By Peter Schwartz
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When it comes to lacrosse, Paul Rabil was a late bloomer.
In fact, things didn’t come easy for Rabil when he first picked up a lacrosse stick at the age of 12. Playing in his first game for his middle school in Southern Maryland, he took a shot and couldn’t figure out where the ball went.
As it turns out, the ball was behind him.
“I suck” said an embarrassed Rabil as he ran off the field after the game.
Today, at the age of 29, Rabil doesn’t “suck” anymore. He’s considered by many experts to be the best lacrosse player in the world, and his new home office is going to be Shuart Stadium on the campus of Hofstra University.
In a blockbuster trade last week, the New York Lizards of Major League Lacrosse acquired Rabil from the Boston Cannons, and he’s bringing his game and his brand to the lacrosse hotbed of Long Island.
It’s not very often that the best player in a sport plays for a New York team. That exclusive list starts with Babe Ruth of the Yankees. Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor certainly revolutionized the defensive side of the ball in the NFL. The Rangers had Wayne Gretzky at the end of his brilliant career, while Pele played the final three seasons of his career with the Cosmos.
Now the best lacrosse player on the planet is in the Big Apple.
“It’s a big move for the organization,” said Lizards general manager and head coach Joe Spallina. “He’ll help this organization in every possible way through tickets, merchandise (and) notoriety. And most importantly for me is his play on the field. (It) speaks for itself as one of the most dominant players in Major League Lacrosse.”
The price tag for Rabil was quite high.
Spallina sent midfielder Max Seibald, defenseman Brian Karalunas, first- and second-round draft picks in 2016 and a first-round pick in 2017 to Boston for Rabil and fellow All-Star midfielder Mike Stone.
“If you want to get the best player in the game, it’s certainly not going to come free,” said Spallina. “So I think the biggest thing in any deal is that you want to get the best player in the deal.”
Spallina not only got the best player in the deal, but he also picked up arguably the best player in the world.
After a stellar career at Johns Hopkins, Rabil was taken by Boston with the first overall pick in the 2008 MLL Collegiate Draft. He is a three-time Offensive Player of the Year, a two-time MVP, a seven-time All-Star and a six-time First-team All-Pro.
So much for when he was 12, when he said he wanted to quit.
“Yeah, I absolutely did,” said Rabil. “It was very difficult. I still feel like there are times when I suck and I don’t know what I’m doing. Lacrosse came to me later in life. I had been playing basketball and soccer all my life, so I developed certain skills and all of a sudden I came into lacrosse and I was so far behind the rest of the middle school. So it was more, kind of, mentally challenging for me to start from square one where others were at four or five.”
Rabil won a championship with Boston in 2011. In 2012, he set an MLL single-season points record with 72. Internationally, Rabil played for the United States men’s national team in 2010 and 2014 and was named the world’s most valuable player in the 2010 World Cup. He led the USA to a gold medal.
The numbers are staggering, but there’s more to the best player in the world than just scoring goals. He gets his teammates involved and he wants to win.
“He’s become such a dominant passer,” said Spallina. “Every conversation I’ve had with him is about the team — never been about him — and has just been about winning championships.”
The Lizards have won two MLL titles. Last year they fell just short of reaching the championship game, losing in the semifinals to Denver 14-13. Now with Rabil on board, the Lizards could very well be a preseason favorite to win it all in 2015.
If there was an area of weakness on the team last season, it was their play in the midfield.
“I’d like to think that’s going to make a huge impact on our quest for a championship,” said Spallina.
With this trade, the Lizards significantly upgraded the position. Rabil had 20 goals and 33 assists in 12 games for Boston last season.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” said Rabil. “It’s an awesome opportunity with a team already with a championship pedigree. It’s a great mix of young talent with the right veterans. I want to provide value from a leadership and experience standpoint, but also help contribute to what I think is going to be potentially the best offense in the league.”
Rabil could also help the Lizards at the box office and in merchandise sales. Last season, the Lizards finished fourth in the league with an average attendance of 4,414. That number is expected to skyrocket in 2015, as the team’s office is already getting inundated with season-ticket inquiries.
He brings his impressive skill set to New York and joins a team that is on the cusp of a championship.
The sport’s biggest superstar is going to love playing on “Strong Island.”
“It’s one of the biggest hotbeds (of) lacrosse,” said Rabil. “My social-media analytics show that one of the biggest has always been New York and Long Island. It speaks volumes to the passion of the younger audiences, and even the (passion the) parents have for lacrosse.”
Rabil is certainly going to put more fans in the seats, but the Lizards are also going to capitalize at the merchandise stands. Many fans will likely purchase plenty of gear, especially his jersey, which the team is already selling on its website.
But the arrival of Rabil in New York isn’t only going to help the Lizards’ organization. It’s also going to impact the attention given to lacrosse throughout the country.
“This is huge,” said Spallina. “This is something that can really help elevate the overall views of lacrosse nationally, by having the biggest name in the biggest market in the biggest lacrosse area. It’s something that I feel can help really impact this organization in every possible way.”
Rabil also makes an impact off the field.
He has his own website, a very popular YouTube channel, multiple endorsement deals and his own line of equipment with Warrior. Rabil has been referred to by Businessweek as “Lacrosse’s Million-Dollar Man.”
“There’s no real ceiling anymore in terms of exposure for the game,” said Rabil. “So I’m always trying to find new, unique and creative ways to build not only my brand, but to tell more people about lacrosse.”
In an effort to share his knowledge and passion for the sport, No. 99 has also established the Paul Rabil Experience, a website that offers instructional videos, information on strength and conditioning and nutritional advice.
But perhaps his most significant off-the-field project is The Paul Rabil Foundation, a charitable initiative that helps children with learning differences through sports and scholarship.
“It’s incredibly important to me,” said Rabil, who plans on holding a future foundation event in New York City. “I grew up with learning differences. My younger sister grew up with dyslexia. We work with schools that specialize in private education for children with learning differences, and our first step is to help them create lacrosse programs. We also have a scholarship fund for children who are in need of financial aid.”
Rabil is the total package in the lacrosse world, and he could very well be the missing piece that the Lizards have been looking for.
He’s the best player on the planet. He scores goals and helps his teammates score goals. He’s hungry to win another championship and so are the Lizards, who haven’t held the Steinfeld Trophy since 2003.
Rabil has also become an entrepreneur off the field and is dedicated to giving back to the community.
The Lizards gave up a king’s ransom to bring Rabil to New York, but it figures to be a pretty smart investment. It’s not very often that a player of Rabil’s ability becomes available, and the Lizards didn’t hesitate in reeling in a big fish.
2015 is shaping up to be a special season for Rabil and the Lizards.
Welcome to New York, Paul!
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