California-Berkeley rugby player Robert Paylor's life changed in an instant on Saturday when a freak accident during the Bears' 43-13 national championship victory over Arkansas State left him paralysed from the chest down.

One thing remained remarkably steady, however. The 6-foot-5, 233-pound sophomore showed he still has the same bright, wide smile that made him such a popular teammate in the first place.

"He's a young man of incredible faith," a family friend, Jennifer Douglas, told the Mercury News. "He is going to fight. There is nothing that will get in his way. He believes he will beat this thing. He is so positive and that's what he's going to need for this."

Douglas, whose son Tyler is also on the team, called the injury "a very unfortunate circumstance," which occurred through no fault of any player.

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"They're taught how to tackle and do the right things," she said.

Rugby, much like American football, has come under fire for being one of the more dangerous contact sports, thanks to its full-body tackles and high rates of concussion.

Paylor's injury came early in the game while he was playing in the "lock" position. Reserved for the bigger, stronger players on the team, locks play key roles in both scrums and mauls, both of which put players' heads, necks and bodies at risk. Paylor's injury occurred during a maul, according to the Mercury News, which is when a group of players crunches together to create forward momentum on the player with the ball, while their opponents bind similarly and push back. When this maul eventually collapsed on Saturday, however, Paylor, who had been in the middle of the play, appeared to land awkwardly, according to Goff Rugby Report, which said Paylor then remained on his side while play continued.

"Cal actually scored a try as the medical team rushed to (Paylor's) side," GRR reported.

Coach Jack Clark and Paylor's teammates knew the player's injury was serious, but the extent wasn't made public until Monday when the family released a statement.

"The injury paralysed his lower body with limited motion in his arms," the family said, noting this was a "very sad time in our lives."

"This will be a long and difficult journey for Robert and his outcome is uncertain," the family continued, adding that Paylor's immediate goal was to stabilise his condition so he could begin the rehabilitation process. The family said Paylor's ultimate goal is to regain his mobility.

To help cover the costs of Paylor's rehab, the family set up a GoFundMe page with the goal of raising $1 million. Created on Monday, by Wednesday afternoon, nearly 1,500 people had donated to the fund, which had topped $260,000.

Support has come from his teammates and friends as well as the broader rugby community. Among those who have been the most active on social media has been USA Rugby, the sport's governing body in the United States.

Others outside the rugby community also have shown support to Paylor and his family. They will get another chance on Thursday when the school will host a prayer service.

"Everybody, regardless of belief, religion, or practice, is welcome to join us and to pray in whatever way they feel comfortable," organiser Brian Konzman said on Facebook. "And even if you can't join us, please toss one up there for the big guy."