Part IV – Naylor’s Journey: The long road back to the gridiron from paralysis

Eds Note: Naylor’s Journey is a five-part series that will run throughout the week on www.fcs.football. Part IV picks up following the close of Wednesday’s Part III: "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." Part V will conclude the series Friday.

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LEWISBURG, Pa. (STATS) – 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.