Naylor's Journey: The long road back to the gridiron from paralysis
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."
NOTE: Naylor's Journey is a five-part series that will run throughout the week on www.fcs.football. Part II will move on Tuesday. Kevin Chroust, the author of this story, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.