From rugby to NFL: New Zealander’s unconventional journey to Bears

Paul Lasike
Paul Lasike (second to left) practices rugby with Ireland's Tommy Bowe (right), All Blacks' Ryan Crotty (second to right) and U.S.A's Andrew Durutalo (left) during The Rugby Weekend press conference held at Soldier Field Feb. 16. (TLA/The Rugby Weekend)

Q & A with Paul Lasike, Chicago Bears hopeful at running back

By Aishwarya Kumar Lakshminarayanapuram

Set aside the fact that Paul Lasike, currently a practice squad running back for the Bears, did not start playing football until his sophomore year at Brigham Young University.

He never watched a football game until the age of 20.

Lasike had a unique journey to the NFL.

“In terms of tackling, if football were more like rugby, there would be lesser concussions. You’re going to get your head out of the way, you’re going to use your shoulders, and you’re going to use your arms more.” — Paul Lasike

A New Zealand-native, the 5-foot-11, 232-pound Lasike moved to the U.S. in 2009 to play rugby for Brigham Young and “get to experience the American culture.” He became an All-American after his freshman year. He moved to Alabama after his freshman year to complete a two-year Mormon mission with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Alabama kindled his interest in football, and when he got back to BYU for his sophomore year, a strength and conditioning coach in the football team watched him during a rugby game. Impressed with his athleticism and ability to pick up skills quickly, he asked him to attend a session for walk-ons.

Paul Lasike
Paul Lasike played three years for the BYU football team from his sophomore to senior year. (Courtesy of Paul Lasike/Brigham Young University).

He passed the test and eventually was given a scholarship to play football for the next three years. He showed the scouts enough potential to warrant the Arizona Cardinals signing him last September to be part of the practice squad. The Cardinals released him that same month, and he caught on with the Bears.

He is the third New Zealand-based player to be part of the NFL; David Dixon and Riki Ellison are the others. Although he did not play a game last season, Lasike is optimistic about breaking through in 2016.

In an edited Q & A, the running back discussed the biggest adjustments he had to make as a football player; the attitude of rugby and football players on field and in the locker room; the challenges he faced in learning a new sport from scratch; and concussions in both sports.

Q: How did you get interested in football?

The first time I ever watched a football game was in Alabama during my Mormon mission. I believe it was [a game] between Alabama and LSU in 2010. And I just remember seeing the athletes. They were big in size, and I could hear the sound of their helmets cracking each other when I watched it on TV. That’s kind of weird, but I kind of liked it when I saw it.

Q: What was it like transitioning from rugby to football?

One of the biggest readjustments was with my body size because when I played rugby, I weighed about 220 pounds. When I played football, I had to gain about 30 pounds and weigh about 245-250 [pounds] because of my position. Football is more explosive; it is a sport which requires a lot from us physically. I had to readjust my conditioning, my eating – I used to eat a lot but I had to eat more. That was one of the biggest changes physically. And mentally, too there are just so many plays in football, it’s just hard to count. In rugby, you get away with five or six plays and you improvise. But in football,you have to learn so many plays and know your assignment.

It was very frustrating because basically in my first year playing for BYU, I was only on the reserve because it took me time to learn the game.

There were times it was hard, don’t get me wrong. There were times I wanted to give up. It was too frustrating. There are so many rules in football that when you learn is very hard.

Q: You have played rugby and football. What are some of the differences in attitude among the players and the general vibe of the locker room?

Players of American football are usually really outgoing and confident. When you score a touchdown, you’re going to celebrate. You’re going to jump in the air. It’s kind of like soccer, there is an enthusiastic, positive vibe. You celebrate after every move. In rugby, you don’t really celebrate like that. It is a gentleman’s sport. In football, if you run over someone, you can trash talk them. There is a trash-talking environment. That’s the culture of American football. But in rugby, you respect your opponent. When you score a touchdown or try in rugby, you quietly run back to your team and shake hands and get done with the game. Everything is kind of blowing up a little more in a football field.

Q: Experts claim that if football were more like rugby, there would be fewer concussions. What is your opinion?

In terms of tackling, if football were more like rugby, there would be lesser concussions. In rugby, you’re not going to lead with your head because you don’t have your helmet on. In football because you wear a helmet, you feel like you’re invincible. You feel like your helmet is going to protect you, which is not the case. If football is more like rugby, you’re going to get your head out of the way, you’re going to use your shoulders, and you’re going to use your arms more.

Q: Which sport is more explosive: rugby or football?

It’s weird because you’d think that because rugby has no protective gear, it is a lot more physical and explosive. But you don’t hit as hard in rugby as you do in football. People ask me what is more physical and what is more painful and I say both. Because I have been really badly hit and crunched in both the sports. In football they are going to crack people, they are not going to think about it, they’re going to lead with their helmet which is more dangerous because in rugby you break down and use more of your shoulders and technique. And so they are equally explosive.

Q: Does it feel weird to be playing with protection? What kind of adjustments did you have to make when you had to wear the protective equipment?

In football, they teach you to use your helmet as a weapon. One thing that I had to keep telling myself was that I wasn’t going to lead with my helmet. I learnt to use the stiff-arm and shoulders before using my head. It was a habit I had when I played rugby and I didn’t want to change that when I played football.

Q: You have always said that you are a rugby player by heart. How does that make you feel now that you no longer play the sport on a competitive level?

Do I miss rugby? Yes, absolutely. I miss playing it. I miss wearing shorts and a mouthpiece and that’s about it. But I am busy enough with my life right now with football that I don’t miss it every day. When I was in Chicago last week [for the press conference for The Rugby Weekend], I realized I missed the camaraderie of rugby.

Q: How does your family feel about you playing football? Are they worried about you getting injured because of the physicality of the sport?

My parents are very supportive. They don’t know the rules. My parents came to Chicago last year and it was the first time they ever watched a football game. They care a lot about me, my success and how the Bears perform.

My friends and families’ first reaction when I got selected was that there is a lot more money in American football than there is in rugby. So they all said “you are probably making a lot more money now.”

Paul Lasike
Paul Lasike with his wife and son. (Courtesy of Paul Lasike).
Photo at top: Paul Lasike (second to left) practices rugby with Ireland’s Tommy Bowe (right), All Blacks’ Ryan Crotty (second to right) and U.S.A’s Andrew Durutalo (left) during The Rugby Weekend press conference held at Soldier Field Feb. 16. (TLA/The Rugby Weekend)