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September 18, 2015

Eds Note: Naylor's Journey is a five-part series that ran throughout the week on www.fcs.football. Part V picks up following the close of Thursday's Part IV: "But this ghost was finally nearing its walk back to the other side." This portion concludes the series.


LEWISBURG, Pa. (STATS) - Marist prepares to punt with 11:56 left in the second quarter, and Robert Naylor stands next to a sitting Troy Glenn, helping him readjust his right shoulder pad. The sun has gone down behind the home stands, and Naylor's shadow along the sideline - as well as his spotlight - are now gone. The two casually joke about something, and Naylor taps the bottom of his closed fist on Glenn's right shoulder as if to say "all set."

The stadium has filled in some behind him, and the crowd is focused on a punt sailing over Bobby Kaslander's head toward the seatless south end zone, the grandstand consumed by finely trimmed hedges that in block letters spell out "BUCKNELL" and span the width of the field.

Naylor returned for a spring football game, and after the initial relief of seeing him out of a hospital bed, the reality of the sluggish scale of progress set in for Joe Susan. The coach was a psychology major who wrote papers on the psyche of the injured football player after suffering his own life-changing setback.

"When I first saw him walk in, in my mind I said, 'This is great, he's walking,'" Susan said. "The next time I saw him, I said, 'That's not really walking.' That's what gets you. Your mind can play tricks on you. It wants what you want, but it's not always reality."

Naylor kept progressing, finding his own ways to reprogram his physical self to get past all that. When the insurance funding ran out for outpatient, his sister, Stephanie, 23 and working on licensing to be a personal trainer, made him take the dog on two-mile walks - a day-ending event. He started doing yoga, adding to a list of bisecting character traits. Rather than just being a shoulder-pad-wearing, Dutch-speaking, Shakespeare-reading member of Sigma Chi, Robert Naylor became a shoulder-pad-wearing, Dutch-speaking, Shakespeare-reading member of Sigma Chi who knew how to transition out of downward facing dog into warrior pose - without being able to adequately move his toes.

On May 26, he turned 21 and got a beer with his dad in Mount Bethel. He's candid about how he drew that night up pre-Nov. 1.

"I envisioned not remembering it before my injury," he said, adding that those priorities have changed.

His opinions on football, however, have not. If his own kids want to play, they'll be allowed.

"But there's also some money in golf."

The summer passed with him using bands and occasionally weights, stretching, walking, attempting to jog. His goals in the coming months are to be able to get to a point where he can play pick-up basketball and run fluidly.

"It's not pretty," Naylor said of recent attempts.

As Naylor prepared to return to school, the stumbles were gone, the driving was coming more easily, but the first day of camp in early August was the hardest it's been football-wise.

"Everyone was strapping up their helmets and getting ready to go. That feeling's not there for me. It was hard. … I've come to terms with what's happened to me, and I'm just happy to be along. This is enough now."

It also wasn't easy on his body. He was trying to stay on the field initially and help with the defensive line, which was too much. Susan and the staff gave him a camera, and his main role now is filming practice when nine months ago holding one - even pointing at one - was out of the question.

Now, a few weeks into the semester, his routine is back. Normalcy is growing in and taking over like branching nerve endings, roads connecting parts of his body that had been cut off from each other.

There's more progress to make. According to Dr. Hess, the window of nerve repair can stretch out 18 months, sometimes even longer, before someone realizes their full potential. That gives Naylor hope to push everything further and attain less conscious movement. Even after just a game on the sideline, there's a physical toll.

"Right now, I'm always sore. I'm always tired. It's not back to normal. Things are trying to fire that aren't there."

A Marist player fails to down the punt before the goal line. Naylor moves two green water bottles aside and sits down for the first time since what's left of his college football career reached what figures to be its comeback pinnacle. Later tonight, he'll go to a party and show off the terrible dance moves he's been working on. Next week, he'll continue on with his routine - class, confusing girls as the 6-4 football player answers questions about the implementation of American beliefs into works of contemporary fiction, football practice, back to his room for a shower, then off to dinner at Sigma Chi with Kaslander.

In two days, Naylor will find out about Georgetown's Ty Williams. The two were 130 miles apart when Williams' injury occurred. The feeling will be much closer. It will make Naylor realize he may always have a powerful reaction to such news, that no time or distance removed from his own experience can numb that.

Naylor's last full game was against the Hoyas and their then-sophomore linebacker on Oct. 25.

"It was a very hard moment," Naylor will say in the coming days after taking the initiative to reach out and address the injury unprompted. "All emotions I thought had been buried down had suddenly rushed to me. … This is the hardest part of it all. Every day only gets easier."

Once things settle for Williams, Naylor plans to try to meet him. He doesn't know exactly what that will entail - possibly offering support or motivation in the way people like Eric LeGrand did for him - but it seems Naylor simply walking into a room at a place like Kessler would be the best he could offer. For now, he's following the protocol of what he remembers wanting in the immediate aftermath: family and close friends only, definitely no media.

Williams is due to leave the ICU and move to a rehabilitation center this week, according to The Hoya, Georgetown's student newspaper. Hopefully, 10 months down the road, a surgeon like Dr. Fred Hess is talking about another recovery - one that results in two players who once walked off the same field as healthy strangers sharing a moment walking back on.

An official moves toward the Bucknell 25-yard line to place the ball. Kaslander, a wide receiver and return man, stays on the field for the offensive series. The periphery to his left is complete.

"Seeing how far he's come and where he's at now, I think it's - it's just really rewarding to see where he is," Kaslander said. "I'm happy for him. I think he's happy for himself, too. I think he's glad he's able to be where he is right now."

But this isn't the end. He'll finish his story on his own, just not yet. He hasn't started writing it because he knows there's more to work toward and more to learn. He has nearly two full years of school left, nearly two full years of football.

He is less impulsive and more set on doing it right.

"I need to focus on learning what they're teaching me rather than just trying to say I know it all and can do it now. That's why I'm here."

Between teammates, facing the field, Naylor looks like any of the other hobbled, out-of-pads Bison eyeing a return - next week, next month, next year. But this is Naylor's return, and the treatment he's getting validates he's back.

A straight-faced Robert Naylor sits down, his head a little higher than the short-of-breath, slouching players at his sides. No one slides over to make room. No one stands and offers a seat. No one notices as he descends. And no one stands and cheers for him over the public address man announcing a touchback.

But quietly, unceremoniously, Robert Naylor sits down.

That's just what follows standing up.


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

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