After signing a brand new contract and getting named the starter, tight end Niles Paul's season ended before it began. Now he's reflecting and regaining his identity.
"This was my year. This was my year."
Tight end Niles Paul spoke those words over and over while sitting on the turf at FirstEnergy Stadium. He was telling them to fullback Darrel Young, to left tackle Trent Williams, to tight end Jordan Reed. He was telling them to himself.
All too quickly, Paul's year turned to the past tense. It wasn't supposed to be that way.
He signed a three year contract with the Redskins five months before, began bulking up more than he ever had in the spring, and a couple weeks into training camp was named first on the team's depth chart. It was all shaping up. He had never been as physical, weighing in at 255 pounds, and he was moving well.
Then came the Redskins' first preseason game in Cleveland. Then his first opportunity to test his new body.
Then the devastating ankle injury that made it all moot.
The video makes you wince; one of those graphic images where a body part is turned the wrong way. In this case it was Paul's left ankle, broken and dislocated in a split second after running back Chris Thompson and Browns linebacker Craig Robertson fell on top of it.
"I watched the tape," said Paul, who still remembers everything that happened. "I was mad at myself more so how it happened."
He lined up on the right side of the line against defensive end Jamie Meder, who was playing "real soft." Paul tried to take advantage by short-stepping him, which worked, and began driving him back. Thompson cut towards Paul, which prompted him to lock up Meder's arms but Meder broke his right arm free to grab Thompson. Then Paul fell to the ground.
"I didn't know it was broken first, so I tried to get up and looked down and it was just pointing right towards me," Paul said. "I was like 'Damn.' It hit me hard."
Paul was only supposed to be in for six plays during that drive. His season's fate was sealed on the fifth.
But as vivid as that play remains in Paul's mind, he's moved past the frustration and regret of that initial diagnosis. He's now come to terms with his situation and reached for the positives that come with sitting out of a full NFL season. It's demanded some "soul-searching" and awarded him a clearer perspective of his life.
"The good part of this is I've been able to spend a lot of time with my family, because I kind of got lost in my own little world out here," he said. "You get lost in football… When you're so used to playing football all your life, you're pretty much bred to be an athlete."
There are two kinds of benefits to this sabbatical. The first is about managing pain. Paul doesn't feel any in his chest or his shoulders, where he often gets tendinitis. Even without an injury, the grind of the season wears down the body, but taking a year off has given him a comfort he hasn't experienced in many years.
The second is about rediscovering his identity.
"I found out that there is so much more to me than just an athlete," Paul said.
For example, Paul has found a new hobby mixing beats at home, playing around with music and DJ-ing. He picked up the guitar recently and has taken a few classes. He's even done some vocal lessons with offensive lineman Shaun Lauvao, also sidelined for the year with an injury. And, if you've paid attention to The Redskins Blog, he's always ready to enjoy a trip to the movie theater.
"I'm just trying to find myself and I want to travel and do that, too, because I've felt so confined with football," Paul said. "This is my life, and football isn't my life, at least, it won't always be my life."
Paul shouldn't be confused with someone who has moved on from the game. He's just found the right distinction – between long-term fulfillment and short term responsibility. Because, even as he watches games from his couch on Sunday, the competitor in Paul has never left.
"I love it when I see guys like Derek [Carrier] out there balling. Reed is out there balling. It motivates me because I just want to get back and get back stronger. That competition, and it will be a competition, is going to be fun. That's all I look forward to is competition."
Remaining close with the team is still a priority for Paul, who began returning to Redskins Park once he graduated from a scooter to wearing a boot that he wore for five weeks and is due to come off soon.
He's already been testing the ankle, walking without the boot around his home and hasn't reported any pain. At the facility, he's worked closely with head strength and conditioning coach Mike Clark on his quad muscles and upper body routines so he doesn't come out with "chicken legs."
To regain his foot's flexibility, he's also attempting to pick up marbles with his toes one by one. It was difficult at first, but he's managed to get two and three at a time now.
Which is to say it's progress, however little it seems, towards changing the past tense back to the present.
To still making this Paul's year.