It was more than two weeks before he could move his arms. It was one month before he could move his hands and fingers. It was four months before he could walk without assistance.
Looking at Robert Naylor today it might be hard to fathom that last Nov. 1 in the fourth quarter of a game against visiting Lafayette he lay on the turf with no movement below his neck. One second the Bucknell defensive end was pursuing a running back and the next he was felled by a cervical spine injury.
Lafayette is also the opponent Saturday and the date is one day shy of one year that his life changed. Yet because of his determined mindset he did not allow the injury to change him.
“I was told from the very beginning that if I did not have that mentality that I might not be walking for the rest of my life,” he said on Monday. “When you hear something like that you don’t take it lightly. As a young guy I put all my energy and focus into it in order to have a chance.”
What happened the next day was a sign that, indeed, Naylor had a chance to recover, that things eventually might not turn out so bad.
“I was able to wiggle my legs very slightly the day after, so I knew I had some movement,” he recalled. “Three days afterward I was able to move my feet a little bit, so I had in my mind that if this is happening (so quickly after suffering the injury) then something is looking out for me and that I am lucky.”
Naylor, whose family moved from The Netherlands to northern New Jersey a few days after his 10th birthday before ultimately settling in Bangor, Pa., benefitted from the support of loved ones, friends and teammates.
“My family from the very beginning was there to give me the emotional support I needed,” he said. “They were there for me every single day and my team was there for me, too. I was getting letters, phone calls and visitors and that really helped keep me calm and realize that, Hey, I just need to work as hard as I can to make you guys proud.’”
He had certainly made everybody proud anyway, but the support combined with his can-do attitude ultimately led to a light at the end of the tunnel that grew brighter and brighter. So much so that he was able to come home a couple of days before Christmas. There was still much progress to be made, for sure, but Naylor was making considerable strides.
Speaking of strides, it was during the rehab process Naylor learned how to appreciate every step, literally and figuratively.
“I had to re-learn how to walk and it was everything from how to lift my feet to heel strength,” he said. “I had to think about doing those things and I do not take something like walking for granted now.”
He was able to walk without assistance by the spring and currently gets around pretty well. He even led the Bison onto the field prior to the home opener last month. While Naylor of course will not be able to put on the helmet and pads anymore, he can jog a bit, which he does when assisting the team during practice.
Naylor, who missed a year in the classroom and is a junior academically, proudly wears his No. 95 jersey on the sideline of each game while offering encouragement and observations to teammates. At first it was tough being on the sideline and not in the middle of the action for what would have been his final season with the Bison.
“It’s different because being a varsity starter since sophomore year in high school I did not like the sidelines at all,” said the former Bangor Area High School star. “But now that life has changed it kind of gives me an opportunity to step back and see how everyone else is doing, which is nice because I am a people person.”
When he was not enduring the grueling and monotonous rehab process Naylor spent much time reading and writing. He enjoys fiction, but someday upon graduating Bucknell he might want to try his hand as a sports writer.
Regardless of what career path he descends upon Naylor’s words to football players or anybody who suffers a similar injury are most clear and concise.
“Try to be calm about everything and realize that you cannot change what happened to you,” he said. “You have to be the strongest person that you can be because there is no other way.”