Part II - 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 II picks up following the close of Monday's Part I: "David Naylor's heart might as well have also hit the turf: 'It was his own hand.'" Part III will move Wednesday.

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LEWISBURG, Pa. (STATS) - Robert Naylor came to, heavily concussed, aware he couldn't feel anything below his neck, and he distinctly remembers his first thought - the same one any generative 20-year-old college male would have upon feeling... well, no feeling.

"The first thought I had was explicit," said Naylor, who lay motionless as teammate Terry Bennett attempted to tug him up by the right shoulder pad before realizing something was wrong.

"At first, I wanted to get up. I was laying on my side looking at my hand, and I was like, 'What's going on right now?' It felt like my arms and legs were in the air, like a dog would if it's playing dead. I was bent all over. My body was contorted in a weird way."

He hasn't watched the play, in part because he remembers it well enough, including each moment leading up to it.

"It's the only thing I thought about for three weeks."

Bucknell trailed 21-17, and Naylor was on the sideline. He was joking with teammates, looked into the stands, waved at friends, then heard his name and strapped up.

"They were in a hurry-up situation. I got in a two-point stance. I fired into the guard. He left me or I pushed him back enough to be able to make a move off of him. I saw the running back kind of made a cut, tried to go full speed into him, right through him. I guess someone took out my legs.

"I flipped over. In the air, I tried to roll over, which I think kind of saved me because I was about to land on the top of my head. They say I kind of curled up my neck, so I assume that's what happened, and I was trying to roll over it, so I'm sure that kind of helped in the big picture because if it would have snapped, I would have been done-zo.

"That's a scary thought."

Naylor pursued on a running play up the middle from left to right. The back was taken down around the line of scrimmage just before Naylor got there. Naylor went over the top, landing directly on his head on the other side of the downed runner, his immediately limp body twisted into a curled arch over the top of the pile.

The pile cleared, partly from under him, and Naylor's body lifelessly slumped onto its left side on the turf, his right arm and leg flopping over in front of him before Bennett approached and signaled to the sideline.

Head athletic trainer Mark Keppler was the first to respond, and brushed off Naylor's persistent questions about mid-body functionality. After repeated request, Keppler won't discuss the injury.

Naylor was transported to Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, the nearest Level 1 trauma center. When admitted, Dr. Fred Hess, Naylor's orthopedic spine surgeon, assessed a large C3-4 disc herniation in his neck, injuring the spinal cord. There wasn't a fracture or anything hopeless such as complete spinal sever, but when someone is admitted with no motor function or sensation below the neck, it's treated with austere expectations.

"The initial thoughts are this patient's probably going to remain paralyzed," said Hess, who estimates he deals with a half dozen cases of this severity annually.

"Permanently."

The outlook changed some as subtle sensations returned later that night, so the surgery wasn't performed for two days. The operation - a C3-4 anterior cervical discectomy and fusion - was done to alleviate pressure from the spinal cord by moving the disc.

Naylor took the first round of bad news reasonably.

"They told me straight away, 'You'll never play football again,' which is hard to hear, but you lay there, and you're like, 'Obviously.'"

Coming out of surgery and being told he could be in a wheelchair for 12-18 months and possibly never regain use of his hands wasn't as easy to accept. He still had eye-black on his face from the game.

"That was my first anxiety attack."

He spent 10 days at Geisinger thinking about his fate. The play took about two seconds. In two seconds, Robert Naylor went from what Hess calls a high-functioning level athlete to a 20-year-old immobile body falling into immediate and drastic muscular atrophy.

"If you take away the innervation to something, it's going to disappear," Hess said. "How well does your phone work if it's not getting a signal? It doesn't work at all. That's going to happen to muscles. If it's not getting anything, it's not going to respond to anything, it's going to atrophy fairly quickly, and that's obviously much more apparent in a high-functioning level athlete."

But there were subtle positives in those days. That initial unanswered question he had for his trainer while down on the field? Four days into his stay at Geisinger - two days after surgery - his body spoke up. The hospital staff was looking especially good that day.

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Bucknell blocks a field goal on Marist's first possession, and there's plenty of sideline excitement. Offensive players run on. Special teams runs off. Robert Naylor, who has been on his feet since walking out and joining the captains for the coin toss, moves forward more slowly. Naylor occasionally runs a hand through his near shoulder-length brown hair. He sometimes seems uncertain of what to do with his hands, but that's preferable to being uncertain of how to move them.

To his surgeon, this is about the best-case scenario.

"We're talking about a high-functioning level athlete who's had a pretty miraculous recovery," Hess said. "He's basically - short of returning to full participation, full-contact sport stuff - he can do pretty much anything he wants. He's gained almost all that back."

But to Robert, this time last year he was a rotation player on the defensive line. Not a standout, but he played in every game and was a contributor to an impressive defense. Now, after having his 2014 fall semester cut short and missing the spring, he's back in school, and he's on the football team. He attends practice every day, filming or helping with the defensive line. He's taking it seriously. Earlier, he cut a phone call short to make sure he got to the team's walk-through on time. The defense - which will go on to hold Marist to 161 yards of total offense - doesn't seem to miss him on the field.

He misses it.

"I was pumped up to play, but I know that's not going to happen," Naylor said after walking onto the field on game day for the first time since the injury. "I was just happy to be with the guys."

He remains standing, and the sun is setting behind him from over the northwest corner of the stadium. He's one of the taller guys on the near sideline, and his shadow stretches out onto the field. Even 10 months into what figures to be an 18-month nerve-repair period, it could be argued his body looks more like he's been in the gym with the team all offseason than in physical therapy learning to move his hands and arms, stretch, stand, step, walk, drive.

There's something a little eerie about all this as Naylor stands there. He - and most likely every person in the stadium - is unaware that across the Patriot League, Georgetown linebacker Ty Williams is receiving medical care for a severe neck injury suffered in the Hoyas' opening loss to St. Francis of Pennsylvania. Williams may never be lucky enough to again cast such an elongated shadow. Or maybe he will. Naylor knows the feeling of that kind of doubt.

"When everything works right and people recover, it's awesome," Hess said. "But the reality is, that's usually not the situation."

TO BE CONTINUED

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Kevin Chroust, the author of this story, can be reached at kchroust@stats.com.

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