NFL: Living 'American dream'

By Kris Shannon

Kiwi Paul Lasike runs the ball against the Cleveland Browns in an NFL pre-season encounter earlier this month. Photo / AP
Kiwi Paul Lasike runs the ball against the Cleveland Browns in an NFL pre-season encounter earlier this month. Photo / AP

Sitting in a team meeting room at the clock ticked past 11am last Saturday, Paul Lasike looked around and realised he was living the "American dream".

The Kiwi had just received confirmation of his place on the Chicago Bears' roster for the new NFL season, a culmination of a rapid rise in a sport he first played only five years ago.

But the news he would be suiting up for the Bears in Monday morning's (NZT) opener against the Houston Texans came not with the pomp and ceremony one would expect of American football. Instead, the good news arrived via a lack of bad news.

"There's not like a list they post or anything," Lasike told Newstalk ZB. "It's just if you're in the team meeting at the cut-off time, you're looking around and you know those are the guys you're going into the season with.

"It's not like a 'hoorah' type of experience - it's just like I'm sitting in the room. You have a couple of hours to celebrate and then we're on to Houston.

But it was really exciting and I enjoyed the moment. I called my parents and they were really proud of me."

That pride must have been only magnified by the unorthodox route Lasike took to reach the premier level of American sport. Having captained Pukekohe High School's first XV and played at age-group level for Waikato, Lasike shifted to the US after earning a rugby scholarship to Utah-based college BYU.

There, after a two-year Mormon missionary stint, he was spotted by the school's football team and persuaded to swap codes, playing in college for three years before attempting to crack the professional game.

Although he last year came agonisingly close to catching with first the Arizona Cardinals and, after being cut, the Bears, the fullback has since seen footage of his nascent steps in the NFL and discovered he was "terrible".

"It's night and day, honestly," he said. "It was funny to look back and see how far I've come and how much I've learned. It was mainly technique-wise, not really effort. I went hard and had a good training camp but it was about the technique of being a fullback and learning different concepts because it's a really complex sport."

The complexities for Lasike will largely entail creating running lanes for Chicago's best backs, essentially acting as a bodyguard for the ball-carrier. He will receive a couple of carries and be targeted on the odd pass - making four rushing attempts and catching one ball in three pre-season games - but his 117kg frame will chiefly be used for the dirty work.

There are no guarantees over either his playing time or his future in Chicago, having signed a one-year contract for the minimum rookie wage of $617,000, but Lasike became accustomed to overcoming obstacles on his way to the 53-man roster.

Paul Lasike
Paul Lasike

"It was the most strenuous month of my entire life," he said of the pre-season, knowing his every move was being assessed and the axe could fall at any moment.

"There were times when I did want to give up in college. It was frustrating ... it's like someone from America coming over and trying to crack Super Rugby, having not grown up with it. It's not an easy task."

Lasike, should he take the field tomorrow morning, will become the third New Zealand-born player to experience the NFL, following the footsteps of Riki Ellison and David Dixon. But even before seeing a snap in the regular season, the 26-year-old has already enjoyed the luxuries of a multi-billion-dollar league.

"The facilities, the treatment, the food. It's a lifestyle ... we have everything there for us.

"Everyone looks at it like, 'hey, you're living the American dream'."

- NZ Herald

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