Stick man

As a two-time Major League Lacrosse MVP and eight-time all-star, Paul Rabil has been called the LeBron James of this trending sport, first played by the Iroquois in the Northeast as early as 1100. But the New York Lizards’ star midfielder didn’t pick up a lacrosse stick until the relatively late age of 12. 

“My neighbor gave me a stick at a moment in my youth sports career where I was playing basketball and soccer — both club teams — and both coaches wanted me to commit to year-round competition and I wanted to keep playing both,” he remembers. “So, I told them both ‘No’ and had a spring season open by virtue of that. And so my neighbor brought over a stick, because he was playing a spring sport called lacrosse… I’m from an area in southern Maryland (Hyattsville), so we really didn’t have lacrosse when I was growing up. It was still a very different, very new sport, but that’s how I got my start.”

He began with a recreational team and continued playing other sports.

“It was mainly just a sport I was playing for fun amongst other sports with my friends. And I was playing relatively late compared to, if you were to take a pro athlete that has excelled in their particular sport, they’ve usually started at an earlier age.”

But in Rabil’s case, natural talent put him right on the fast-track.

“I made the varsity team as a freshman (DeMatha Catholic High School). So generally, when you’re in sports at the high school level, if you can make the varsity team your freshman year, maybe sophomore year, you’re considered more elite than the rest of your age group. So that point of recognition for myself was, like, ‘Hey, I think I can really now push this harder and make a run at playing college ball (at Johns Hopkins University) and allow myself to progress there.’”

By 2008, he was playing lacrosse professionally in both the Major Lacrosse League and the National Lacrosse League. Last year, he was signed by the New York Lizards.

“I spent most of my career in Boston. I was drafted to the Boston Cannons and really enjoyed it. I was traded in the off-season last year to New York and it’s been really exciting being exposed to this sports market.”

Now he’s living in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn with his wife, Kelly Berger, also a professional lacrosse player with Team USA.

“I think our commonality is just sports in general and understanding the mindset of an athlete… understanding in an introspective way how critical, how much pressure, how much drive you have to have as an athlete and then working through that. It’s nice to have a companion that you can talk through challenges in sports and stuff.”

And those challenges come in many different shapes and sizes, whether it’s a matter of physical demands or a matter of politics within the game itself. He’s been able to power through all of them, earning himself accolade after accolade. Last year he was named MLL Finals MVP and was voted to his seventh consecutive First Team All-Pro Team. He’s a three-time MLL Offensive Player of the Year and holds the record for the most points scored in a season, 72.

When asked what more he would like to accomplish, Rabil is modest.

“I think you just look at legacy and continuing to build on what you’ve accomplished. But the relationships that are built along the way to accomplishing those championships and awards and then the sense of satisfaction in victory, I think is what keeps athletes, me in particular, grinding and chasing.”

Which isn’t to say that all of his awards and achievements don’t matter to him.

“I’d be lying to you if I was sitting here and saying I don’t care about awards… It would be like telling any other person across any other industry — whether it’s finance, real estate, entertainment — that being their top sales person doesn’t matter. Or winning a Grammy doesn’t matter to an artist.”

He balances his drive with meditation.

“I have a sports psychologist that I work with regularly. I really invest in mental awareness and mental health… I find a lot of enjoyment in what I do from a media component through social (media), creating content, engaging my audience and also building businesses. I have an online instructional platform that I launched about a year ago that’s growing. I’m in events; I’m involved with events in lacrosse, like camps, clinics, tournaments; and then I’m a passive investor for a venture company that I’m a part of with my brother.”

It may not sound particularly relaxing, but it’s clear that for Rabil, joy comes from the thrill of accomplishment.

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