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Teen Breaks Neck During Tournament. In a Show of Support, His Teammates Bleached Their Hair to Match His

“I honestly didn't expect it, really,” high school varsity rugby player Ryan Southwick tells PEOPLE of the support he has received since the accident

<p>Courtesy of Benjamin Southwick</p> Rugby player Rylan Southwick prior to his neck injury

Courtesy of Benjamin Southwick

Rugby player Rylan Southwick prior to his neck injury

Growing up, Rylan Southwick always participated in rugby.

“It pretty much started when my parents put my older brother into rugby,”  Rylan, who lives in Lehi, Utah, tells PEOPLE.

"They threw me in there when I was 4 years old, even though you weren't technically supposed to until you were 6," he says. "But I've played ever since then, and I've loved every year I played."

But on Feb. 24, the 17-year-old Herriman High School student was left with a broken neck after being tackled during a game.

Miraculously, the freak accident did not result in paralysis or cognitive issues for Rylan, but the long recovery process has left him unable to play with his team for the rest of the season. Still, the teen has been touched by the show of support he's received from his teammates and the rugby community at large.

“I honestly didn't expect it,” Rylan says.

<p>Courtesy of Benjamin Southwick</p> Rylan Southwick as he was airlifted to a hospital on Feb. 24, 2024

Courtesy of Benjamin Southwick

Rylan Southwick as he was airlifted to a hospital on Feb. 24, 2024

The accident happened only a few minutes into the start of a pre-season tournament game. As Rylan recalls, he got the ball from his teammate and broke away.

“But then I got heel-tapped. That's where they [the players from the opposing team] pretty much trip you up," he says. While he was on the ground, he says several players "tried to make sure I stayed down."

Rylan realized something was wrong after he tried to stand up following the tackle. “I could move all my fingers, my hands and legs. So I was like, ‘Okay, I'm fine.’ But when I tried to pick up my neck or use my neck muscles at all, it would not work," he remembers.

He adds, "I was kind of just stuck there laying because I couldn't move my neck at all.”

Related: High School Football Player, 15, Paralyzed After Snowboarding Accident

From where he was watching from the sidelines with his wife, Rylan's dad, Benjamin Southwick, remembers thinking, "Maybe he just needs a minute."

Initially, the trainer and a team doctor on the field assumed that the injury was a pinched nerve. Rylan was even able to get up and walk with his parents to their truck en route so they could go to the hospital. But once they arrived, the family learned Rylan had actually broken his neck.

“I wouldn't have expected it from rugby,” the teen says. “It might seem like a rough sport, but it's really not."

<p>Courtesy of Benjamin Southwick</p> Rylan Southwick covered with his jersey in the hospital

Courtesy of Benjamin Southwick

Rylan Southwick covered with his jersey in the hospital

Rylan's dad went with him when he was airlifted to Primary Children’s Hospital where the teen ended up staying for about four days.

According to his doctors, Rylan experienced a C1 Jefferson type 3 break involving the C1 vertebra, also known as the atlas, that holds the neck upright.

Despite the severity of his injury, doctors have said he doesn't need to have surgery, according to his father, who says they're continuing to monitor his condition. "As of now, we are holding the path of hoping he's going to heal himself," his father tells PEOPLE.

Related: High Schooler Paralyzed During Football Game Draws Standing Ovation as He Walks at Graduation

Since returning from the hospital, Rylan has worn a custom-made neck brace and receives constant care from his parents.

“We were both very much on guard,” Benjamin says. ”If it gets hit or jarred enough it's far easier for him to get paralyzed and/or worse than that. So we're walking around with our arms around him. And he's just laughing at us. He's like, ‘Guys, I'm not going to break. It's okay.’ "

Rylan adds of his neck brace, “I have to wear it pretty much 24/7. I have to shower with it, sleep with it, pretty much everything."

Since his accident, Rylan's coach and members of the Herriman High varsity rugby team have visited him at home and gifted him a ball that they signed. Other rugby teams, both locally and nationally, have also reached out to Rylan in a show of support, as local affiliate KSL-TV previously reported.

“It was amazing,” Rylan says about the gesture. “I enjoyed it.”

<p>Courtesy of Benjamin Southwick</p> Rylan Southwick playing rugby

Courtesy of Benjamin Southwick

Rylan Southwick playing rugby

Benjamin points out that Rylan was a recent transfer to Herriman High.

“The team completely could have just been, ’Oh well, I guess we'll cut our losses and we'll just keep moving forward. It was nice to have him when we did’ – because this was only a pre-season tournament. They went way out of their way to really make sure we felt like family," he says.

In a special tribute to Rylan, several members of the varsity rugby team bleached their hair to make him feel like he was still part of the team.

"We wanted every possible way to show him that, even though he's on the sideline now — probably will be for a lot of the season — we still love him,” teammate Logan Reagan told KSL.

“I was really shocked, because some of my teammates are going on their [Mormon] missions,” says Rylan tells PEOPLE. "And with missions, you can't have your hair bleached or anything like that. So two, three of the guys that are going on their missions bleached their hair. I was like, 'Why did you do that? You're not supposed to bleach for your photos and all that stuff.’ But they did it. And then half my team almost did it."

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Meanwhile, Sydney Wilson, one of Rylan's three siblings, set up a GoFundMe to raise money for the medical and rehab expenses incurred by her brother's injury. As of Wednesday, the fundraiser has brought in more than $11,000.

“We didn't expect the amount that's in there now to even come close to that," Benjamin says. "It's just really heartwarming, and we feel extremely blessed for the offerings that have been given to us."

What got Rylan's family through the ordeal was prayers and the support from the rugby team, says Benjamin. “They really made sure that we were treated better than family, his team did," he continues.

Related: High School Student, 15, Left Paralyzed After Attempting Tackle During First Football Game

Recovery for Rylan could take up to a year, according to Benjamin. Should his neck heal by then, Rylan could resume playing rugby, if he wants to, in his senior year.

“1000%,” Rylan says of his desire to play. “I love the sport, so I'd totally go back to it if I can.”

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