June 22, 2014

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Lacrosse's Biggest Star Hungry for Gold in Denver

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Most Outstanding Player with Team USA four years ago in Manchester, can Paul Rabil lead the team on another run for Gold this summer? (John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

In the social media world — of which lacrosse's most mainstream figure is an active resident and industry leader — it's a Throwback Thursday, an Internet theme day where people of all walks of life post pictures from the past for anyone with interest to see.

At 5:33 a.m. on April 17, before he drove more than an hour from his Baltimore home to Philadelphia for a session with Dr. Steve Mathews, a chiropractor and muscle specialist who works with Olympic and professional athletes — just another travel itinerary as part of a busy schedule — Paul Rabil has already participated.

He Instagramed a picture of himself as a kid, wearing a bowl haircut, bow-tie and sweater in a typical, posed family photo with his older brother, Mike, and younger sister, Beth. "Easter week in the Rabil household always meant family pics," he typed with it. By Friday morning, a couple thousand of Rabil's nearly 50,000 Instagram followers said they liked the photo and the most entertaining comments responding mentioned the haircut.

As the prominent face of an emerging sport, a stature now going on five-plus years, this is part of how you cultivate fans, old and new; how you spread the game and your brand. You have to show who you are; the different sides of your personality. If part of that means bringing a bit of nostalgia to a fast-paced, content-inundated society once a week, so be it.

Sitting across the table at a Baltimore restaurant within walking distance from the residence he shares with wife Kelly Rabil (maiden name Berger of the U.S. women's national team), the 28-year-old Rabil is now throwing back to the past in person, and looking into future.

When did he decide to start down this road he's traveled as The Face of Lacrosse?

"Not until I was doing it," he said with a smile, alluding to the risk-taking aspect of pursuing a full-time career in the sport. He spent his first nine months out of college, as a political science major and entrepreneurship and management minor, working as a financial analyst for a commercial real estate firm, then-called Cassidy & Pinkard, in Washington, D.C.

How does it feel being the Million-Dollar Man? He's the first player to reach that status in the sport, counting lacrosse- and endorsement-related income over the next couple years.

"As the sport makes that push to become a mainstream recognized sport, you have to cross certain boundaries and get out of your comfort zone," he said. "Part of our challenge is being able to effectively communicate to the younger generation that a professional lacrosse athlete is just as good of an athlete as football or basketball. That drive isn't lost at the college level any more. That title might take a different approach to articulating that."

And what's on his plate in the future? Right now, it's a dish of delicious grilled oysters.

But more seriously: The focus for Paul Rabil in 2014 has been making Team USA and competing for gold at the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship in July in Denver. The businessman and marketer in him says the games are, "the biggest opportunity the sport has ever had to catapult itself in popularity to a mainstream audience," with ESPN providing unprecedented coverage of the US Lacrosse-hosted two-week event, a record 38 countries participating and the last two world champs, U.S. and Canada, the favorites again to battle for the title.

"When I tell people I have lacrosse to thank, I truly think I've been a part of this wave," Rabil said, referring to a confluence of circumstances over the last decade coinciding with his foray into lacrosse entrepreneurship, including increased media exposure of the sport, the youth and high school participation boom, and social media launching. "I've been riding it in. It's all been very timely."

***

This article originally appears in the June 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine. Begin your subscription today by joining US Lacrosse.

Like many college seniors in 2008, especially ones with newfound stardom after winning a pair of national championship in his first three years at traditional power Johns Hopkins, whenever Rabil opened his email or logged onto Facebook (the social network at the time only was four years old) he was busy accepting friend requests from anyone who asked. At graduation, he was connected to about 10,000.

"I wasn't sure what I was doing at the time," he said, but really it was the earliest stages of the ride he's been on since. All 15 NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament games were televised by the ESPN networks for the second season in a row. Johns Hopkins was the defending champion and fell in the title game to Syracuse in Rabil's final collegiate contest. He scored a career-high six goals in a losing effort in front of an all-time record 48,970 fans at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass, and nearly 700,000 more viewers on TV.

The prevailing thought at the time, even to those close to Rabil, was this is it, the height of a lacrosse-playing career. Yes, as they do now, a pair of professional leagues existed — and Rabil would be the second overall pick in the 2008 NLL draft and first overall in the MLL version — but you couldn't make a full-time living just by playing. The idea was to make the most of your popularity over the next three years or so, and snag a couple endorsements before the next college star came along.

Rabil was on his way to following along, working in D.C., near where he grew up, and often flying cross country out to San Jose (and later Washington state) to play home games with the NLL's Stealth, getting permission from understanding bosses to leave on a Thursday. It's how many pro lacrosse players have made it work. He entered into business with his older brother, who had played defensive tackle at Dartmouth and works in finance, and they opened their first of five gyms together. Rabil is still an operating partner in his brother's investment and holding company. But along the way, younger brother still had an itch to be different. In the summer of 2009, "My competitive nature kicked in to see if I could break that mold," he said, of what a pro lacrosse player was said to be.

***

Rabil ticks off a list of companies he's been associated with. Baltimore-based Under Armour was the first, for footwear and apparel. "From compensation annually and financial security, it wasn't much, but it was an opportunity to use their marketing platform to build an image in the sport," he said. "That was valuable to me."

It's an image that has changed over time, he said, from a focus out of college that was more on his physical abilities and day-to-day routine to refine them — a "virtuoso," his father, Allan, called him, who could have picked up any sport — to showing off a personality that anyone with an internet connection can see anytime through social media.

"You have to be OK with showing a more personable side," Rabil said, mentioning other sports figures like Peyton Manning, and the quarterback's likability on television, and San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who is an active watercolor painter. Who knew?

"You can't just work out every day and win," Rabil said. "What else does he like? It's all about authenticity."

As for those endorsements, then came Maverik for equipment, EFX performance wristbands, Red Bull, Polk Audio, Nooka watches, New Balance, and in 2011 Warrior, of which he's wearing a t-shirt presently. The Warrior Rabil Collection and Rabil Next line are sold exclusively at Dick's Sporting Goods. He picks out a Chipotle card from his wallet. It's a free-burritos-for-life card given to certain athletes, like skateboard legend Tony Hawk, as a marketing tool. Just worked again.

Just a couple days before the day trip to Philadelphia and an interview for this story, Rabil was on the West Coast, packing meetings with potential partners into a weekend trip. He left with a deal with GoPro cameras, to shoot footage that he'll use on various social media platforms and through the Paul Rabil Experience, a subscription-based digital service that will deliver high-quality video and instructional content.

After flying back east, he was in a recording studio on Tuesday night in Washington, D.C., hosting the first "The Lacrosse Show" on SiriusXM radio with ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra. The radio deal was arranged through Rabil's agency, Octagon, which he signed with nine months ago. Ira Rainess, a Baltimore lawyer who was the agent for Cal Ripken, Jr. and Ray Lewis and is currently for lacrosse's Rob Pannell and Brendan Mundorf, had represented him and remains a consultant. Octagon is a world-recognized firm that represents Michael Phelps, among others.

"They sell me by selling the sport," Rabil said. "If that's successfully conveyed, then they go, 'Here's the solution for recognizing that opportunity.' It's still not easy, at all. I'm not even close to a mainstream recognized name."

Rabil signed a 42-show deal for the Sirius show, which will cover topics from the high school, college and pro games to lifestyle and training.

***

Tickets are available now for the FIL World Championships in Commerce City, Co. Watch the world's best battle for gold by purchasing your tickets today!

He's lived the growth.

When a 12-year-old Rabil, who also played soccer, basketball and track growing up, first started with lacrosse in a suburban Washington, D.C. youth program, there was no professional outdoor league. That didn't happen until MLL's inaugural 2001 season, when he was in high school at DeMatha Catholic High in Hyattsville, Md., where he eventually led the lacrosse team in scoring for three years. The realistic end-goal in the sport was to win a championship at a place like Johns Hopkins, Syracuse or Virginia, the schools he saw on television once a year come final four time.

North Carolina also factored heavily into the equation. Rabil came from a family with close to 20 relatives who attended college in Chapel Hill, including his father, who has worked in sales most his life. Rabil's mother, Jean, is a Catholic school art teacher. When Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala made an initial phone call to Rabil the summer before his senior high school season, the coach hung up the phone convinced the prized recruit, with the complete package of size, speed and stick skills, would be wearing a different shade of blue for his college years.

He was enamored with big-time basketball and big-time football, Pietramala heard from the other end of the phone. Johns Hopkins was Division III in those sports. His idol was Michael Jordan, a young Rabil said. No one could change the fact that the global icon was a North Carolina alum. Legendary Tar Heels basketball coach Dean Smith was revered, too. It went as far as this: during an in-person recruiting visit to the Rabil household in Gaithersburg, Md., there was a Tar Heels' throw pillow on the family couch. Then-Blue Jays assistant Seth Tierney was instructed to sit on top of it while the Hopkins staff made their pitch. "I think we need to replace this," Pietramala said before he left.

Rabil went on to make official visits to several schools, back in the times when top programs were still recruiting high school seniors. He liked what he heard from the current crop of Blue Jays, who were hell-bent on winning a national title. Superstar Kyle Harrison, who he has been reunited with in the tryout process for the 2014 U.S. men's national team, said as much during the visit.

"The commitments from the coaching staff and the boys in the dorm that were there, and what they're goals were, sold Paul," Allan Rabil said. "He looked at it and said, 'This is the most serious group I've seen about wanting to win the national championship. That's the boat I want to be in.'"

They wanted him, too.

"When Paul came on his recruiting trip, he already looked like a college midfielder," Harrison said. "His size, the way he carried himself, you could just tell he was a big-time athlete. Once he arrived on campus as a freshman, his worth ethic and desire to be great are the two things that stuck out the most. Form the weight room, to film study, to shooting extra, he certainly put the time in."

The next year, led by a determined senior class, the Blue Jays ended a 17-year championship drought and went 16-0 to win the NCAA title. Rabil emerged on the scene in an early-season game in the Carrier Dome against Syracuse. He scored four goals playing on the first midfield, and finished the season with 23 goals and 14 assists, foreshadowing great things come.

"When he scored four in the Dome that year, I think everyone knew he was going to be special," Harrison said.

Two years later, the boys in Columbia blue won again and Rabil was named the MacLaughlin Award winner as the nation's best midfielder. He left Johns Hopkins as the program's career points and goals leader, and with a 3.53 grade point average. He was a Tewaaraton Award finalist in 2007 and 2008, but if there's one fact that may surprise, he never did win college lacrosse's highest individual honor, but plenty have followed at the next levels: two MLL Most Valuable Player awards in his first four seasons, MVP at the 2010 FIL World Championship in Manchester, England, as the U.S. took back the gold from Canada. The world's fastest shot, a record now edged by some up-and-comers.

***

He talks about the Rabil brand, building it, cultivating it, and always staying part of the game. He wants to play into his late 30s, which would mean around 10 more years. He's married now, tying the knot in January, but still likes to DJ in his spare time. He spends a lot of time interacting with fans online, traveling from camp or clinic to promotional appearance, training session or game.

He'll often talk to campers about the learning difference he grew up with — auditory processing disorder, which in general can make reading and writing an excruciating exercise. Reading and re-reading material was par for the course, and in a way, the condition manifested itself on the lacrosse practice field, by Rabil repeating shot after shot, as if he were reading line after line of a book. Rabil recently hired a full-time executive director to lead his charitable foundation, whose mission is to help children with learning differences, including dyslexia, which number in the millions. His sister has it.

Anecdotally, more pilots and co-pilots on his many flights — he flew to Long Island and back for a camp the day before his trip to Philadelphia and this interview — recognize the simple fact that pro lacrosse exists. "It's a big step," he said. It's also a full schedule, and not entirely scalable, he says, which is part of the reason he's launched an instructional platform on his website.

The past year included his first sports-related surgery in September, repairs to torn abdominals that bothered him throughout last MLL season and forced him to sit out of the initial round of Team USA tryouts at the end of last summer. He had surgery last September in Philadelphia, and spent the time afterward rehabbing and standing on the sideline of U.S. evaluation events in the fall. He's overhauled his training into a regiment that focuses on range of motion and durability, not heavy lifting or sprinting. Always paying attention to the action, he often asked "What's the score?" as USA split-squad groups played college teams Loyola and Towson at the Play for Parkinson's event in October.

"This tryout process was challenging for him because he couldn't be Paul Rabil," said Pietramala, a U.S. assistant coach. "He expects to win. He expects to win the gold medal. He expects everybody else to work as hard as he goes to do that. Aside from the tangible — which is his ability to play the game and impact the game and those around him — for this team with some younger guys and newer faces on it, he brings experience, an expectation of success."

It's that trait that Rabil's father surmises is a common thread in the kid-with-the-bowl cut's career to date. Why pick Johns Hopkins? Why go pro in lacrosse?

"He was blessed with talent to play on the field," Allan Rabil said, joking that if he knew Rabil would grow to be 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds and be able to dunk, he would have encouraged him to play collegiate basketball as a point guard. "He took off with it. That's what happened. It was him willing to take a risk, willing to put his heart and soul into it and see where it would lead."


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