Paul Rabil could have ripped a shot from the point and won the game himself. It was, after all, his kind of moment: Sudden-death overtime of the Major League Lacrosse semifinals, Rabil's New York Lizards versus the team that had drafted him, the Boston Cannons. But rather than go for the glory, he faked towards the net and dished a quick pass to Matt Gibson, who finished with a goal that lifted New York into Saturday's MLL Championship game against the Rochester Rattlers.
A year ago, Rabil may have just taken the shot, basked in the moment and called it a day. It's what he's done for the better part of a decade. Only that changed this year, when he was traded to New York from Boston and was forced to evolve. No longer the league's premier scorer, he's become a more versatile player, equally capable of finding the net in bunches and finding teammates with precision passes. This season, he racked up 29 goals and 20 assists in 12 games.
"He's a physical specimen," says teammate Rob Pannell, who along with Rabil makes up the most potent one-two offensive punch in lacrosse today. "He can put you away with one move. Paul is at his best when he's got the ball at top of center, charges at the defense, shakes right to left, down hill on the run and rips a shot or pass high or low."
A month earlier, on the road in Chesapeake, Pannell and Rabil connected for a goal that was poetry in motion and stardom personified – the game's two giants, together in the professional ranks at last. To hear Pannell describe it is almost as savory as watching the fluid play unfold.
"I drove up doing my thing from X, head up, and Paul is doing his thing off-ball," Pannell recalls. "I saw him out of the corner of my eye, and it was an all-or-nothing kind of play. This really showed the two types of players that Paul and I are. I threw the pass near the goalie's head, Paul's stick was out there and he didn't have to move his feet, he grabbed it, put it on goal and scored in one motion."
The Lizards were down 7-3 at the point and used the goal as a momentum changer in the game they eventually won, 15-13.
Since Pannell is the attackman to Rabil's midfielder, the two stars mirror each other on either side of the cage. Rabil admits that it's been beneficial for his development to have guys like Pannell and Gibson on offense with him, so he can play off-ball better.
"I've always just been crafted as a player who has a lot of aggression with the ball, a dynamic dodger and a good shooter," he says.
Rabil has been relied upon to create most of the offense for his teams in the past, but that's not the case any more. The Lizards are like the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s and Harlem Globetrotters of forever, posting the MLL's best record while scoring the most goals (206). But pairing lacrosse's two biggest stars together doesn't just mean hundreds of decadent and defining plays, it also combines the two most influential figures in the game on the same team at a time when the sport looks to capitalize on decades of growth. The marketing potential is limitless.
Rabil is 6-foot-3, ripped, with rock-star locks and list of contacts that includes Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Once dubbed "Lacrosse's First Million-Dollar Man," he has been the face of the game for a decade, thanks to endorsement deals with Go Pro, Red Bull and Warrior, among others. As of late, he's been featured in trick shot videos from Dude Perfect (approaching 6 million views) and gathered motivation on strolls around his new digs in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And yet, he still finds time to DJ at clubs in Baltimore, his hometown.
"He's got the whole look going on," Pannell says. "That's who he is and people notice."
Pannell is slightly younger and smaller at 5-foot-10, but he's just as potent on the field and in marketing channels. A former Tewaaraton Trophy winner – it's the Heisman of college lacrosse – he posted an MLL-best 68 points (38 goals and 30 assists) this season and has deals in place with Wheaties and Brine, though he uses his lacrosse stardom largely within the confines of the game, running camps and clinics around the country for young players. To a child from the Northeast with a lacrosse stick, Pannell is an icon.
While both have become the most marketable athletes in a sport that's on the rise, they each traveled divergent paths to get here. Rabil was a highly touted lacrosse prospect out of powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High in Maryland and went on to star at Johns Hopkins and for Team USA. He's won championships at every level. Pannell's rise to lacrosse stardom was rather unorthodox in that he was not recruited at all. He settled on Deerfield Academy, a private school in Massachusetts, before getting his break at Cornell and taking the sport by storm. He's still waiting to win his first title at any level.
For more than a decade Rabil has built his brand in and around the game of lacrosse, but never in a media market as big as New York.
"You hear about it, read about it," he says. "A lot of athletes aspire to be in this big sports market."
"He has an audience for who he is as a person," says Paul Carcaterra, a lacrosse analyst with ESPN and co-host of a radio show on SiriusXM with Rabil. "He's upped the ante in regards to what is perceived as an elite, market-driving lacrosse player and Rob has followed suit. He understands industry and understands marketability and continues to push the envelope."
Rabil has crafted his brand in such a way that you're forced to think about Paul Rabil no matter what sport you love the most. On any given day you can be infused with his commercials on national television or read his thoughts on the business of sports at Derek Jeter's Players' Tribune website. The thirst for exposure is real.
He talks and walks like a sports business executive because he has to. The MLL's average salary starts at $10,000 per season and can reach $16,000 for veterans and stars, according to one league representative. If you want to build your career and wealth around lacrosse, you have to venture into parallel mediums for ultimate brand growth. Rabil is writing the book on how to build a successful brand for a sport that's not in the traditional big four in North America.
"It's a hustle," he says. "When I was in high school and college I was too immature to understand that I could make a living by doing what I love to do. The clear picture for me is that anyone who wants to follow their passion – whether it's in business, the arts or sports – if you're that passionate about it, you figure out a way."
Rabil's passion has been apparent during his first season in New York, and it may very well be the best thing to ever happen to Pannell, who has had a flurry of good fortune in the game since starring at Cornell, graduating with the most points in the history of NCAA Division I lacrosse (354, a mark just passed Lyle Thompson's 400), winning the MLL Rookie of the Year award and cementing his current status as the game's best attackman.
"Bringing a guy like Paul in and having him on your team, you know that on the field he's going to have an instant impact, but in practice and in the locker room as well," Pannell says. "It's an opportunity to win a bunch of games and a bunch of championships, but for me, to learn about how he holds himself on and off the field is what it's all about."
On the field, their contrasting offensive styles have allowed for a balanced attack that benefits each other, but also players like Tommy Palasek, JoJo Marasco, Gibson and Ned Crotty, all of whom were stars at their respective colleges and could carry teams in their own right. But tellingly, it's the addition of Rabil that might finally put the Lizards back on top of the MLL for the first time in more than a decade. And he's determined to get them there on his own terms.
"The championship is the byproduct of how well the team continues to play and how well the team enjoys playing," Rabil says. "My singular goal is to have the most fun I've ever had on the field and that's it. If you get caught up in stats, wins or loses, you're stuck in the past and the future. For me, it's about staying in the present and enjoying my play, which is the reason I found the sport in the first place."