His life changed in an instant. UC Berkeley rugby player Robert Paylor walked out on the field during a championship match in May and was carried off paralyzed.
Since then, the 20-year-old has never looked back. He is too focused on his future. In June, Paylor transferred to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, a world-renowned spinal cord injury rehabilitation facility.
In an exclusive interview he talked with NBC Bay Area about his progress. Paylor is recovering from what’s known as an incomplete spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed.
"I’m not going to accept this as someplace I’m going to sit," Paylor said. "I’m going to fight tooth and nail to get out of this pit and get up."
Paylor said he clearly remembers what happened on the field May 6 during a match against Arkansas State.
"An opposing player came from the side and did what players are not supposed to do, wrapped his arm over my head in a headlock," he recalled. "He was pinning my chin to my chest. I’m driving, trying to fight it. He collapsed me and brought me to the ground and rode me all the way down so my neck was compromised, and when I fell, I rolled under it and immediately it was pins and needles everywhere. I couldn’t feel a thing."
Cal Bears rugby coach Jack Clark called Paylor’s injury the result of illegal foul play. Now, USA Rugby is investigating. Paylor, however, said he feels no anger toward the opposing player that put him in a headlock.
“No, no, no. I’m not angry. What’s in the past is in the past, and if I’m going to dwell on that and point fingers, then I’m not going to get anywhere," Paylor said. "I have to look into the future and see what I can do to change where I’m at."
Paylor spends eight hours a day doing physical therapy and rehabilitation to retrain his muscles. He’s also relearning how to do daily tasks most people take for granted. Simply getting into bed is challenging.
Paylor’s strength and stamina as an elite athlete are helping.
"I couldn’t be more proud of his character and the man he’s become," his father, Jeff Paylor, said.
"He is so positive, he is hardworking, he wants to sweat. In fact, he tells me, 'Make me sweat.' He just never gives up," said Adele Stadler, assistant supervisor of physical therapy at Craig Hospital.
Through it all Paylor is incredibly positive.
"Whenever I have trouble believing in myself, I have all these people who believe in me, and that allows me to have more courage, more bravery and fight," Paylor said.
He’s received support from hundreds of people in the Bay Area and around the world. Actor Bill Murray even visited him recently.
“He was a crack-up," Paylor said of Murray. "I couldn’t stop laughing."
Paylor also relies on his faith when his new journey feels daunting.
"I have a lot of down days. I wake up in a broken body," he said.
But Paylor's spirit is not broken despite dealing with frequent leg spasms. His shaking legs are actually a positive sign that he has an active spinal cord.
And his hard work is paying off. Paylor is now able to move his fingers, all his muscles in his upper body are firing, and his legs are showing a sign of healing.
"When my hamstring started moving, it was such a huge moment because now I have something to work with," he said. "There are signals all the way down there; there’s hope.
“I think I want to get on my feet, I want to do all these things," Paylor added. "If I give up, it won’t happen, so I have to push through that and do everything I possibly can to recover."
A GoFundMe page has been set up to help pay for Paylor's medical expenses.