Joe Davidson

‘Get up, Robert, get up.’ Dad discusses Cal rugby star’s paralyzing injury and recovery

When Jeff Paylor saw his son go down Saturday afternoon, he went down, too.

Falling to his knees, Paylor immediately began to pray behind a railing at Stevens Stadium in Santa Clara.

He pleaded over and over: “Please get up, Robert. Get up, Robert, get up.”

Robert Paylor, a 20-year-old sophomore rugby player for Cal, didn’t get up.

The Jesuit High School graduate lay motionless for 20 minutes on the turf, a vertebrae crushed early during a match for the national rugby championship against Arkansas State.

Robert underwent emergency surgery Saturday at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, where he is paralyzed from the chest down and where he may remain for months as he endures the fight of his life. Some days are better than others. On Tuesday, family members said Robert was able to crack a smile, letting wishers – many complete strangers – know he feels their support.

On other days, his lungs fill with fluid, which has baffled doctors, Paylor said, and the only way his son can communicate is by raising an eyebrow to signify “yes” or “no.” Sometimes, when Paylor and wife, Debbie, squeeze their child’s hand, he feels it. Sometimes he is able to squeeze a little back. This is encouraging progress, according to his family.

On Thursday, doctors issued more movement assessments on Robert, “so there’s progress,” Paylor said, adding, “it’s amazing what the smallest steps can do to the human spirit living in this situation. It’s called hope.”

Paylor said he has declined many media requests but in a phone interview with The Sacramento Bee, he shared his gratitude for the outpouring of support that includes a GoFundMe account has increased to $407,000 by Friday morning.

“The support, the outreach, it’s been overwhelming. People have reached out from all over the country and other parts of the world. It’s amazing the power of prayer, the generosity of people. People really do care.

“Sometimes it takes a tragedy to really know that.”

Paylor said the immediate concern is to get his son’s lungs cleared. He is undergoing tests and taking “serious antibiotics we hope solves it,” Paylor said.

Paylor paused and continued: “I start breaking down thinking about it, watching it, watching the struggle of my son, the pain, the frustration. He has a high-grade fever that won’t break, and that’s scary. Seems like he’s holding on for dear life.”

Paylor said he and his family have also been moved to tears by the support of Cal’s rugby team, which showed up in full force to support the family at the hospital and to sign a jersey for their injured teammate.

“The team is pulling for Robert by doing the best we can to be there for him every step of the way,” said Cal rugby teammate Sam Cusano, a Granite Bay High School graduate. “Rob is an incredible man and a huge inspiration on and off the field, so I think that we can give back by doing what he does for us every day, and that is giving him endless support.”

Paylor described his son as an adventure seeker, a fisherman who loves the outdoors, loves rugby and his teammates. He said his son’s courage moves him.

“The one thing about Robert is he has faith unlike anyone I know, just a very strong man,” Paylor said. “He’s reached out to priests who have come to visit. He has a real strength through God. He’s a very determined individual, and he’ll dig deep, and he’s still trying to process all of this. We all are.”

Time will determine what the future will hold for Robert.

“We want to get him into rehabilitation,” Paylor said. “The hands are important. If we can get any progress there, mobility, and Robert can have any semblance of independence with his hands and fingers – that’s the goal. Anything beyond that – walking – would be a miracle.”

A public prayer at Cal was planned for Thursday night, and there will be a Mass dedicated to Robert in the Phelan Chapel at Jesuit on Friday at 8:30 a.m.

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD