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Paul Rabil believes lacrosse needs "a pro game that works" to hit mainstream in U.S. Here's what he's doing.

Lacrosse legend Paul Rabil's mission to propel game into mainstream US
Lacrosse legend Paul Rabil's mission to propel game into mainstream US 21:40

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Nearly 20 years ago, Paul Rabil went to Pat's King of Steaks in South Philadelphia and was introduced to his first cheesesteak. He had two.

"Nutrition was in such a different place then than it is now," Rabil said, "but it worked."

The day after, on May 30, 2005, Rabil scored as many goals as cheesesteaks the night before to help Johns Hopkins University beat Duke University, 9-8, to win the 2005 national lacrosse championship at Lincoln Financial Field.

Rabil was in Philadelphia during Memorial Day weekend for the 2024 NCAA Division I semifinals and championship at the Linc — Notre Dame defeated Maryland for the title.

Widely considered one of the best lacrosse players ever, Rabil sat down with CBS News Philadelphia for an episode of "Gallen of Questions," airing Saturday nights at 8 p.m. on PHILLY57 and CBS Philadelphia. He spoke about growing the sport, Philly, and his new book, "The Way of the Champion: Pain, Persistence, and the Path Forward."

Creating a bond with lacrosse

Rabil played every sport growing up in Montgomery Village, Maryland, and initially didn't take to lacrosse. He started playing when he was 12 after his neighbor suggested he try it in middle school. He didn't like it right away and wanted to quit. His mother said no.

"Had it not been for my mom, who said, 'No you can't quit, I'm going to drive your ass to practice,' I wanted to quit," Rabil recalled. "It's really hard to play. … If you stick with it, which requires a lot of resilience and you figure out how to catch and throw, you're really going to fall in love with it."

Rabil stuck with it and ended up having one of the most decorated careers in lacrosse history. He won two national titles with Johns Hopkins and the 2007 McLaughlin Award as the nation's best midfielder. He played 14 years of professional lacrosse, including one season with the Philadelphia Wings in 2013.

NCAA Lacrosse - Division I - Championship Game - Duke vs Johns Hopkins
Johns Hopkins Paul Rabil (19) celebrates his first goal as Johns Hopkins Blue Jays defeated the Duke Blue Devils 9 to 8 in the NCAA Mens Lacrosse Finals at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on 05/30/2005. Joseph Labolito/Getty Images

Now, Rabil runs the Premier Lacrosse League with his brother Mike Rabil. The PLL has eight teams, including the Philadelphia Waterdogs, formerly the Waterdogs Lacrosse Club. The league is entering its sixth season.

"Once you do [catch on], you create this bond with this game, where I see a lot of kids in Philadelphia, all the way around the country now that do," Rabil said. "Because there's an artisanship to it. You string your own stick, you own your own equipment."

"The future of the game is bright"

Rabil's professional career spanned 14 years and three leagues — 11 seasons in the Major League Lacrosse, five in the National Lacrosse League, and three in the PLL. He began his pro career in the MLL during a time he said when Major League Soccer and the UFC started to take off in the United States.

"Lacrosse was struggling," he said. "We essentially had part-time owners and not a lot of resourcing that went into it."

In 2018, Rabil partnered with his brother near the end of his playing career to create the PLL, believing they could make something more out of professional lacrosse. They launched the league and "all of the players [from the NLL] came over with us," Rabil said.

Premier Lacrosse League - Washington DC - Day 1
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 06: Paul Rabil #99 of Atlas in action before playing against the Whipsnakes during week six of the Premier Lacrosse League at Audi Field on July 06, 2019 in Washington, DC. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

"For sports to hit the mainstream in America, they need a pro game that works," he said.

Since its launch, the PLL has partnered with Ticketmaster, Cash App, Gatorade and Champion, and its games air on ESPN and ABC.

"The future of the game is bright," Rabil said.

Rabil said lacrosse has been gaining popularity in Philadelphia over the past two decades, pointing to the number of lacrosse players coming out of public and private schools in the area and from the Philly colleges.

Lacrosse back in the Summer Olympics

According to World Lacrosse, the sport's governing body, the sport dates back to at least the 12th century, when Indigenous people in North America played variations of the game.

Lacrosse became popular at the college level in the late 1800s and early 1900s and was an Olympic sport in 1904 and 1908. It appeared in three other Olympics — 1928, 1932 and 1948 — as a demonstration sport.

LA2028 Olympic Games Sports Media Opportunity
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 17: Atlhetes representing program sports for the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Games pose for photographs, (from left to right) Cayden Close, Gridiron, Jake Burns, Baseball, Lauren Kua, Cricket, Jess Turnbull, Squash, Taylah Tsitskronis, Softball and Olivia Parker and Campbell Mackinnon, Lacrosse,during a media opportunity at Museum of Contemporary Art on October 17, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. Mark Evans/Getty Images for the AOC

In 2021, the International Olympic Committee recognized lacrosse again as an Olympic sport. It will be part of the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

"There are 91 countries that are officially sanctioned right now that are playing around the world," Rabil said. "When I started playing, there were 18 and probably just as many states. Now we have it across the entire country, 91 others and it's going to be in the Olympics in a matter of four years. And now and between then, you'll see the PLL continue to do this [grow]."

"Heartbeat of sports fans in America"

Rabil played one pro season with the Wings, but Philadelphia has a special place in his heart. He won his first national championship here.

For him, Philly is home to some of the best sports fans in the country. 

"I see Boston and Philly and if you throw in maybe Chicago, maybe New York," Rabil said. "Not, I'm starting to stretch, but really those four cities, I think, are the heartbeat of sports fans in America. They just bring it in every discipline. Philly may be the most hardcore."

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