened two hours prior.
It might be one of the tamest entrances in the history of college football, but as the team begins to move toward the artificial turf, the crowd, still sparse as kickoff approaches, rises. The noise that follows is puzzling to those unaware of the circumstances. Working outward from below the centrally located press box, the countable crowd rises as the PA announcer begins to explain the significance of the event.
The fans – orange and navy and neutral – don’t let him.
Naylor is front and center, arms locked between teammates Julie’n Davenport and Louis Taglianetti in descending height. The game starts in three minutes, but Naylor isn’t wearing shoulder pads. That equipment, along with his playing jersey, was cut off his body last Nov. 1.
His attire is as close to pleated as padded: knee-length navy Bucknell athletic shorts and matching mid-shin socks, black Adidas shoes. His gray three-quarter length shirt clings to his upper arms under a new navy jersey with an orange No. 95 – still his No. 95.
His upper body isn’t what it used to be, but also isn’t what it was nine months ago. The crowd sees him leading Bucknell from the tunnel, angling onto the field from the open north end zone, and rises to its feet – because he is on his. It cheers because Robert Naylor is walking.
His face is too young to go through this, but he’s smiling. By appearance, he’s not even close to crying. He almost looks cocky, as if he’ll just go ahead and play without all that gear. Hell, it didn’t do him a great deal of good last time, and, because of that, this is likely his last moment in the spotlight.
Mentally, he’s going through the sequence of what is still required by his right foot to take a step – “extend it, lift the front a little, hit the heel, roll over, onto the toes, push off” – and his left leg subtly buckles at the knee when he comes down on it. His long brown hair extends well down his neck and sifts with the movements. The labored walk is not overly noticeable unless you’re looking for it. It’s anything but fluid, but it could be mistaken as consciously trying to keep a fluid pace with those he’s linked to.
A middle-age woman standing on the track behind the north end zone speaks up, asks what everyone else seems to know.
“Why’s that guy in front?”
It’s a valid question. He looks prominent in a puzzling way. He looks too young to be alumni. He clearly is not a coach. A younger guy responds.
“He’s the guy who got messed up.”
Robert Naylor’s story is about why someone might want to prepare for next season after getting messed up – prepare for next season, that is, when next season isn’t physically possible.
Downtown Lewisburg is quiet even on a Saturday night after one of Bucknell’s more promising football teams in recent years wins its opener. Football isn’t huge here. While not really good enough in any sport to be labeled “a (insert-best-sport-here) school,” fandom and talent lean more heavily toward basketball. Sojka Pavilion seats 4,000 and sells out with a rough mix of maybe 50 percent of the student population and what would be about a third of Lewisburg’s residents. The football stadium seats 13,100 and just topped out shy of 5,000 for a 17-0 win over Marist.
Nationally, most people have heard of Bucknell because it knocked off Kansas in the 2005 NCAA Tournament as a No. 14 seed and has made three return trips since. The 10-year anniversary of that win was this past season, and the game was shown at the Campus Theatre, a single-screen Art Deco with a proper vintage marquee on downtown’s Market Street. It’s just one of the streets Robert Naylor and Bobby Kaslander used to walk together.
The two met through football as freshmen. As sophomores, they joined Sigma Chi. They’ve overlapped the occasional class, despite conflicting majors: Robert, English; Bobby, political science and economics. Until Nov. 1 – a few months into their junior year – they spent their days together.
“I was always with him,” Kaslander said. “Last year, we would go through fraternity stuff together. We were always at football together. We’d always walk to the fraternity house together, go eat dinner there. That’s what it was like every day.”
On this Saturday, the two college bars are crowded and saving the neighborhood from an otherwise prudish likeness. There’s a colonial feel to it – porch swings with fresh paint, pillars ascending on white houses of blue trim. It isn’t kitten cute because it’s too grown up. The Taco Bell on the outskirts of downtown closes at 10 p.m. – people here seem to have it together.
The campus feels like a setting Holden Caulfield would grumble about but admit to missing after he left. Of the 3,600 undergraduate students, only 200 are permitted to live off campus. The school isn’t a part of the downtown area, but the two are adjacent. The campus is a self-contained arboretum, and mid-fall here must be like a polychromatic snow-in.
Farther east on Market toward the composed West Branch Susquehanna River, at the Smiling Chameleon – a quiet bar nearing close – a local who didn’t attend the game or the school knows the name Robert Naylor. Lewisburg is a borough of fewer than 6,000, not including the Bucknell enrollment. The way the local, Brent, describes Lewisburg fandom sounds like a kind of tug-o-war between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which makes sense given its location.
Follow the wide, occasionally sinuous Susquehanna south, and Harrisburg is just over a 60-mile drive on US-15. Williamsport, Hershey and, farther south, Gettysburg, are higher on the touristy Central Pennsylvania totem pole than Lewisburg. But the town is not without history. The Underground Railroad passed through here. Christy Mathewson played baseball and football here before his Hall of Fame career on the diamond. The Gentleman’s Hurler is an accurate embodiment of the place, and he’s buried in Lewisburg Cemetery, which unavoidably neighbors Bucknell and adds a cryptic layer to the campus’ brick buildings with off-white trim.
It’s Patriot League in the way people who haven’t seen Patriot League envision it. But there was no great Civil War battle or address, and underprivileged kids from Chicago don’t come here to play Little League. Chocolate isn’t paying any mortgages.
Go east from Lewisburg and Mount Bethel is a little over 100 miles on I-80. This is where Naylor spent part of his adolescence and attended Bangor Area High School, gaining attention from Bucknell and much of the Patriot League.
But that’s only part of it.
He lived in Wassenaar, the northern neighbor of The Hague in the Netherlands until he was 10, born to a Dutch mother and English father. He originally played soccer, but his body grew out of it and into rugby. He credits soccer with helping produce the footwork that made him a recruiting target of Bison coach Joe Susan for his defensive line.
That footwork is all gone. For awhile, any type of footwork was all gone. That’s what happens when you suffer a C3-4 vertebrae disc herniation that injures the spinal cord: paralysis below the neck.
His family’s opinions of American football don’t line up with the not-uncommon European perception that leans more toward it being – well – ridiculous and barbaric. Objectively speaking, if you saw what happened Nov. 1 against Lafayette, you’d feel that way too. Yet there still seems to be no ill will toward the sport.
His maternal grandparents are surprisingly slight for the lineage of a 6-foot-4, once-260-pound defensive lineman, and are atypical of the common perception of towering Dutch ancestry. They have flown in for the Labor Day weekend game against Marist to see him lead the team out in person. It’s the first time they’ve been to the States in more than five years.
His grandfather watched Naylor’s last game live from the Netherlands and wondered as his grandson lay on the field motionless thousands of miles away. Naylor’s parents were at the game.
At first, David Naylor didn’t think it was his son down on a play that stopped the clock with 11:44 remaining in the fourth quarter. He swore he saw Robert walk away from it.
A friend convinced him otherwise.
Then, when David Naylor made it to the field, a motionless Robert was slightly agitated. Robert requested that a hand that laid across his face be moved, as it was smothering a large section of the only part of his body he could feel. It was reasonable to want it out of the way.
But there was something plainly unreasonable about it to a father who not many years prior grew used to his seventh-grade son tackling him upon returning from work.
David Naylor’s heart might as well have also hit the turf: “It was his own hand.”
Robert Naylor came to, heavily concussed, aware he couldn’t feel anything below his neck, and he distinctly remembers his first thought – the same one any generative 20-year-old college male would have upon feeling… well, no feeling.
“The first thought I had was explicit,” said Naylor, who lay motionless as teammate Terry Bennett attempted to tug him up by the right shoulder pad before realizing something was wrong.
“At first, I wanted to get up. I was laying on my side looking at my hand, and I was like, ‘What’s going on right now?’ It felt like my arms and legs were in the air, like a dog would if it’s playing dead. I was bent all over. My body was contorted in a weird way.”
He hasn’t watched the play, in part because he remembers it well enough, including each moment leading up to it.
“It’s the only thing I thought about for three weeks.”
Bucknell trailed 21-17, and Naylor was on the sideline. He was joking with teammates, looked into the stands, waved at friends, then heard his name and strapped up.
“They were in a hurry-up situation. I got in a two-point stance. I fired into the guard. He left me or I pushed him back enough to be able to make a move off of him. I saw the running back kind of made a cut, tried to go full speed into him, right through him. I guess someone took out my legs.
“I flipped over. In the air, I tried to roll over, which I think kind of saved me because I was about to land on the top of my head. They say I kind of curled up my neck, so I assume that’s what happened, and I was trying to roll over it, so I’m sure that kind of helped in the big picture because if it would have snapped, I would have been done-zo.
“That’s a scary thought.”
Naylor pursued on a running play up the middle from left to right. The back was taken down around the line of scrimmage just before Naylor got there. Naylor went over the top, landing directly on his head on the other side of the downed runner, his immediately limp body twisted into a curled arch over the top of the pile.
The pile cleared, partly from under him, and Naylor’s body lifelessly slumped onto its left side on the turf, his right arm and leg flopping over in front of him before Bennett approached and signaled to the sideline.
Head athletic trainer Mark Keppler was the first to respond, and brushed off Naylor’s persistent questions about mid-body functionality. After repeated request, Keppler won’t discuss the injury.
Naylor was transported to Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, the nearest Level 1 trauma center. When admitted, Dr. Fred Hess, Naylor’s orthopedic spine surgeon, assessed a large C3-4 disc herniation in his neck, injuring the spinal cord. There wasn’t a fracture or anything hopeless such as complete spinal sever, but when someone is admitted with no motor function or sensation below the neck, it’s treated with austere expectations.
“The initial thoughts are this patient’s probably going to remain paralyzed,” said Hess, who estimates he deals with a half dozen cases of this severity annually.
The outlook changed some as subtle sensations returned later that night, so the surgery wasn’t performed for two days. The operation – a C3-4 anterior cervical discectomy and fusion – was done to alleviate pressure from the spinal cord by moving the disc.
Naylor took the first round of bad news reasonably.
“They told me straight away, ‘You’ll never play football again,’ which is hard to hear, but you lay there, and you’re like, ‘Obviously.’”
Coming out of surgery and being told he could be in a wheelchair for 12-18 months and possibly never regain use of his hands wasn’t as easy to accept. He still had eye-black on his face from the game.
“That was my first anxiety attack.”
He spent 10 days at Geisinger thinking about his fate. The play took about two seconds. In two seconds, Robert Naylor went from what Hess calls a high-functioning level athlete to a 20-year-old immobile body falling into immediate and drastic muscular atrophy.
“If you take away the innervation to something, it’s going to disappear,” Hess said. “How well does your phone work if it’s not getting a signal? It doesn’t work at all. That’s going to happen to muscles. If it’s not getting anything, it’s not going to respond to anything, it’s going to atrophy fairly quickly, and that’s obviously much more apparent in a high-functioning level athlete.”
But there were subtle positives in those days. That initial unanswered question he had for his trainer while down on the field? Four days into his stay at Geisinger – two days after surgery – his body spoke up. The hospital staff was looking especially good that day.
Bucknell blocks a field goal on Marist’s first possession, and there’s plenty of sideline excitement. Offensive players run on. Special teams runs off. Robert Naylor, who has been on his feet since walking out and joining the captains for the coin toss, moves forward more slowly. Naylor occasionally runs a hand through his near shoulder-length brown hair. He sometimes seems uncertain of what to do with his hands, but that’s preferable to being uncertain of how to move them.
To his surgeon, this is about the best-case scenario.
“We’re talking about a high-functioning level athlete who’s had a pretty miraculous recovery,” Hess said. “He’s basically – short of returning to full participation, full-contact sport stuff – he can do pretty much anything he wants. He’s gained almost all that back.”
But to Robert, this time last year he was a rotation player on the defensive line. Not a standout, but he played in every game and was a contributor to an impressive defense. Now, after having his 2014 fall semester cut short and missing the spring, he’s back in school, and he’s on the football team. He attends practice every day, filming or helping with the defensive line. He’s taking it seriously. Earlier, he cut a phone call short to make sure he got to the team’s walk-through on time. The defense – which will go on to hold Marist to 161 yards of total offense – doesn’t seem to miss him on the field.
He misses it.
“I was pumped up to play, but I know that’s not going to happen,” Naylor said after walking onto the field on game day for the first time since the injury. “I was just happy to be with the guys.”
He remains standing, and the sun is setting behind him from over the northwest corner of the stadium. He’s one of the taller guys on the near sideline, and his shadow stretches out onto the field. Even 10 months into what figures to be an 18-month nerve-repair period, it could be argued his body looks more like he’s been in the gym with the team all offseason than in physical therapy learning to move his hands and arms, stretch, stand, step, walk, drive.
There’s something a little eerie about all this as Naylor stands there. He – and most likely every person in the stadium – is unaware that across the Patriot League, Georgetown linebacker Ty Williams is receiving medical care for a severe neck injury suffered in the Hoyas’ opening loss to St. Francis of Pennsylvania. Williams may never be lucky enough to again cast such an elongated shadow. Or maybe he will. Naylor knows the feeling of that kind of doubt.
“When everything works right and people recover, it’s awesome,” Hess said. “But the reality is, that’s usually not the situation.”
Bucknell coach Joe Susan didn’t mention what kind of late-fall day it was because those aren’t the details that stick when sitting bedside at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, New Jersey, feeding a 20-year-old, 6-foot-4 football player eggs and bacon.
It was still November, and Robert Naylor had been transferred out of Geisinger. He was still immobile and his weight was in rapid decline as he began an inpatient stint at one of the top rehabilitation facilities on the East Coast. In 10 days, he went from 260 pounds to 230.
“It was humiliating,” Naylor said of being fed by his coach.
Susan’s kids are 31, 29 and 27, so it had been awhile since he’d spooned anyone a meal.
“You have this picture of this big strapping guy, and then this,” Susan said.
In 38 years coaching football, Susan hadn’t seen anything like “this” firsthand, but he had been to Kessler before. Prior to taking the job in Lewisburg, Susan was an assistant at Rutgers. He recruited a defensive lineman named Eric LeGrand and got to know him from his freshman year in high school. As a junior at Rutgers, LeGrand suffered a fracture in the same location of the neck as Naylor, which was Susan’s first year at Bucknell.
LeGrand has since made a name for himself as something of a spokesman for spinal cord injuries, albeit from a wheelchair for life. Naylor met him at Kessler.
“He got into my head about what I need to get ready for,” Naylor said. “… He has it worse than me and he’s taken it much better.”
When Robert went down, Susan walked onto the field like a coach often does multiple times a game to tend to an injury. When he saw how the training staff was handling him, he knew he was dealing with something else. Thoughts of the paralyzed fate of a former recruit came back.
“The events afterward were… You have that uncertainty of whether or not he’s going to make it,” Susan said. “Number two, if he makes it, how much of him will remain?”
With that in mind, Susan gave Naylor the last word before he was loaded into the ambulance. The final interaction Naylor had on the field before he was transported to the hospital was with his coach, who asked him what he wanted relayed to the team. Naylor says he responded, “Don’t tell them anything. Just win the game.”
It turns out they remember it a little differently.
Susan’s version of his defensive lineman’s last line: “Just win the (insert the best of expletives) game.”
It’s stated in a way that implies selflessness. It’s also something many who haven’t played football, or don’t place a high level of importance on its outcome relative to personal health, might assess as sadly myopic in the immediate face of a life-changing injury: a kid too enamored by sport to quantify what just happened. Yet it’s tough not to be intrigued by such a level of dedication when nightmarish anxiety seems the more sane response.
It’s even more intriguing in the case of Naylor, whose personal depth is more complex than that linear end zone-to-end zone mentality.
Naylor looks the part of the football player physically, even now as his body comes back, but beyond that, the 21-year-old doesn’t fit any traditional stigma. He’s an English major with a creative writing concentration who speaks of the possibilities of fiction. He’s most at peace reading. His college experience is layered, almost conflicting. His coach, unprompted, describes him as quiet. But he’s also in a fraternity. He takes poetry classes, fiction workshops. He’s back to working on his dancing armed with the world’s greatest excuse if the results are terrible. He’s bilingual. He’s at once a jock at an Emily Dickinson poetry slam and Jonathan Franzen in shoulder pads. This seems only to add to the bewilderment of his steadfast football dedication following the injury.
He has options. Why continue on the same path he’s chosen to maintain given that he’s now returned to school and has so much more he’s interested in and can pursue without limitation? Without football, he can finally get caught up on the full two semesters of academics he lost. He can begin writing that book he plans to pen about this experience.
One thing is certain: Naylor isn’t in denial about the situation. He’s well aware walking onto a field is about as much of a return as he’s going to make to football as a player, aside from possibly jogging out of a tunnel one day. He hasn’t necessarily been raised to cling to anything. He’s moved his whole life and adapted to making new friends. He’s not a scholarship player fulfilling some token requirement to continue earning aid – football scholarships weren’t offered until the year after he arrived, so he has no obligation.
He changed sports – soccer to rugby to football – as his growing body and changing environment dictated. The one thing many people in his situation might be most afraid to leave – a relationship with a significant other, someone to lean on – ended while he was inpatient at Kessler.
“I guess I’m not like most people in this regard, but I looked internally toward my problems, sort of isolating anything that was happening around me.”
He’s also introspective about his level of involvement with the team and wonders if he’s choosing poorly on how to use his time.
“I’ll second-guess it a lot. You see the normal kids at school in class, they have so much more time to do the work.”
He cannot play football ever again, yet he is on a football team. Why not continue that evolution and leave football behind the way he seems accepting of transitioning out of other parts of his life? To explain this, he comes back to the way his teammates and coaches treated him and continue to treat him when his function as a football player ceased to exist.
He feels as though he owes them the same. Loyalty, it seems, is a two-way street, and in some ways this elucidates what Susan calls a football brotherhood – less foolhardy machismo than sincere bond.
When Susan spoke of this in a one-on-one in his tidy office the Sunday after defeating Marist, it bordered on sounding like a clichéd, militaristic, even shortsighted take on just one way relationships are formed.
“What’s unique is I’ve been at this 38 years,” Susan said. “There’s guys that are 53 years old that still call me coach. There’s guys that are 86 that I still call coach. It’s a bond that you create way beyond the field. Only guys that have played understand.”
Any number of ways, this has been said before by many a football lifer with a shaved head and a strong jaw. Susan said it wasn’t something people outside of football could understand. He’s right. It is very difficult to comprehend why one wants to remain on a football team when one is unable to actually play football. Worse, to those outside the game, it can come across as solipsistic: Most people, regardless of their football experience, are lucky enough to have relationships with deep personal bonds, and shoulder pads and two-a-days have no part in that backstory.
But when Naylor came to explain the same idea through his own rationale, depth of character jumped from his mouth and gave credence and prudence to Susan’s words. It’s about living a normal life, one of free will despite limited motion, a college life with all of the uncompromised layers Naylor intended when he chose to come play for Susan in 2012.
Most people can’t quantify the value of regularity in the way Naylor can because it hasn’t been taken from them. It’s about working back to making personal choices and lifestyle decisions of which his body threatened to rob him. It’s about sacrificing a lot to concede very little.
“There’s no reason for me to leave the guys I’ve been with for four years of my schooling, four years of my life. To just abandon them after this? There’s no way. I don’t care if it seems like I’m wasting time.”
Some people like film. Some like fishing. Robert Naylor, among other things, likes football, and he saw no reason to give it up, so returning to football became part of the plan.
“I wish I could be on the football team for the rest of my life,” he says with an endearing smirk that seems to recognize the impracticality of Neverland. “I wish I could play for the rest of my life. My cleats have been taken, but that doesn’t mean I have to leave the team.”
For Naylor, it’s also about retaining personal standards in seeing things through to, in this case, his physical limits, the same way he seeks completion in the rest of his life. He’s acutely aware of the thanklessness of what he’s doing. He’s putting as much time into it as he was as an on-field player. But this is what he knows and prefers. This is how normalcy is restored. And even as a quiet English major who might not quite fit the paramount description of the football brotherhood, he sees quitting, even under the most understandable of circumstances, as a kind of character flaw: Quit one thing and it becomes much easier to quit everything else.
As for Susan, he seems to be focused on creating an environment where relationships matter without needing to always go as far as linking them to winning. He knows what it’s like to be left behind. In high school, Susan had eight FBS offers as a lineman of roughly the same size as Naylor. He severely dislocated his knee, spent a month in the hospital with a blood clot, dropped from 260 to 190, and the calls ended. He was tutored at home for the rest of that semester, was eventually recruited by schools similar to Bucknell, and ended up playing at Delaware.
The abandonment was one thing, but something also changed with his high school teammates.
“When you’re sitting out, that locker room you go back to is different for you,” Susan said. “The psychology of the injured athlete as it relates to being part of the group, that’s hard. There’s nothing that replaces the locker room.”
It seems he’s tried to handle that differently as a coach, and he’s backed it up with his response to the worst injury he’s handled to date. In the hours Susan could have spent recruiting, trying to put together a better team for years to come, or watching film in the hope of getting an upper hand and securing his own job, he sat there and fed a man who he knew would be of no use to him on a football field ever again.
Susan didn’t appear at Kessler just once. He wasn’t in front of reporters building a facade like a campaigning politician. He went alone. He went back. He went back again. His players visited. His players’ parents visited.
That was the community of which Naylor wanted to remain a part.
Bucknell won the game he was injured in with a field goal in overtime.
“I’ve seen the kick of the winning field goal, and that just sends chills down my spine. I get emotional – really emotional – when I see that play.”
The following 10 months of his life were dedicated to getting back, even if his level of inclusion on game day had a much lower ceiling.
Kessler served as inspiration for Robert Naylor – inspiration and a hellish, unacceptable reality he wanted no part of. It started with two weeks of depression, little progress and a certain amount of self-pity. The latter receded when he was wheeled into a shared therapy room with 15-20 other patients.
“The first day was very hard because you think you have it the worst,” he said. “I’m paralyzed from the neck down. I have to have it the worst. … Then you get wheeled into that room.
“You try not to scan. You try to be polite, but you want to get a scope of what’s going on, and then you see some people who do have it worse than you. They’re older. They got shot. They got in a car accident, but it wasn’t easy going into that group.
“The people working there are great. The facilities are fantastic for getting the rehab done, but seeing everyone around you, the first day reaction was, ‘Man, I cannot believe I am here right now. This shouldn’t be where I am.’”
He spent time with Eric LeGrand and plenty others who had it worse than him with far less hope, cut and dried circumstances and lives of complete immobility. He had physical therapists and psychologists who dragged him out of his funk. Mobility came in teaspoons, first with his torso, being able to wiggle his shoulders, his legs, a subtle squeeze of nothing but air with his left hand. It took three weeks to really move his fingers.
“The small movements became bigger movements. I couldn’t move my arm at first, then I could inch it up my leg, could start picking it up, and eventually I got strong enough to keep it in the air.”
It was suggested Naylor remain inpatient at Kessler for roughly two months, which would put him at a mid-January return to his parents’ house. He eyed returning home for Christmas and beginning an outpatient routine at Kessler, an hour drive from Mount Bethel. That goal seemed impossible after a slow start, but he met it and left Kessler in 6 1/2 weeks on his feet, leaning nearly all of his weight into his “granny walker.”
“It was inches, then stopping. I just had to get home for my peace of mind. It meant a lot to be doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing.”
He made something of an unhealthy habit of reassuring himself that way, and the process of getting on his feet wasn’t quite the linear progression one might expect. No one was around the first time Robert Naylor walked without assistance, and it was actually while inpatient, alone in his room, somewhere from five to six weeks after the injury.
His motivation for that initial solo jaunt was a little more basic: He was sick of being unable to use the bathroom on his own. He was not supposed to be walking, nor did he know if he could actually do it. But the guy had to pee. And he didn’t want to pee with anyone. Reasonable, but maybe not so much for someone a little over a month removed from the whole paralysis thing.
Wearing a hospital gown with an open back, he forced himself to the side of his bed, got his feet down, shuffled in a squatted position, “like a duck walk.” If he fell, he knew he’d be reduced to calling for help, possibly unable to cover himself. He used the walls, and the five- to 10-yard trip, maybe a three-second walk normally, took minutes. Finally, he made it. The attempt was rebellious; the result reassuring.
“I’m 20 years old and I was using a catheter. That’s not acceptable,” Naylor joked. “I did my thing, got back in my bed, thought, ‘OK, I just walked. That was pretty cool.’ But it was very scary because I knew if I fell I wouldn’t be able to get up. But I just knew if I could do it at that point, I was going to be OK. I got yelled at, but at that time it was hard to care.”
There was an added step to the walk back. He saw himself in the mirror. He saw himself in the mirror for the first time, a standing portrait, and the atrophy was alarming, a part of his identity gone.
“I remember feeling happy about it until looking in the mirror at myself. It was the first time I saw my own body. No muscles, right to the bone. … It was a moment of happiness, followed with despair. I hadn’t seen how the injury had physically affected me until that moment.”
Even after he was fighting from his feet, shuffling along support bars in therapy or with a walker or later on crutches, anxiety rolled in and out. The more he progressed, the more he beat that back. Not long after getting to his parents’ house, he got rid of the walker. About a month after that, he did away with one of the crutches. The last time he used his crutches – in his third month of recovery – he handed one to his sister. They jousted.
In the third month after the injury, he was walking without equipment’s assistance. He was falling plenty, bracing himself against something and sliding to the ground even more.
“One time I was standing by my closet. I just pulled my door too fast or something. Enough of my weight had gone back and I just fell. Whenever there was enough weight on one leg or if I was leaning forward too far, I would fall. You’re not supposed to fall. Insurance companies don’t like that.”
He could walk down stairs using only walls and railings. He was going to Kessler’s outpatient program three days a week for one hour of physical therapy and one of occupational. The family reordered its collective life to get him there until he passed a required driving test.
Naylor remembers the first time he drove in his last month of outpatient, March, but mostly he remembers the sound – the freedom to drive alone and listen to his own music. The first album he listened to alone in the car was Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” because it reminded him of the previous year. Unsurprisingly for Naylor, the album itself follows a concrete narrative.
“It was such a relief. My sister plays the worst music. My mom plays her classical. Then my dad would play Irish – I call it Irish crack music because it’s country music on crack.”
These events were inspired by a need for independence. The first times Robert returned to Bucknell in the spring, the feeling was different, almost purgatorial. Now armed with core physical functionality through a combination of sheer will and dumb luck, he was ready for some of that focus to push outward, to reestablish the social ties that make college “college” and solder the fraternal football bonds that Joe Susan spoke so passionately about.
“There were people who just didn’t recognize me – people I know. They would just walk right past me.”
But this ghost was finally nearing its walk back to the other side.
Marist prepares to punt with 11:56 left in the second quarter, and Robert Naylor stands next to a sitting Troy Glenn, helping him readjust his right shoulder pad. The sun has gone down behind the home stands, and Naylor’s shadow along the sideline – as well as his spotlight – are now gone. The two casually joke about something, and Naylor taps the bottom of his closed fist on Glenn’s right shoulder as if to say “all set.”
The stadium has filled in some behind him, and the crowd is focused on a punt sailing over Bobby Kaslander’s head toward the seatless south end zone, the grandstand consumed by finely trimmed hedges that in block letters spell out “BUCKNELL” and span the width of the field.
Naylor returned for a spring football game, and after the initial relief of seeing him out of a hospital bed, the reality of the sluggish scale of progress set in for Joe Susan. The coach was a psychology major who wrote papers on the psyche of the injured football player after suffering his own life-changing setback.
“When I first saw him walk in, in my mind I said, ‘This is great, he’s walking,’” Susan said. “The next time I saw him, I said, ‘That’s not really walking.’ That’s what gets you. Your mind can play tricks on you. It wants what you want, but it’s not always reality.”
Naylor kept progressing, finding his own ways to reprogram his physical self to get past all that. When the insurance funding ran out for outpatient, his sister, Stephanie, 23 and working on licensing to be a personal trainer, made him take the dog on two-mile walks – a day-ending event. He started doing yoga, adding to a list of bisecting character traits. Rather than just being a shoulder-pad-wearing, Dutch-speaking, Shakespeare-reading member of Sigma Chi, Robert Naylor became a shoulder-pad-wearing, Dutch-speaking, Shakespeare-reading member of Sigma Chi who knew how to transition out of downward facing dog into warrior pose – without being able to adequately move his toes.
On May 26, he turned 21 and got a beer with his dad in Mount Bethel. He’s candid about how he drew that night up pre-Nov. 1.
“I envisioned not remembering it before my injury,” he said, adding that those priorities have changed.
His opinions on football, however, have not. If his own kids want to play, they’ll be allowed.
“But there’s also some money in golf.”
The summer passed with him using bands and occasionally weights, stretching, walking, attempting to jog. His goals in the coming months are to be able to get to a point where he can play pick-up basketball and run fluidly.
“It’s not pretty,” Naylor said of recent attempts.
As Naylor prepared to return to school, the stumbles were gone, the driving was coming more easily, but the first day of camp in early August was the hardest it’s been football-wise.
“Everyone was strapping up their helmets and getting ready to go. That feeling’s not there for me. It was hard. … I’ve come to terms with what’s happened to me, and I’m just happy to be along. This is enough now.”
It also wasn’t easy on his body. He was trying to stay on the field initially and help with the defensive line, which was too much. Susan and the staff gave him a camera, and his main role now is filming practice when nine months ago holding one – even pointing at one – was out of the question.
Now, a few weeks into the semester, his routine is back. Normalcy is growing in and taking over like branching nerve endings, roads connecting parts of his body that had been cut off from each other.
There’s more progress to make. According to Dr. Hess, the window of nerve repair can stretch out 18 months, sometimes even longer, before someone realizes their full potential. That gives Naylor hope to push everything further and attain less conscious movement. Even after just a game on the sideline, there’s a physical toll.
“Right now, I’m always sore. I’m always tired. It’s not back to normal. Things are trying to fire that aren’t there.”
A Marist player fails to down the punt before the goal line. Naylor moves two green water bottles aside and sits down for the first time since what’s left of his college football career reached what figures to be its comeback pinnacle. Later tonight, he’ll go to a party and show off the terrible dance moves he’s been working on. Next week, he’ll continue on with his routine – class, confusing girls as the 6-4 football player answers questions about the implementation of American beliefs into works of contemporary fiction, football practice, back to his room for a shower, then off to dinner at Sigma Chi with Kaslander.
In two days, Naylor will find out about Georgetown’s Ty Williams. The two were 130 miles apart when Williams’ injury occurred. The feeling will be much closer. It will make Naylor realize he may always have a powerful reaction to such news, that no time or distance removed from his own experience can numb that.
Naylor’s last full game was against the Hoyas and their then-sophomore linebacker on Oct. 25.
“It was a very hard moment,” Naylor will say in the coming days after taking the initiative to reach out and address the injury unprompted. “All emotions I thought had been buried down had suddenly rushed to me. … This is the hardest part of it all. Every day only gets easier.”
Once things settle for Williams, Naylor plans to try to meet him. He doesn’t know exactly what that will entail – possibly offering support or motivation in the way people like Eric LeGrand did for him – but it seems Naylor simply walking into a room at a place like Kessler would be the best he could offer. For now, he’s following the protocol of what he remembers wanting in the immediate aftermath: family and close friends only, definitely no media.
Williams is due to leave the ICU and move to a rehabilitation center this week, according to The Hoya, Georgetown’s student newspaper. Hopefully, 10 months down the road, a surgeon like Dr. Fred Hess is talking about another recovery – one that results in two players who once walked off the same field as healthy strangers sharing a moment walking back on.
An official moves toward the Bucknell 25-yard line to place the ball. Kaslander, a wide receiver and return man, stays on the field for the offensive series. The periphery to his left is complete.
“Seeing how far he’s come and where he’s at now, I think it’s – it’s just really rewarding to see where he is,” Kaslander said. “I’m happy for him. I think he’s happy for himself, too. I think he’s glad he’s able to be where he is right now.”
But this isn’t the end. He’ll finish his story on his own, just not yet. He hasn’t started writing it because he knows there’s more to work toward and more to learn. He has nearly two full years of school left, nearly two full years of football.
He is less impulsive and more set on doing it right.
“I need to focus on learning what they’re teaching me rather than just trying to say I know it all and can do it now. That’s why I’m here.”
Between teammates, facing the field, Naylor looks like any of the other hobbled, out-of-pads Bison eyeing a return – next week, next month, next year. But this is Naylor’s return, and the treatment he’s getting validates he’s back.
A straight-faced Robert Naylor sits down, his head a little higher than the short-of-breath, slouching players at his sides. No one slides over to make room. No one stands and offers a seat. No one notices as he descends. And no one stands and cheers for him over the public address man announcing a touchback.
But quietly, unceremoniously, Robert Naylor sits down.
That’s just what follows standing up.
Kevin Chroust, the author of this story, can be reached at [email protected]
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