Growing up with a learning difference hindered Paul Rabil in the classroom, but it motivated him to excel on the field.
Now, as one of the most recognizable professional lacrosse players with National Lacrosse League and Major League Lacrosse championships and Most Valuable Player awards under his belt, Rabil is using his star power and business expertise to build lacrosse programs at schools that help children with learning differences.
This past December, the Paul Rabil Foundation hosted its annual Holiday Magic Gala to celebrate, and raise funds and awareness for the great cause. This event was also an opportunity to honor and give thanks to dedicated families, friends, and sponsors who support the foundation.
We caught up with Rabil to discuss the event, growing up with a learning difference, and how sports have impacted his life.
Tell us about your learning difference and how it’s helped you become the athlete you are today.
“I grew up with Auditory Processing Disorder (APD). I still have it. When you hear it’s an auditory disorder, you think it’s just listening, but I struggled more with reading comprehension. [I’d] have to read an excerpt two to three times for it to process. So that can be frustrating because I could read several chapters at a time and not really understand what I just read. But as it relates to the field, I really think [the disorder] had a profound effect on the way I practiced as an athlete.
Practice is celebrated at all levels as being integral to success, but I knew and always felt physically that I was practicing more for longer periods of time than my teammates and competitors. And it was because of the repetition that was required for me to feel like I fully comprehended content in class. On the field, that repetition crossed over to the point where I wanted to practice and practice and practice the same shot until I had it perfected. So that kind of obsessive compulsion mentality has really helped me become the athlete that I am on the lacrosse field.”
And this learning difference inspired you to start your foundation, right?
“Yes. We started back in 2010, and it was a critical juncture in my career where I had one fortunate win at every level and was starting to really invest in building out a brand and having an extended reach in the lacrosse community. In the past, I had annually supported different charities that came to me or that I found who were doing some great things in the community. At that moment, I felt like I had established a platform to where I could use my voice to help those in need that I really identified with.
When I was first conceptualizing the Paul Rabil Foundation, I was like, ‘Well, how can I provide that same opportunity and build lacrosse programs at schools that help children specifically with learning differences?’ So that was our first avenue. And then as we did this, we launched the foundation—I say we because my family has really helped me conceptualize this and I have a board of directors that help with structure and organization.
My younger sister had dyslexia (she actually went to one of the schools that we support in D.C. called the Lab School), and we were remembering as a kid how challenging that was because of how expensive specialized education could be. So we wanted to create a scholarship fund to cover that base as well. The Paul Rabil Foundation really does two things: It supports children through sports and supports children through academia.”
What does this type of funding mean for the kids? Why is it so important?
“What I’ve learned over time is that we have funded a couple of schools’ entire lacrosse programs, from its equipment all the way down to jerseys. And we provide micro grant scholarships as well. But I think it’s more about the relationships we build with the kids and schools, like the Lab School, the Jemicy School, the Isaac School, and the National Dyslexia Tutoring Program.
I spoke at a banquet in Baltimore a few weeks ago at the Jemicy School, and a lot of the kids were just thrilled that they knew the person who received the scholarship, and that I was there talking to them. They were interested in some of the challenges I had versus what they have, as well as where I’ve gotten in my sport and where they want to go with their passion. So I think the relationship has been really dynamic and that’s not something that I really could comprehend when I first built the foundation.That direct touch point we have, whether they or [someone they know] is a scholarship recipient, is special.”
They can relate to you more because of the learning difference that you have even though you are a pro athlete.
“Yes relate, and I think it also motivates. One of the big challenges for kids with any type of learning difference growing up is that there’s this notion that you’re at a disadvantage. Or you have to work harder to achieve something that may come easier to someone else. But there are personality traits, like the one I mentioned about the repetition, that I said crossed over onto the field for me. Brilliant entrepreneurs, Fortune 100 CEOs, and other great athletes with dyslexia are able to tap into their athletic ability or their creativity, which more linear thinkers may find difficulty doing.”
At what point did it become clear to you that you wanted to make a career out of your passion for lacrosse?
“There were three stages. I was given a stick when I was 12 years old from my neighbor, and so relative to this day and age, I was very late to entering the game. I played it really just for fun as my interests lied in basketball. But as I got better at lacrosse—and it took me a good year-and-a-half or two years to even be able to figure out certain skills—there was this sort of interesting dynamic of personalizing, stringing your own stick, and being able to source through what gear works for you. It also has the team component of what you would get out of basketball or football. So you have that blend between an individual and team sport. That’s kind of phase two of where I really fell in love with it.
As far as deciding when I was going to invest all my time into the game, I mean, that’s a continuing, evolving process for me. You know, full-time professional lacrosse guys aren’t a coffee table topic of conversation like other mainstream sports are, so it was a bit of a risk to pursue professional lacrosse full-time. With lower wages on the field, there are interesting ways to grow, so I studied a lot of what the action sports athletes were doing: how to curate sponsorships and how to build certain grassroots businesses. That has kind of been the direction I’ve taken to supplement becoming a fully branded lacrosse player.”
You mention your interest in sourcing through gear. What are some of your must-haves?
“The most important thing for any lacrosse player is their stick and having a couple of them, frankly. You have a back-up stick in case one of them breaks, so you’re ready to go—kind of like hockey. From there, you need gloves. And then probably after gloves, you would go helmet. You can get away with a helmet and gloves in practice, scrimmages, street games. And then if you were to fully suit up, you have your helmet, elbow pads, and shoulder pads. But I primarily shoot with just my stick and gloves.”
Do you have any favorite brands for each of those?
“Yeah. So actually I use my own stick. One of my sponsors is Warrior, and we have several heads. One of them is called the Rabil 2, which is what I’m using right now. Then my 99 handle. Those are two of my favorites, not just because my name is on them. I spent a lot of time on the R&D side.”
What does lacrosse mean to you and how has it made a difference in your life?
“It’s been pretty much apart of every walk of my life. My foundation is rooted in my experience in lacrosse. What I do for a living, the way I think… The foundation is lacrosse-based. And then my execution on the field is kind of funny because that’s what comes most natural to me. Learning to build a brand is something that’s been really energizing, and in a way, it’s allowed me to sharpen my business acumen. I’ve travelled the world playing lacrosse. I’ve been to almost every state, and I plan to continue to do it for as long as I can.”