Perseverance: Robert Paylor continues to reach new heights

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Perspective can change a lot of things. In rough times, it can help you see the bigger picture and focus on the future, which is especially important when you’re dealing with a spinal cord injury. For Robert Paylor, keeping motivation levels high is tough but crucial.

“Perspective is … everything. … May 5, 2017, how far down I’ve come from that, you know, here I was, completely fine, good athlete to quadriplegic. Or I can think, May 6, 2017, which is I couldn’t move anything, I couldn’t go to school, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t drink, I couldn’t even sit up more than 10 minutes, and now look at me. I’m here at Berkeley, with my friends, achieving my goals,” Paylor says. “I choose to have that perspective.”

On May 6, 2017, then-sophomore lock Paylor and Cal rugby traveled to Santa Clara for the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup Final. Just a couple of minutes into the game, everyone was stunned as Paylor lay motionless on the field after suffering an illegal blow from an opposing player.

“I remember every second,” Paylor says. “At first, it was just terror, just sheer terror. It’s like you’re in a nightmare and can’t wake up. I closed my eyes, hit the ground, woke up, opened my eyes and I was paralyzed.”

Paylor was immediately carried to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, where a couple of hours of MRIs and tests revealed what was initially feared. Paylor was paralyzed below the neck, and his doctors anticipated an uphill battle. As they put it, picking up a pizza and bringing to his mouth would be challenging enough.

“The first phone call I made was to my religious adviser, kind of asking for prayers, asking for help. … I told him what happened, how severe it was, and he’s like, ‘Robert, there is a lot of things you can’t control throughout this whole journey you are about to embark on. But one thing you can control is your mindset,” Paylor says. “ ‘That’s it, your attitude, your willingness to get up every single day and look forward, not back, is what you can control, and nobody is going to take that away from you.’ ”

Paylor’s faith and determination have been praised by everyone who has helped him along his path to recovery. After almost a month in Santa Clara, he was cleared to fly and was relocated to Colorado to continue his rehabilitation at Craig Hospital, a world-renowned rehabilitation hospital and center of excellence that specializes in spinal cord and traumatic brain injury treatment. Besides his parents, who were with him every step of the journey, Paylor continued to receive support from other people in his life, including visits from his coaches and teammates at Cal rugby.

“Everyone did what they could do from afar, you know. (Associate head coach) Tom (Billups) and I had a chance to see him in Colorado, and that was pretty fantastic,” Cal head coach Jack Clark said. “We haven’t been able to do much until he came back to campus this fall.”

Paylor spent nearly a year under specialized care, during which he made a lot of improvement before returning to UC Berkeley for his junior year, when he entered the Haas School of Business.

“That was really one of my first goals was to come back to school before walking, you know, before getting my hands back and all of that. It was all thinking, OK, I want to be back to school in a year. This is going to happen,” Paylor says. “Checking that huge box of coming back to school in a year, yeah, that felt really good.”

Back at UC Berkeley, Paylor has a full schedule between his classes and rehab. Every day starts early with training, then his academics and then another cycle of rehab.

“It’s a full schedule, but there is a time when I’d give anything for that, you know, I’d give anything to wake up and just be busy — I love that,” Paylor says.

Four times per week, Billups trains with Paylor, and he continues to post personal bests in a number of drills almost every week. Paylor is getting stronger and faster, and perhaps the most important thing is that tangible results are coming.

“I get on my feet, I walk, I’m hitting new records every week. When I started this year I think I could get 200 yards consecutively, and now I can get 600,” Paylor says. “The improvement is coming. … I put in the work, and getting the improvement … is so much of a blessing.”

In addition to the facility within the Simpson Center at California Memorial Stadium, Paylor also goes to the Recreational Sports Facility to work on his motor functions with No Limits Collaborative, a nonprofit for students with disabilities that receives funding from the campus’s Wellness Fund. Together, Paylor and the organization follow a “crawl before walk approach” to his rehab two days a week.

“There’s some real tangible improvements that we’ve been able to make in a short amount of time,” Billups said. “They are tangible improvements. … They would be maybe small to you or I, but they would be significant to him, and that’s kind of springing us on to do more.”

On the hilly campus of UC Berkeley, walking takes time — let alone traveling in a wheelchair. Cal rugby, however, does its best to help Paylor move around campus as comfortably as possible. Under Clark’s leadership, the team has a spreadsheet to make sure a teammate is with him at all times, escorting him to and from class as well as helping him with daily chores such as doing laundry and taking out the trash.

On Sept. 29, 2018, Paylor took center stage in Memorial Stadium during a commercial break of Cal football’s contest against Oregon. With the help of a walker, he made strides toward the opposing team’s sideline, drawing a tremendous ovation from fans and players on both sidelines.

“Cal Athletics is so supportive — my team, the whole team. I am being able to … go on the field in the Oregon game, walk on that field, 40-plus thousand people, standing ovation, not a dry eye in the stands — just amazing, amazing,” Paylor says. “It’s like, these injuries happen a lot, a lot more than anybody would wish for, but the response from this community is just unparalleled — you just don’t see it.”

Paylor currently lives in Cal housing, as most off-campus housing options lack the necessary accommodations, Paylor points out. Cal also provides Paylor with early registration opportunities to accommodate his schedule and make sure he receives assistance in class, whether it is seating, note taking or extra time allocations during midterms.

Just things like automatic doors — and sometimes they don’t work — I mean, when somebody just holds the door for me, gosh that just makes my day,” Paylor says. “Just human kindness is one thing that helps me a lot.”

The community support has played a big part in Paylor’s rehab, on top of his already strong perseverance and determination. From day one, the support has overwhelmed, but on the flip side, Paylor keeps inspiring everyone around him throughout his journey.

“There are times when it is tough to believe that this is going to happen because it’s long, very small improvements. But when I have all those people believing in me, it’s infectious, so infectious,” Paylor says. “When I can’t believe in myself, their belief in me takes me back up.”

Can Sariöz covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @can_sarioz.