Quadriplegic former Cal rugby star finds true calling as motivational speaker

Former University of California Berkeley rugby star Robert Paylor says in many ways, he is doing better than ever, even if he still needs a wheelchair.

Four years ago he was paralyzed from the neck down during a championship rugby match.

He was caught in an illegal headlock that pinned his chin to his chest.  Another player took his legs out and down he went.

Paylor described the moment his life changed.

"I closed my eyes, I gritted my teeth, and boom. Snap. I could not feel anything. I am lying here in this dirt, waking up in my worst nightmare," he said recently from his home outside Sacramento.

In that instant, he was paralyzed. Medical staff rushed to him.

"I yelled as loud as I could, I broke my neck. I can't move anything. And you could see them look at each other in the eye with horror."

In the stands at the University of Santa Clara, that day was Paylor's parents.

"All of a sudden it hit me. That's my son," said Debbie Paylor, his mother.
Debbie and her husband ran to the field, but couldn't get close at first.

"At one point I said out loud, is he breathing? Got concerned is he even alive," she said. 

"The hardest moment of this entire injury was when I was about to get onto the stretcher and my parents came to see me," Paylor said. "I was just sobbing. It killed me to see them in this much pain seeing me there."

Doctors told Paylor he would never walk again or be able to feed himself.

They were wrong.

What followed was a year of grueling rehab in a facility in Denver, Colorado that specializes in spinal cord injuries.

He seemed to will himself to improve. The rehab continues. Every day.

"I will get out of this wheelchair one day or I will die trying. Mark my word," he said. His arms are now back to near-total mobility. His legs have improved. But every step requires maximum effort.

"Exerting that much effort all the time to do something so basic. It can be a mental breakdown."

Paylor's ordeal went international among the rugby community. Encouragement poured in.

"I was getting so much support. People lifting you up and carrying you through this is what really helped," said Debbie.

Paylor says he has found his true calling. He's an in-demand motivational speaker, talking about overcoming hardships and persevering.

On his bedroom wall, in a frame, is the uniform he was wearing when he got injured. You can see where medical staff cut it off him.

Paylor says he is writing a book about his experiences. He is calling it Paralysis To Powerful.

We wondered: If Paylor could go back and change what happened on that rugby field, would he?

"My answer is absolutely not. It has given me a gift greater than I could ever wish for. And that is the ability to help others," he said.