Sports

ANZACS ABROAD: A Q&A with Kiwi NFL Player Paul Lasike

"As I do reflect back on it, I think to myself 'how did I make it out alive?' For some people, it's a killer."
April 3, 2017, 6:56pm
Youtube

They say the odds of a high school gridiron player - there are around a million of them - going on to play college football in the United States are around 6.5 percent. Of the group, it is said that only 1.5 per cent make the NFL.

Suffice to say, the odds of making it to American Football's Big Dance are absolutely tiny.

What odds, then, would you place on a Kiwi rugby player, who only starts playing American football in his early 20s, making the NFL cut? Impossible, right? Virtually, yes. But, then again, you may not have heard of Paul Lasike.

On September 11 last year, Lasike - who played college football for Brigham Young University in Utah - made his debut for the Chicago Bears against the Houston Texans, becoming just the third ever New Zealander to crack the NFL.

Kiwi Paul Lasike notching up a strong pre-season carry for the Chicago Bears last year. Source: Youtube.

The other two - San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Raiders linebacker Riki Ellison and Minnesota Vikings defensive end David Dixon - went on to have decade-long careers in the league. Ellison won three Superbowls with Joe Montana's 49ers.

While that might, historically, bode well for Lasike, he'd never let on. The 26-year-old fullback - once a New Zealand and Waikato rugby youth rep - is one of the most chilled, approachable athletes I've ever interviewed.

I first met Lasike in Phoenix in August 2015. Back then, I was on assignment for a New Zealand newspaper, looking at his pre-season training with the Arizona Cardinals. We met in the Cardinals' University of Phoenix Stadium, where, just six months before, Superbowl XLIX had been played.

It wouldn't happen for Lasike in Arizona, but, after a tough year on the Bears practice squad, he'd finally crack the NFL ranks last year.

THE KIWI BEAR: HOW A FORMER NZ RUGBY YOUTH REP BEAT THE ODDS AND MADE THE NFL

It was an up-and-down season for Lasike with the Bears - who were welded to the bottom of the league rankings for much of it. Appearing in five games, he'd only manage three carries for eight yards, all up.

While getting on the paddock was a statistical triumph in itself, the Auckland-born Kiwi isn't resting on his laurels. In two weeks, he heads back to pre-season camp with the Bears, likely starting on the practice squad again.

For VICE Sports AUNZ, I caught up with him again recently, on the phone from his home in Chicago and debriefed his first season in the NFL, how he avoids the hype of the league, what improves he needs to make - and why he's just grateful to beat the odds in the first place.

Kia ora, Paul. Your first season in the NFL is in the books. How do you feel about that?

"It's been awesome, bro. I've been thinking about how crazy it really was. It went by really quick. As I do reflect back on it, I think to myself 'how did I make it out alive?' For some people, it's a killer."

Footage of Paul Lasike playing rugby for Brigham Young University. Source: Youtube.

You started last season in the Bears practice squad? What were your expectations for the year? How realistic were your chances in getting to the NFL?

"Honestly bro, I set goals this time last year. I was on practice squad all season last year, but I set goals. The main goal was to make the 53-man roster. That's what I had my eyes set on.

"When it came to OT [off-season training], post-season practices and training camp, that was what my one goal was. I hadn't put on pads during a game weekend before – that's what I really wanted to do. When I made the week one roster last year, it was cool – but there have been a lot of highs and a lot of lows too, bro. It was obviously really exciting when I found out I made that roster.

"Expectation-wise, I just wanted to be the best fullback. It's kind of hard to explain, man. My reasons for doing what I did were different – everyone has different reasons. One of mine, because I had set that goal, was knowing I could compete at that level.

"It wasn't necessarily to be the best fullback in the league. I didn't set any statistical goals or anything like that. I felt that if I made that 53-man roster, everything would take care of itself. To be honest with you, I didn't think any further than that. I've done the same thing this year. At the end of this season, I set up a goal – and want to knock it out again."

What did you hear from the Bears, in terms of what they made of your season?

"It's kind of weird. This time last year, I signed a futures contract. What it did solidify is that I'm coming back for training camp, and getting another shot.

"That's what I was on, a one-year deal. When I got de-activated to the practice squad, and then re-signed to the active roster, they added another year. That's always a good sign. So, yea, when I came back up, they added 2017. In my meetings, I had to realize – it really was my rookie season. I was on the practice squad the year before, so technically a rookie.

"In terms of playing and getting a feel for the game, it was my rookie season. I'm always my biggest critic, so it's kind of hard to look at the season positively from the point of view of minutes and games. But that's what I've got to realize; it's my first NFL season – and I learn from here."

Riki Ellison, the first Kiwi to ever play in the NFL, reflecting on the head injuries he suffered while playing. Source: Youtube.

What were the biggest lessons you did learn during your first season in the NFL?

"The biggest thing I learnt was just to relax and have fun, man. Some games, it can be such a stressful environment. Everything can be so hyped and the nerves are flying everywhere. I felt that my best games were just when I relaxed, and had fun.

"I always did well, in the reps I got in, and could see a difference when I was happy. When I go forward, I'm going to try and do that again. You've just got to learn to relax instead of stressing out about things, you know?"

"And I only really picked that up in the second half of the season. Then I stopped thinking about what was happening next season or next week, and had more fun that way."

What are the areas you feel like you need to improve on?

"I've obviously still got a lot to work on. In my exit interviews with our coaches, they talked about my flexibility and keeping my pad level low.

"At the start of the season, I would come up to defenders with my hands, like rugby. But then I started noticing they'd come up to me and cut me, because they knew I'd run straight into them and blow them up. It's a good sign though, because it shows that they're studying me and who I am. I am a downhill runner.

"The coaches told me, they were like 'yea, there's film out there on you now. They know you're going to run straight – but you've gotta learn how to counter that. So this off-season, I'm just concentrating on getting more flexible in my hips, and keeping my pad level down."

Paul Lasike in action for the Bears in pre-season last year. Source: Youtube.

While everyone knows the story of ex-Eels star Jarryd Hayne (now with the Gold Coast Titans), over the last few years several NRL players have looked at the potential of playing NFL. Is it really possible for them to make a successful transition?

"That question was posed to me when Jarryd Hayne came over, and I always say that it'll work if someone gives them the time. Time is really precious in the NFL. Every week they make changes, you know.

"There's rugby league guys are all super athletic, but [American football] is a real technical game. If someone gives them the time and they pick it up fast enough, I have no doubt they can compete and do well at this level.

"It's certainly not as easy as people think it is – I'll put that out there. Just before you're a star in one sport, it doesn't mean you're going to be one in another. But if a team is willing to put that investment in time into players, it could work."

Outside of the NFL, how are you enjoying life in Chicago?

"It's been awesome, man. Amongst the chaos, craziness and stress, the bottom line is it is such a blessing and honour. I mean, it's unbelievable to get this far – but to be able to provide for my family is amazing.

"When I am done with this, we will be in a lot better situation than most 25 or 30-year-olds. It has provided us with so much. Looking back, it's like 'gee man, look at that training camp, or those ups and downs this season.' There's been a bloody broken hand, too.

"But then you think, wow. All of these experiences happen and I sit there and go 'I am living every American's dream,' you know? To play in the NFL. It's such a blessing."