September 4, 2012

Forman: How Do You Measure 'The Red Mamba'?

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

* Pannell In His Own Words: Part I – The Journey

Cornell's Rob Pannell stands 5-foot-10, but he can be measured in ways other than height, writes Lacrosse Magazine's Matt Forman.
© Lee Weissman

How do you measure Rob Pannell?

At the risk of sounding cheesy — yes, I'm stealing a line from the Broadway musical 'Rent' — not in goals, in assists, in ground balls, in games won in height or in weight. Certainly not in any quantifiable figure, though 252 career points in 54 games isn't too shabby. (Matt Danowski's NCAA Division I record is 101 points away.)

Sure, Lacrosse Magazine was curious how tall Pannell actually is — he's 5-foot-10 just as his Cornell bio lists, by the way — but that wasn't what we wanted to know when we envisioned a profile of him. We wanted to tell Pannell's strange story while another part of his long journey unfolded before our eyes.

Pannell's story has been told before, even within the very pages of this website, and within Lacrosse Magazine. He has been interviewed many times. He has been on TV many times. But what's behind his red-and-white facade? What does he think of his past? Where is he going? And what about the mysterious foot injury?

In short: Who really is Rob Pannell?

I spent two days with Rob Pannell at his home on Long Island in Smithtown, N.Y., in late July as he awaited a decision from the Ivy League on his fifth year of eligibility, to answer that question. What I quickly realized — my editor, Matt DaSilva, and I had talked about this before the interview too — was that Pannell needed his own platform, to tell his own story. To tell us everything — uncensored, stream-of-consciousness reflections.

So in a multi-hour interview after spending Wednesday evening and Thursday together, Pannell took us through all the twists and turns — the recruiting snubs, the college commitments (plural), the post-grad experience at Deerfield Academy, the freshman season in which he was one fluky flip in Foxborough away from a national championship, a Tewaaraton-caliber season overshadowed by Steele Stanwick's title run, and the season-ending injury that left more questions than answers — that have defined his career.

LaxMagazine.com will release its full interview with Pannell over the next three days in conversation topics: the journey, the injury and the personality. The corresponding installments should shine a spotlight on Pannell — as a lacrosse player and as a person.

My experiences spending two days with Pannell don't come across in the interview, though. That's the way we wanted it to be — Rob Pannell's story, in Rob Pannell's words.

No one asked me — OK, my editors did — but I'd like to share a few insights from my trip. Because, you know, you can't measure Rob Pannell in a two-hour interview, or a 5,500-word interview transcript either.

Rob Pannell expects excellence. He pursues perfection. As he said more times than could be counted over a 24-hour period, "I'm never satisfied."

"I'm never happy with what I've done," Pannell will say. "There's always something to work on." He takes life seriously, in every aspect, although he's not afraid to have a little fun too.

Pannell is overly accommodating and flexible during a three-plus-hour photo shoot with Lacrosse Magazine. He changes clothes upon request to have different color options. He drives a reporter around town, including to his high school and old house. He takes a reporter and photographer inside and around his house — the driveway, the backyard, the patio, the living room, the bedroom. He genuinely cares how the pictures turn out.

Pannell's t-shirts and shorts are finely folded into his wooden dresser, well creased as if they've been ironed. His bed is well-made, and there's not a single stray object on the floor. His mother, Susan, later says her son's room is always this way — he didn't need to clean up for the photo shoot. Pannell's car is clean, as if it were recently vacuumed. The only items in the car? Lacrosse equipment, packed from an afternoon spent at the local park working on his craft.

This same trait is what makes Rob Pannell arguably the greatest attackman of his generation. He has the "it" factor — whatever "it" is — of elite athletes like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, as Chris Ballard eloquently wrote in this Sports Illustrated column. It's killer instinct, it's ultra-competitiveness, it's a sixth sense.

It's what allows him to do things no one else can, and try things no one else would think of.

LaxMagazine.com colleague Joel Censer aptly nicknamed Rob Pannell "The Red Mamba," after Bryant's "The Black Mamba."

In the final minutes of my interview with Pannell, I asked: "Are you cocky or confident?" He responded, "Extremely confident."

Pannell answered the question with tact. I won't approach it so delicately: Rob Pannell is great. He knows he's great. He won't let anything, or anyone, get in his way of being great — and that's what makes him even better.

Over lunch, Pannell's uncle, Jim Metzger — an All-American at Hofstra and a prominent player in the sport's circles — made a legitimate case that Pannell could go down as one of the greatest attackmen of all time. I didn't disagree. That's how you measure Rob Pannell.

Check out Part I of Rob Pannell: In His Own Words here, and check back to LaxMagazine.com on Wednesday and Thursday for Parts II and III.


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