Once a New Zealand youth rugby star, Paul Lasike always harboured ambitions to play in the NFL. He is now closer than ever, running plays with the Chicago Bears practice squad. Ben Stanley looks at the kiwi kid who feels the door is open, and who wants desperately to walk right through it.
Paul Lasike remembers the night he decided to give up on his dream.
It was a Saturday in early September and the 25-year-old Kiwi was at his home in Provo, Utah with his wife, son, and baby daughter.
That morning, in Phoenix, he’d been cut from the Arizona Cardinals pre-season NFL camp – one of the last players to receive the bad news. Months of hard slog and sacrifice (he’d missed his daughter’s birth the week before) had gone into the last few months. And for what?
The franchise told him that it would bring him back for the practice squad if he cleared waivers, but Lasike had made up his mind: if no one claims me, I’m pulling out.
Let’s go back a second. A Kiwi rugby player making it to the NFL, after only taking up American football a few years before? What kind of a crazy dream was that to be having, anyway? An impossible dream, really. Just being in camp was a big enough buzz.
The next morning, his cellphone rang. It was his agent. The Chicago Bears were watching tapes of his training camp drills in Phoenix – and they were interested in signing him up.
“You fly to Chicago this afternoon,” his agent said. Lasike’s impossible dream still had a chance to come true.
Three months have passed since that phone call, and Lasike has made it stick in Chicago. He hasn’t cracked the NFL yet – his season has been spent on the Bears practice squad – but he’s on the edge, in the camp, close enough to believe he doesn’t have to wake up.
He might not have got the press that ex-NRL star Jarryd Hayne has received, but the flame is flickering a lot brighter than it was that night in Utah back in September.
“It’s been a freakin’ rollercoaster, man,” Lasike tells The Spinoff from Chicago.
“I remember going to sleep that night, and my thoughts then were to hang up on the dream if I didn’t get called back in the next 48 hours.
“It was a real test of patience and there were a lot of sacrifices that went into it. It was really depressing that I got cut – it felt like all the sacrifices I made were for naught.”
Only two New Zealanders have ever made the NFL: Christchurch’s Riki Ellison, a Super Bowl-winning linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Raiders – and Pukekohe’s David Dixon, a long-time Minnesota Vikings offensive guard. Riki’s American-born son Rhett is now with the Vikings, too.
It seems incredible, given the potential in New Zealand’s youth athlete ranks, that Lasike, who was born in Auckland and grew up in Glenfield, is the closest Kiwi in a decade to join those two pioneers.
A talented second-five for Westlake Boys’ High School and Hamilton’s Church College, Lasike made numerous Waikato youth rep teams – as well as a national Under-17 training camp in Auckland, alongside the likes of future All Blacks Julian Savea and Charlie Ngatai.
Lasike’s rugby skills saw him pick up a rugby scholarship to Brigham Young University in Utah, which was interrupted by a two-year Mormon mission to Alabama – and a chance to play for BYU’s college football team.
A football coach saw the Kiwi working out, put him in cleats and, before long, Lasike was turning heads as a hard-hitting running back for the Cougars. That was just three years ago, and it was his first genuine taste of American football.
Despite not being picked up in the 2015 NFL Draft, the Arizona Cardinals signed Lasike to a 90-man pre-season training contract. The incentive for training hard and shining in practice was the chance to make the active roster out of camp.
Things started well. Lasike – who plays as a fullback – survived the first few cuts, got some good write-ups in Arizona, and even scored a touchdown in the Cardinals’ final pre-season game against the Denver Broncos.
But the bad news, the news he so desperately did not want to hear, finally came. When the Cardinals finalized their 53-strong regular season squad, there was no room for Lasike.
“That Saturday morning we went in and, honestly bro, I felt like a lamb to the slaughter,” Lasike says.
“You go in and then some guy from the coaching staff will pick you up and say ‘hey, I need to talk to you.’ That’s when you think, holy frick, I’m getting cut.”
That was the case for Lasike, though he was told that if he cleared waivers and everything aligned, the Cardinals wanted him back on the practice squad.
Under the NFL waiver rules, players who are technically on contract can be claimed by another franchise and added to their active or practice rosters. Teams have 48 hours to make their picks once players are put on the waiver wire, before they return to their original club.
Lasike decided to return to his family in Utah. The hard work had taken a toll on the family man. Being cut after everything he had poured into his quest was almost impossible to take.
With that call from his agent and that flight to Chicago, the young kiwi had his sniff at NFL salvation but, as quick as it had appeared, it seemed to be gone again.
TWO DAYS after arriving in Chicago, the Bears cut Paul Lasike.
It had nothing to do with how he trained or what the coaches thought about their young prospect. Instead it was about a visa issue. His current visa to live and work in the United States was in the hands of his former employers in Phoenix and there were just 12 days left for the two sides to swap the paperwork.
The Bears told Lasike they would bring him back after it was sorted, but there was no guarantees. Their squad was still in flux. Lasike, who had already suffered emotionally after being cut by the Cardinals, could not believe what he was hearing.
“I was at the highest of highs, and then at the lowest of lows, all within 48 hours,” he says.
“I was looking at their transactions on the internet and I saw they had signed someone else in my position. I was like ‘bro, they ain’t bringing me back.”
He was wrong. The day the new visa was freshly minted in Chicago, the franchise bought him a flight from Utah. Lasike was back in the mix, and now reflects on that time of uncertainty as a blessing.
“I just feel like God’s hand has been in this the whole time,” he says.
“I got to go home and see my family over that time, and it was almost like a blessing in disguise. It gave me huge perspective.”
Since returning to Chicago – his young family have relocated to join him there – Lasike has been putting the work boots on. As a member of a practice squad, the Kiwi’s main task is running game reps against the active roster, emulating what plays opposing teams might run against them. Lasike reckons it’s the best preparation a NFL wannabe can get.
“In training camp, there are a lot of drills – team drills, one-on-one drills – but you don’t get as many game reps,” he says.
“In practice squad, you are running as an offense for your own team’s defense. It’s cool because I get a lot of reps, and against the best, too. You look at the piece of paper and you work the plays. You get to work on everything, and get to become a better player.”
While receiving nowhere near the big cash of NFL active squad members, practice squad players make an impressive US$6600 a week. That works out at US$343,200 a year, or more than NZ$500,000.
When you think Super Rugby salaries are capped at NZ$190,000, Lasike’s wages would place him well in excess of the top tier of New Zealand’s rugby players. And, although the cruellest of cuts is always close, Lasike knows how lucky he is.
“It’s not like it has been smooth sailing ever since settling in Chicago, but I feel like I am seeing the fruits of the hard work,” he says.
“The statistics of making the NFL from high school are incredible. It’s like only one per cent or something like that. Every team has 53 players. Multiply that by 32 teams and that’s less than a couple of thousand guys, out of millions that play and try out each year.
“There are people who would die to be in my shoes.”
The odds of Lasike cracking the NFL this season are long, but his franchise’s poor season offers him an extra chance. The Bears, whose record is 5-7, host the Washington Redskins at Soldier Field next Monday (NZT), and have three further remaining games before the end of the season.
With the Green Bay Packers and Vikings both 8-4 in the Bears’ NFC North division, playoff football won’t be coming to Chicago this season.
That could work in Lasike’s favour, with coaching staff and the front office potentially open to giving practice squad members a run-out with a view for next season.
“It’s possible, because it’s been done before,” he says. “Teams might write off a season, and activate practice squad members.
“It’s not even a ‘see what they can do’ thing – it’s a reward. There’s a huge money difference between practice squad and active roster, even though in the practice squad you are still getting great money.”
Regardless of how the current season ends, Lasike is committed to coming back to Chicago for the 2016 pre-season camp.
Familiarity with the system will work in his favour, while the story of Dixon – who played two seasons on the practice squads of the Vikings and Dallas Cowboys before making his NFL debut – gives him cause for hope.
“I’ll be back at ground zero again, but it’ll be a lot easier now,” the Kiwi says.
“I know the system, and I know the coaches now. You have your foot in the door. That’s where I’ll be next August, in camp with the Bears, trying to crack that 53.”
For Lasike – a man equal parts hard work and gratitude – the NFL dream is definitely alive. If it is going to happen, it will happen.
“A lot of friends and family are like ‘are you anxious to get onto the active roster?,” he says.
“Honestly, my answer is that I’m content to be where I’m at. If it is going to happen, it will happen. As long as I’m working hard, I’ll have every chance.”