People, Profiles

Former rugby player perseveres, inspires, after injury

"You'll never meet another person like him."

student in a wheelchair at student-athlete high performance center
Robert Paylor rolls past weight lifting equipment in his wheelchair during physical therapy at the Simpson Center for Student-Athlete High Performance. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)
Robert Paylor practices walking with a forearm walker during his physical therapy session with Tom Billups, associate head coach of the UC Berkeley rugby team, at the Simpson Center for Student-Athlete High Performance. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

This semester, Robert Paylor, a junior at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, is up by 5:30 a.m., hits the gym, then attends an accounting class and a political lecture, works out again for two hours, bolts down Chex Mix and an energy drink, and heads to another class.

Most Cal student-athletes have a similar routine. But for Paylor, a former varsity Cal rugby player recovering from partial paralysis, just getting out of bed and dressed in the morning is a feat, never mind the daily grind of navigating the hilly campus in a wheelchair and an intense rehabilitation schedule.

That Paylor is even alive and starting to walk with assistance after a devastating accident 16 months ago is a miracle. Fans cheered him on Saturday at California Memorial Stadium when he was introduced and walked during the first quarter of the football game.

“The guy is a bloody inspiration,” says Jack Clark, head rugby coach at Berkeley and former head coach of the U.S. national rugby team. “He has a lot of faith, and support from his family, but this is a kid who wakes up and answers the bell every day. It’s a form of perseverance that you don’t understand until you see it. You have to see it to understand the depths of it.”

At the Cal-Oregon football game on Saturday, Sept. 29, Paylor’s progress was celebrated on the field, and fans from both teams stood and cheered. (UC Berkeley photo by Kelley Cox)

On May 6, 2017, Paylor, a freshman at the time, was injured at the Varsity Cup championship match between Cal and Arkansas State. That moment, caught on video — an opponent wrapped his arm around Paylor’s neck and didn’t let go as a formation of players called a maul collapsed — still raises questions. Paylor’s parents condemned the sport’s governing body, USA Rugby, for not disciplining the opponent; Clark called the hit preventable and “illegal” under the laws of the game.

In the aftermath, doctors told Paylor he’d suffered a spinal cord injury and likely would never walk again. Paylor then caught pneumonia, which lingered a month. He couldn’t eat or sit up for more than 10 minutes without passing out, and the muscles on his 6-foot 5-inch, 235-pound frame quickly atrophied.

“I was broken physically and mentally when I first got hurt,” says Paylor. “I couldn’t feel anything from my neck down. My prognosis was terrible. They said, ‘You’ll be happy if you can ever pick up a piece of pizza again and bring it to your face.'”

Paylor never accepted that; he believed that, with hard work and faith, he would walk one day without assistance. That belief in himself, that grit that coaches say defines Paylor, is why he’s at the cavernous Simpson Center for Student-Athlete High Performance, where he works out three times a week with Tom Billups, the associate head coach of Cal Rugby.

When asked if he expects Paylor to ever walk without his walker, Billups simply nods.

Paylor at his locker in the high performance center, where he works out three times week. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Paylor moves laboriously through his walking workouts, powering through 50-yard laps with the help of braces and a walker. Billups, a strength and conditioning specialist, is always right behind him, with an encouraging word or, when required, a verbal push.

Paylor’s current personal record is 350 yards, but sometimes, like on a recent day after an intense and fatiguing neuro-Pilates workout, it’s more like 300.

Billups understands Paylor’s frustration with incremental improvements. Before the accident, Paylor’s role as a rugby lock was all about using his height and muscle to provide power inside the scrum. “Coaching him before the injury, I know that he’s a grinder,” Billups says. “His position was to do all of the hard stuff — tackling, pushing guys and moving people who don’t want to be moved,”

Now, Paylor applies that same effort to moving his own legs, which with every step can feel like lifting 40-pound weights.

Jack Iscaro (left) and Brian Joyce, two of Paylor’s rugby teammates, escort him to physical therapy at the Simpson Center for Student-Athlete High Performance. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

At Berkeley Haas, Paylor is surrounded by the tight-knit Cal rugby community. Coordinating through a Google doc schedule organized by Clark, the entire team has signed up to follow their friend from class to class, with occasional challenges when his wheelchair’s fickle smart battery gives out.

“Geographically, these hills are brutal,” says Paylor, who has memorized the locations of all of the automatic doors on campus and the areas of classrooms where it’s easiest to pull up to a desk. “Accessible seating is probably the biggest thing.”

The help from classmates extends to weekends, too. “Robert is their friend, and they want to include him in whatever they’re doing,” Clark says. “If they’re going to the Cal football game or the women’s soccer game, it’s, ‘Hey, do you want to go?'”

The team downplays efforts made on Paylor’s behalf. “It’s good to just have him back,” said Cal rugby flanker Ben Casey, an environmental economics major.

Paylor, being helped to stand by Tom Billups, associate head coach of the rugby team, has a “perseverance that you don’t understand until you see it,” says rugby head coach Jack Clark. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Paylor’s supportive community extends to legions of Cal alumni and rugby teams worldwide, including players from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom who have sent Paylor letters of encouragement and jerseys. Close to $1 million has been raised for Paylor through his GoFundMe campaign, money to fund many rehabilitation expenses not covered by insurance.

A few hundred thousand dollars in donations poured in within days of Paylor’s injury as word got out, says Cal Rugby player and Berkeley Haas junior Tyler Douglas, Paylor’s closest friend and former weightlifting partner.

“Everyone understands what the Cal community is,” Douglas said. “You respect the people who came before you, and those people respect and care for you.” Douglas said momentum gathered as word of Paylor’s injury spread. “Then the international rugby community came out, and it kept spreading,” he said. “We’d be at tournaments, and they’d mention his name.”

The response is partly a testament to who Paylor is, he said. “You’ll never meet another person like him,” he says. “He’ll shoot you a big smile and a handshake. I’m close to everyone on the team, but the connection you make with Rob is immediate.”

Paylor said the support motivates him.  “It’s just huge that so many people are rooting for me,” he says. “When I’m having dark times and feeling sorry for myself, I have all of these people who believe in me. It’s infectious. It keeps me going.”

A junior at Berkeley Haas, Paylor intends to get his MBA after he graduates. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

For Paylor, getting into Berkeley Haas as a junior was a life goal. His parents, who live in El Dorado Hills, California, both work in business, and he has decided to follow in their footsteps. And rugby, he says, has a lot in common with business. “In rugby, you graduate with a Ph.D. in teams,” he explains.

Over the summer, after he finished intense neurorehabilitation at Craig Hospital in Colorado, Paylor interned in operations at Intel Corp. Now, he’s enjoying the breadth of the subject matter in his classes — from lecturer Suneel Udpa’s accounting course to lecturer Arturo Perez-Reyes’ business communications course, where he’s learning why soft skills are important in business.

While Paylor isn’t sure what he’ll do after graduation, an MBA is part of the plan.

Business is a perfect path for Paylor, Clark says. “A lot of cognitive smarts come out of business schools — but if they want someone with grit and smarts, he’s a combination,” the coach says. “Something tells me that this guy will go on to do something really phenomenal.”