In 2017 the student was severely injured in America's National Championship final. Here's what has happened since...

It is two days before his final exams, at a time of unprecedented global unease, yet Robert Paylor is calmness personified. Then again, the UC Berkeley student’s collegiate experience has been vastly different to your average kid.

“We’re going in for this National Championship versus Arkansas State and I think, ‘Yeah, this one’s in the bag – we got these guys’,” the former Cal lock tells us over Skype, recalling the fateful day in 2017 when everything changed.

“This is kind of the big time in American rugby, you’re in the collegiate National Championship. And it was about just a minute into the game. They committed a penalty, so we kicked it into touch. We’re like six metres out. It’s obviously a mauling situation and we had a very effective maul. If we were within ten metres, it was going in.

“I’m kind of one of these big guys, so I’m lifting in this lineout, then get to my position and we’re driving right away. The opposing team immediately start committing penalties. Three guys are coming from the side. He’s got me bound by the leg, which everyone does and it usually doesn’t get called but it’s illegal, a penalty.

“Then this one player (grabs) me around the neck. So my chin is pinned to my chest, and I’m driving this thing, standing up a little just because there’s this battle going on and it’s like blood in the water because we’re four metres out. So I dip my shoulder level back down to get parallel. The ref’s not calling (any infringements) and I don’t even think we were playing any advantage at that point. Then this other guy came in and chops me down by the legs.

“I started going down and you know, since my head is down into my chest, once I hit the ground my face just slammed against my chest.

“I felt this crunch in my neck. And then it was just poof everywhere on my body below my neck, I could not feel it. I could not move it. It’s that feeling when you wake up and your arm’s just totally gone asleep because it was hanging over the couch or something? It was that but everywhere and worse. I mean, I’m just lying there and I’m screaming.

“I’d broken plenty of bones before – wrists, nose, whatever – playing football and rugby growing up. I was like, ‘Man, I felt it in my neck.’ I just broke my neck. I was completely certain that I’d done it. And I had seen these stories before, in news articles, you see them on TV and someone breaks their neck, and they don’t move or feel anything again for the rest of their life. And I’m thinking, ‘This is gonna be me’. You know, I’m not gonna graduate. I’m not gonna have a family.”

Paylor says that he thought the worst, instantly. If you watch footage of the incident you can see team-mates signal for help – they know something is wrong. But they are metres out from a try in a major final and the referee has not halted play. Paylor says he was screaming, but his diaphragm was also partially paralysed at that moment.

Team medics knew instantly they had a major issue on their hands, with Paylor unable to feel anything or squeeze his hand.

At the hospital, he was delivered some stark news. As he recollects, the doctor told him that he had a spinal cord injury at the C5 and C6 and that it was “really bad”. He says he was told he would never walk again, never move his hands again. He needed emergency spinal fusion surgery and, by the way, it’s life threatening.

Robert Paylor

That winning feeling: The Cal rugby team in 2017 (Getty Images)

The surgery was a success and Paylor is full of praise for his carers, yet the initial diagnosis is something that spurs him on.

Rehab is tortuous work and the issue of exorbitant cost of healthcare quickly crept in. He contracted pneumonia while in care and, unable to cough, relied on nurses and respiratory therapists to help him clear the fluid in his lungs every three hours.

However, the business administration student says with all the knocks and painful talk he felt it was “just static – I was immediately very determined that I wasn’t going to accept this as my permanent reality”. He was also helped out by his best friend’s mum setting up a GoFundMe page.

Today Paylor has the use of his hands, he can stand up out of a chair and into his walker, unaided. He can walk 200 yards. He is setting incremental goals for himself every day. The ultimate aim is to never need his wheelchair again.

He can remember a time when he was staring at his toes, willing them to wiggle, almost reminiscent of that scene in Kill Bill. He would then take tentative first steps in a harness. He later walked the hallway. He kept checking boxes – with the help of his support system – and now he wants to turn 200 yards into 500, into something further.

He wants to keep clocking up the reps. The image above of the team uniform that medics cut off him, pieced back together, is a fitting metaphor.

It is worth pointing out that not everyone who suffers a serious injury can recover faculties lost to them and if that is the case it is not for a lack of effort or determination.

Paylor adds: “There are some people that don’t get that, that aren’t that lucky. I’m lucky. What still got put in is the work.”

“I forgive him, whether he’s sorry or not”

After an interminable wait, a review was conducted by US rugby authorities into the incident in that final. But no blame was apportioned, no sanctions, no slaps on the wrist. According to Paylor, no one from the Arkansas side who were involved  in the incident ever made an effort to apologise to him or even accept they contributed to his catastrophic injury. It would have meant a lot to him.

“I forgive him, whether he’s sorry or not,” Paylor reflects of the player who took him down. “For all those feelings of animosity, of looking behind my shoulder and looking back on the moment… I am focusing on my rehab, focusing on getting better, you know, the good things in my life. That’s what’s helped me. Because as you fast-forward through this story, so much happened on those first couple of days.

“But so much more is happening since then. And being able to return back to UC Berkeley and graduate and while I’m doing that, I continue to rehab out of paralysis. To now where I can stand up in my walker on my own and walk if it’s within 200 yards.”

Related: Jim Stewart on recovering from a dislocated neck

Another upshot of this is that the former second-row knows what will come next: full-time motivational speaking.

There were touching moments where the PAC-12 collegiate athletic conference gave his story coverage or the emotional day, ten months after the accident, when he attended his first match back at Berkeley and broke down in tears during the American national anthem. But he now wants to create special moments for others, using his story.

It all started with being asked to give a speech at his university. Then with the help of Cal rugby coach Jack Clark, he began beefing up his presentation. After doing internships with Intel, he gave them a talk. Seeing people laughing, crying, reacting to his words was powerful. He was hooked. There are incremental goals here too: he plans to deliver 50 speeches and reassess. He embraces where he is, adding: “This injury, it gave me a story.”

Robert Paylor

Helping out: Cal coach Jack Clark (Getty Images)

So how does he feel about rugby today?

He quickly replies: “If somebody asked me, ‘Robert, would you play rugby again, if you could go back and do it again?’ The answer is yes, absolutely.

“It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I’ve developed lifelong relationships. It’s taught me so many lessons, how to be a resilient person, a tough person, how to be a good person. The culture of rugby is so incredible, even across team lines, I just couldn’t trade it in for anything. I would recommend that anybody play rugby.

“Obviously, it’s important the world learns its lesson and I hope anyone who sees my story knows that these rules are here for a reason. And you can be a really physical player within the laws of the game. But if you go out here and break these something can happen, like what happened to Robert Paylor. It’s our duty to each other, to protect each other in that way.

“But absolutely I love the game. And if I could go back, if I woke up in the day 6 May 2017, the day I broke my neck, I would still go out there and play.”

No matter how far he travels, the next steps for Robert Paylor are huge.

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