Part III - 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 III picks up following the close of Tuesday's Part II: "When everything works right and people recover, it's awesome," Hess said. "But the reality is, that's usually not the situation." Part IV will move Thursday.
LEWISBURG, Pa. (STATS) - Bucknell coach Joe Susan didn't mention what kind of late-fall day it was because those aren't the details that stick when sitting bedside at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, New Jersey, feeding a 20-year-old, 6-foot-4 football player eggs and bacon.
It was still November, and Robert Naylor had been transferred out of Geisinger. He was still immobile and his weight was in rapid decline as he began an inpatient stint at one of the top rehabilitation facilities on the East Coast. In 10 days, he went from 260 pounds to 230.
"It was humiliating," Naylor said of being fed by his coach.
Susan's kids are 31, 29 and 27, so it had been awhile since he'd spooned anyone a meal.
"You have this picture of this big strapping guy, and then this," Susan said.
In 38 years coaching football, Susan hadn't seen anything like "this" firsthand, but he had been to Kessler before. Prior to taking the job in Lewisburg, Susan was an assistant at Rutgers. He recruited a defensive lineman named Eric LeGrand and got to know him from his freshman year in high school. As a junior at Rutgers, LeGrand suffered a fracture in the same location of the neck as Naylor, which was Susan's first year at Bucknell.
LeGrand has since made a name for himself as something of a spokesman for spinal cord injuries, albeit from a wheelchair for life. Naylor met him at Kessler.
"He got into my head about what I need to get ready for," Naylor said. "… He has it worse than me and he's taken it much better."
When Robert went down, Susan walked onto the field like a coach often does multiple times a game to tend to an injury. When he saw how the training staff was handling him, he knew he was dealing with something else. Thoughts of the paralyzed fate of a former recruit came back.
"The events afterward were... You have that uncertainty of whether or not he's going to make it," Susan said. "Number two, if he makes it, how much of him will remain?"
With that in mind, Susan gave Naylor the last word before he was loaded into the ambulance. The final interaction Naylor had on the field before he was transported to the hospital was with his coach, who asked him what he wanted relayed to the team. Naylor says he responded, "Don't tell them anything. Just win the game."
It turns out they remember it a little differently.
Susan's version of his defensive lineman's last line: "Just win the (insert the best of expletives) game."
It's stated in a way that implies selflessness. It's also something many who haven't played football, or don't place a high level of importance on its outcome relative to personal health, might assess as sadly myopic in the immediate face of a life-changing injury: a kid too enamored by sport to quantify what just happened. Yet it's tough not to be intrigued by such a level of dedication when nightmarish anxiety seems the more sane response.
It's even more intriguing in the case of Naylor, whose personal depth is more complex than that linear end zone-to-end zone mentality.
Naylor looks the part of the football player physically, even now as his body comes back, but beyond that, the 21-year-old doesn't fit any traditional stigma. He's an English major with a creative writing concentration who speaks of the possibilities of fiction. He's most at peace reading. His college experience is layered, almost conflicting. His coach, unprompted, describes him as quiet. But he's also in a fraternity. He takes poetry classes, fiction workshops. He's back to working on his dancing armed with the world's greatest excuse if the results are terrible. He's bilingual. He's at once a jock at an Emily Dickinson poetry slam and Jonathan Franzen in shoulder pads. This seems only to add to the bewilderment of his steadfast football dedication following the injury.
He has options. Why continue on the same path he's chosen to maintain given that he's now returned to school and has so much more he's interested in and can pursue without limitation? Without football, he can finally get caught up on the full two semesters of academics he lost. He can begin writing that book he plans to pen about this experience.
One thing is certain: Naylor isn't in denial about the situation. He's well aware walking onto a field is about as much of a return as he's going to make to football as a player, aside from possibly jogging out of a tunnel one day. He hasn't necessarily been raised to cling to anything. He's moved his whole life and adapted to making new friends. He's not a scholarship player fulfilling some token requirement to continue earning aid - football scholarships weren't offered until the year after he arrived, so he has no obligation.
He changed sports - soccer to rugby to football - as his growing body and changing environment dictated. The one thing many people in his situation might be most afraid to leave - a relationship with a significant other, someone to lean on - ended while he was inpatient at Kessler.
"I guess I'm not like most people in this regard, but I looked internally toward my problems, sort of isolating anything that was happening around me."
He's also introspective about his level of involvement with the team and wonders if he's choosing poorly on how to use his time.
"I'll second-guess it a lot. You see the normal kids at school in class, they have so much more time to do the work."
He cannot play football ever again, yet he is on a football team. Why not continue that evolution and leave football behind the way he seems accepting of transitioning out of other parts of his life? To explain this, he comes back to the way his teammates and coaches treated him and continue to treat him when his function as a football player ceased to exist.
He feels as though he owes them the same. Loyalty, it seems, is a two-way street, and in some ways this elucidates what Susan calls a football brotherhood - less foolhardy machismo than sincere bond.
When Susan spoke of this in a one-on-one in his tidy office the Sunday after defeating Marist, it bordered on sounding like a clichéd, militaristic, even shortsighted take on just one way relationships are formed.
"What's unique is I've been at this 38 years," Susan said. "There's guys that are 53 years old that still call me coach. There's guys that are 86 that I still call coach. It's a bond that you create way beyond the field. Only guys that have played understand."
Any number of ways, this has been said before by many a football lifer with a shaved head and a strong jaw. Susan said it wasn't something people outside of football could understand. He's right. It is very difficult to comprehend why one wants to remain on a football team when one is unable to actually play football. Worse, to those outside the game, it can come across as solipsistic: Most people, regardless of their football experience, are lucky enough to have relationships with deep personal bonds, and shoulder pads and two-a-days have no part in that backstory.
But when Naylor came to explain the same idea through his own rationale, depth of character jumped from his mouth and gave credence and prudence to Susan's words. It's about living a normal life, one of free will despite limited motion, a college life with all of the uncompromised layers Naylor intended when he chose to come play for Susan in 2012.
Most people can't quantify the value of regularity in the way Naylor can because it hasn't been taken from them. It's about working back to making personal choices and lifestyle decisions of which his body threatened to rob him. It's about sacrificing a lot to concede very little.
"There's no reason for me to leave the guys I've been with for four years of my schooling, four years of my life. To just abandon them after this? There's no way. I don't care if it seems like I'm wasting time."
Some people like film. Some like fishing. Robert Naylor, among other things, likes football, and he saw no reason to give it up, so returning to football became part of the plan.
"I wish I could be on the football team for the rest of my life," he says with an endearing smirk that seems to recognize the impracticality of Neverland. "I wish I could play for the rest of my life. My cleats have been taken, but that doesn't mean I have to leave the team."
For Naylor, it's also about retaining personal standards in seeing things through to, in this case, his physical limits, the same way he seeks completion in the rest of his life. He's acutely aware of the thanklessness of what he's doing. He's putting as much time into it as he was as an on-field player. But this is what he knows and prefers. This is how normalcy is restored. And even as a quiet English major who might not quite fit the paramount description of the football brotherhood, he sees quitting, even under the most understandable of circumstances, as a kind of character flaw: Quit one thing and it becomes much easier to quit everything else.
As for Susan, he seems to be focused on creating an environment where relationships matter without needing to always go as far as linking them to winning. He knows what it's like to be left behind. In high school, Susan had eight FBS offers as a lineman of roughly the same size as Naylor. He severely dislocated his knee, spent a month in the hospital with a blood clot, dropped from 260 to 190, and the calls ended. He was tutored at home for the rest of that semester, was eventually recruited by schools similar to Bucknell, and ended up playing at Delaware.
The abandonment was one thing, but something also changed with his high school teammates.
"When you're sitting out, that locker room you go back to is different for you," Susan said. "The psychology of the injured athlete as it relates to being part of the group, that's hard. There's nothing that replaces the locker room."
It seems he's tried to handle that differently as a coach, and he's backed it up with his response to the worst injury he's handled to date. In the hours Susan could have spent recruiting, trying to put together a better team for years to come, or watching film in the hope of getting an upper hand and securing his own job, he sat there and fed a man who he knew would be of no use to him on a football field ever again.
Susan didn't appear at Kessler just once. He wasn't in front of reporters building a facade like a campaigning politician. He went alone. He went back. He went back again. His players visited. His players' parents visited.
That was the community of which Naylor wanted to remain a part.
Bucknell won the game he was injured in with a field goal in overtime.
"I've seen the kick of the winning field goal, and that just sends chills down my spine. I get emotional - really emotional - when I see that play."
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.
TO BE CONTINUED
Kevin Chroust, the author of this story, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.