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While most of the original six Major League Rugby franchises were announcing player signings left and right, Utah was taking the slow and steady approach. But shortly after unveiling the nickname, Warriors, and the hiring of Kiwi head coach Alf Daniels, Utah made arguably the biggest signing of them all in bringing BYU star-turned-Chicago Bear Paul Lasike back to the game of rugby.
Lasike first came to the United States from his native New Zealand in the spring of 2008 to play for the Highland U19 program. He was recruited to study and play at BYU thereafter, where he earned All-American honors as a freshman and helped the Cougars to their first-ever national title. Then he served a two-year mission for the Mormon Church before returning to BYU for his sophomore year. That’s when the football team got ahold of him.
He split time between football and rugby the next three springs, only playing in the playoffs for the rugby Cougars, helping them to three-straight Varsity Cup titles. His final year, though, he was all football, and for good reason. Though he wasn’t drafted that spring, he was signed as a free agent by the Arizona Cardinals.
They cut him, but the Chicago Bears picked him up. Lasike was very lucky, not just because he’d never watched a football game live until he was 20 and he was now in the NFL, but because the Bears were patient enough to wait for his visa to get sorted out. Lasike had spent the previous several years in the USA on a student visa, and now whichever team wanted him would have to sponsor a new kind of visa.
In the NFL, there are a lot more athletes knocking on the door than there is room for them. Therefore, in the offseason or preseason, it’s not unheard of for a player to sign with a team, practice, and then be released all in the span of a day or two. So having to sign Lasike and wait the two-to-three weeks for his visa to be sorted out before he could even hit the field wasn’t something many teams were eager to do.
The Bears were, and he would go through the gamut with them, from being on the practice squad to signing a futures contract (the same kind of deal Carlin Isles signed with the Detroit Lions) to eventually being brought up to the active roster. He first touched the field last season, playing in 10 games, starting in three and carrying the ball three times for eight yards as a fullback. He caught one pass for three yards.
This May, the Bears released Lasike. Unfortunately, no other teams were willing to sponsor his visa just to give him a tryout, so his NFL career came to an end. Luckily for him, it happened in the same timeframe Major League Rugby was becoming a real thing.
The connections to Utah are obvious – he spent five years there for college, the Warriors CEO is Kimball Kjar, who coached Lasike at BYU. The head of marketing is Ishmael Tilialao, a Cougar teammate. Then the Warriors signed Daniels, tightening Lasike’s tie to the team.
“He was one of our teachers at our high school, and he helped out with our first 15, and he’d done a lot of coaching in the age groups in Waikato,” said Lasike of Daniels. “I had a really good association with him in New Zealand, so when I heard he was going to be the head coach, that just made it even more exciting and fun to look forward to.”
Lasike isn’t just some crossover signee. This isn’t a big deal just because he played in the NFL. It’s massive because he has potential to be the best player in the MLR. Lasike wasn’t just good at BYU, he was a phenom.
In New Zealand, he was a part of a provincial training group that feeds into the Mitre 10 Cup and Super Rugby. He played against Julian Savea and alongside Tawera Kerr-Barlow, both All Blacks. In the USA, he’s only ever lost one game, against a stacked Seattle Old Puget Sound Beach team that featured numerous capped Eagles. In his time with BYU and Highland, he never lost another match on American soil, leading Highland to the U19 national championship and BYU to four in college.
He was the best player on BYU teams that included eventual Eagles Shaun Davies, Ryan Roundy and Kyle Sumsion. And he plays center, a position where the USA isn’t particularly strong. He is capable of not only being the star of the MLR, but the star of Team USA. That is, once he gets back into shape.
Outside of tossing the ball around with the guys he helps coach at Sacramento State, where he and his family are currently living, he hasn’t played rugby in four years. And he hasn’t played football in nearly 12 months, either. At the Warrriors’ recent combine, he was a minute off the mark in the bronco fitness test.
“I’m just getting back into it right now,” Lasike said. “It’ll come. When I put my mind to something, I can definitely achieve it. And that’s what’s on my mind now, I’ve got to get back into shape before January and before I head back to Utah.”
Returning to rugby is not something Lasike thought much about in the five years he spent playing football, but it’s also not something he’s doing on a whim. He sees it as the next step in his professional sporting career.
“It’s funny, because this stuff never crossed my mind when I was playing football, and part of that is because I was just so busy. It’s such a stressful industry, you really don’t have time to think about things outside of football,” said Lasike.
“As I’ve had more time to reflect on what I want to do it’s kind of jumpstarted and sparked up that interest that I’ve always had, which is to play rugby professionally. We’ll see where this goes.”
He’s hoping, as should American rugby fans, it leads to many caps for the Eagles.
“That’s definitely in my plans, a goal I want to work towards. The [Warriors] contract is for two years, and hopefully I can do well enough to go as long as I possibly can. I love sports, and I want to do something I enjoy in life. Right now it’s something I want to do, so we’ll see.”
While Lasike is currently Utah's only announced player, it won't be long before several other BYU alums sign on. Jared and Josh Whippy, who came from the same New Zealand boarding school as Lasike and followed his path to BYU, are likely going to reunite with him in the Warriors backline.
"I only got one season in with them when I was at BYU, but I saw a lot of them at the combine a few weeks ago, and it’s going to be fun reuniting with those guys," said Lasike. "We have a chemistry because we’ve already played together. That’ll be a huge plus going into the season."
Josh Whippy made his international debut for the USA earlier this fall in the Americas Pacific Challenge. He'll be seeking his cap with the full national team later this month in Germany and Georgia, and he's on the brink of becoming a star, too. Mix in some of the other notable players based in Salt Lake City, like 7s Eagle Don Pati, and the Warriors will be fun to watch.