Robert Paylor did it again on Sunday, inspiring a large group of people, most of whom don’t even know him.
Left a quadriplegic after suffering a spinal cord injury on May 6, 2017 while playing for the Cal rugby team, Paylor was not supposed to walk again. Doctors weren’t sure he would live.
But his astonishing road back has touched those close to him and countless others across the globe.
“He is an inspiration to me every day,” said his mother, Debbie Paylor.
The audience Sunday morning at the Greek Theater was a crowd of more than 6,000 people, including 1,400 fellow 2020 graduates who finally got their in-person commencement ceremony after the pandemic postponed it for a year.
When it was his turn on the stage, Paylor rose from his wheelchair, gripped his walker, and took more than a dozen steps forward to receive his diploma as the crowd responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Here's another video look at Paylor walking on stage to receive his Cal diploma:
Paylor called the moment “euphoria,” but said he also was overcome by humility and gratitude.
“Because there was a time I was laying in a hospital bed and I couldn’t move anything. I couldn’t feel anything,” he said backstage. “I’m fighting for my life and the thing that was getting me through that moment was the eventual dream that I had to be able to walk across the stage and to be able to share this story with thousands — I hope millions — of people across this world.
“I hope when they saw me walk across that stage they saw themselves overcoming their own challenges.”
This is what drives Paylor now, to provide an example to others facing their own obstacles. He is an inspirational speaker and has begun writing a book with the working title, “Paralyzed and Powerful.”
In interviews when asked if he would change anything in his life, Paylor often says no because tragedy has given way to purpose.
“Who says no?” his father, Jeff Paylor asked. “He was given a cause and a calling, really, in his soul and in his mind that this is a chance and something that was almost a gift. I know that sounds weird. But to literally impact so many other people across the nation, the world.”
Paylor, 24, suffered the injury during the Bears’ victory over Arkansas State in the national championship game. The action on the field briefly continued.
“They were still playing rugby around my numb, motionless body,” Paylor told the Mercury News last year. “I looked like a corpse.”
Doctors feared the worst and gave Paylor that prognosis without pulling punches. He would likely never walk again. Paylor declined to buy in.
But his recovery was long and difficult. Paylor developed pneumonia, could not swallow or breathe independently and he lost 60 pounds. He had to have his lungs pumped every three hours, often by his mother.
He spent a year at a specialized rehab clinic in Denver but by the fall of 2018 had returned to the Bay Area to resume classes. Cal associate head coach Tom Billups, above, devoted himself almost full-time to helping Paylor in his rehab after a long-time friend taught him the basics of neuroplasticity.
Paylor, who grew up in El Dorado Hills and attended Jesuit High School before coming to Cal, graduated in May of 2020 from the Haas School of Business. He gave the keynote speech in an online graduation ceremony held for Cal athletes.
Paylor said his thoughts went to the countless folks who supported him as he crossed the stage for his diploma 1,576 days after his accident.
Paylor talks in the video above about the Cal community that supported him
“People break their necks every single day. Today, people are going to go through what I’ve gone through and we don’t always hear about it,” he said. “I’ve been so fortunate to be able to share this story on a larger scale and have all this support that when I couldn’t carry myself I had thousands of people all across the world giving their love, giving me their support, helping me walk when I couldn’t do it myself.
“Being up on that stage, I’m thinking of my rugby team, my coaches and my teammates. Thinking of my family and my girlfriend and my friends. Even the people that I have never met and I never will meet in my entire life. But they’ve been there for me, sending me their messages and sending me their prayers. Those are the people who were with me on that stage in my mind.”
His mother, Debbie Paylor, was understandably emotional afterward.
“It couldn’t be a bigger moment for our family. It couldn’t be a bigger moment for Robert,” she said. “Just the applause, the standing ovation, it goes into your soul of how much people have carried Robert through his journey.”
Paylor called the occasion “the realization of a dream.”
He can now move 300 yards with his walker. “While this was only 5 to 10 yards,” he said, "it’s some of the most important 5 to 10 yards I’ll ever walk in my life.”
Cover photo and video of Paylor receiving his diploma courtesy of Cal Athletics
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo