Why There Will Never Be Another Paul Rabil

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Kyle Harrison crept upstairs at 2 a.m., surprised to see the light on in the bedroom of his off-campus residence near Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. When he opened the door, he saw Paul Rabil posted up to the TV watching a grainy VHS of a Hopkins-Carolina lacrosse game.

Then a highly touted recruit out of D.C.-area sports superpower DeMatha, Rabil had his eye on the stack of tapes from the moment he arrived on his official visit in 2004.

“This is heaven,” Rabil thought.

Rabil must have felt a similar sense of nirvana as he announced his retirement from professional lacrosse Tuesday at Audi Field in Washington, D.C., surrounded by several deities of the sport.

Fresh off his own farewell tour, Harrison was there. As was Dave Pietramala, their coach at Johns Hopkins. Hall of Famers Ryan Boyle and Mark Millon attended the press conference, as did current pros Trevor Baptiste, Romar Dennis, Tucker Durkin, Rob Pannell and Tom Schreiber — all of them indebted to Rabil not only for starting the league in which they play, but also for showing them how to commodify their lacrosse talent.

“He was different,” Harrison said, nodding at Rabil as he posed for pictures with his family and his girlfriend, the famous Mexican actress and singer Eiza González Reyna. “There was this plan the whole time. He was just building, building and building. Now here he is, he owns his own league and retires as one of the best to ever do it. It worked.”

“I wanted to be as great as anyone who’s ever played the game.”

— Paul Rabil

Rabil’s retirement speech laid bare the strife he felt calling it a career at age 35 and coming off one of his most productive seasons as a pro. After struggling during the Premier Lacrosse League Championship Series last summer and having to navigate the league through the pandemic, he said, he was rejuvenated by a 45-minute conversation he had with Cannons coach Sean Quirk after the expansion club acquired him from the Atlas in March.

Even the greatest players, it turns out, want to be coached.

“I could feel how excited he was to coach me,” Rabil said. “I hadn’t felt that in a really long time.”

Quirk didn’t just want a figurehead. He wanted the two-time Major League Lacrosse MVP version of Rabil, a bruising downhill dodger and battering ram of a midfielder who commanded slides every time he touched the ball.

“We talked about separating your roles as an operator and a player,” Quirk said of Rabil, who broke off from MLL in 2018 to start the PLL with his brother, Mike. “He said, ‘That’s what I need. I want you to be on me about that.’ No one was holding him accountable as a player.”

Rabil’s performance — he ranked second on the Cannons and ninth in the league with 26 points and was named a PLL All-Star — belied the injuries through which he played. He said he even flirted with the idea of playing beyond this season before “father time shot me with a few lightning bolts” during the all-star break.

“There’s a sense of going out on my own terms,” Rabil said. “I used to want to be dragged off the field, but I think it’s a little better to walk off.”

Rabil’s Hall of Fame resume speaks for itself. A four-time All-American at Johns Hopkins, he was a part of NCAA championship teams in 2005 and 2007. He played in three world championships, leading the U.S. to gold medals in 2010 as the MVP and again in 2018 as a veteran on the team. He won MLL titles with the Boston Cannons in 2011 and New York Lizards in 2015. He also has an NLL championship ring from 2010 with the Washington Stealth.

Along the way, Rabil became the most influential lacrosse player of the 21st century, capitalizing on the advent of social media and the investment of sponsors who encouraged him to go full bore into building his brand. It often made him a popular pincushion not just for fans and Twitter trolls, but also other pro players who resented the attention he received.

“I wanted to be as great as anyone who’s ever played the game,” said Rabil, the all-time leading scorer in professional field lacrosse history with 657 points in 14 seasons. “And I let people know that, for better and for worse.”

In 2006, USA Lacrosse Magazine put out an edition featuring a baby-faced Harrison with the headline, “Face of the Game.” Nine years later, Inside Lacrosse similarly cast Myles Jones and Lyle Thompson as protagonists in the narrative of a sport on the brink of a breakthrough.

We were both right.

And we were both wrong.

For as prominent as all three players became over the last decade and a half, none were Rabil, whose countenance became singularly synonymous with lacrosse.

Rabil looked the part. He was handsome, chiseled and tattooed — a 6-foot-3 specimen whose veins popped every time he unleashed a 100-plus mph shot.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Rabil played the part. He put himself out there in plain view of the world. His first YouTube videos in 2009 were positively cringeworthy. They got better, though. He invested more in media and production value, now hallmarks of the PLL.

A 2015 video of Rabil throwing a lacrosse ball across Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to his former U.S. teammate and Hex Performance entrepreneur Drew Westervelt has 3.1 million views. People have spent 126 million minutes watching his YouTube productions.

That’s a lot of face time for the face of the game, who inked lucrative contracts with Red Bull, Under Armour, Chevrolet, New Balance and GoPro.

“Our partners and sponsors put us in a position that this is your life,” said Harrison, who had several iterations of his own equipment and apparel lines with STX. “Go build a brand and take us with you.”