It was ugly, it was depressing, and it really, really hurt…I was told I might be done. But here we are.
Tight end Niles Paul cuts hard right off of his left foot and bursts across the middle of the Washington Redskins’ practice field during a Friday practice in preparation for a Monday night matchup with the Steelers. His clean catch of a coach’s soft toss is an afterthought. It’s that Tron-like right turn and Tesla acceleration that matter. Not only are these skills top-shelf for NFL tight ends, they were unthinkable for Paul just one year ago.
That’s because the Omaha North legend, Cornhusker star, and fan favorite (on the verge of starting for the Redskins at the end of training camp last year) after a breakout 2014 season, suffered a broken and sprained left ankle that his surgeon described as “bad as I have ever seen.”
Just Google the close-up photo of Paul falling to the ground during that 2015 pre-season game against the Browns. His lower left leg is contorted like that of a post-impact crash-test dummy. It was Theismann-esque in its skeletal aberrance.
“It was ugly, it was depressing, and it really, really hurt,” says the impressively-bearded Paul as he sits in front of his locker after practice, cutting the athletic tape from that ankle. “I was told I might be done. But here we are. It feels so good to be here. I appreciate it all even more after all that’s happened.”
He’s talking about his almost mystical recovery, driven by obsessive rehab and weight-room work. He arguably benefitted from a youthful tinge of hubris: “I was doing more than my doctors and trainers were telling me to do,” he says. “I know my body. Maybe it wasn’t that smart. But I wanted it so badly, and I feel like I know what my own body can take.”
Now he is stronger than he’s ever been (“I lived in the weight room,” he says) while 10 pounds lighter than he was last year. At a listed 242 pounds (he looks lighter than that), he’s still considerably more yoked than the wiry 210-pound kid that Husker fans knew as a fleet wide receiver. Omaha sports fans knew him as a three-sport superstar at Omaha North and one of the most highly touted athletes in recent Omaha preps history.
He talks briefly and in a muted tone about his fairly limited multi-purpose role beginning the season behind star tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis. “I will do anything needed of me,” he says. But quickly the conversation turns to the Thursday night NFL game he watched the night before: The Denver-Carolina game in which former Husker fullback and Gretna hero Andy Janovich ran his first NFL touch in for a touchdown.
Paul beams—he’s straight-up boyish giddy: “Oh, that was awesome!” he says. “Nebraska boy. A Husker fullback! That was so much fun to see.”
Paul has made it big-time, but, as he says, his heart is still in Nebraska, particularly with his alma mater, Omaha North. Paul’s mother passed away when he was 12. He was starting to get in trouble during his adolescent years living in Virginia. His father, who “pushed me hard, maybe too hard sometimes,” moved the family to Omaha. Once he reached high school, North coaches quickly realized they had a diamond in the rough.
“He was strong-minded and hard-headed when he was just starting here,” says North football coach Larry Martin. “But as he grew as a player, he emerged as this phenomenal young man. With all his gifts, he has a tremendously big heart and is so genuine.
“He gives back in a big way, too,” Martin continues. “Niles has given so much back to North and the kids here. You should see how much he’s loved when he comes back.”
Since going pro in 2011, Paul has purchased the jerseys for Omaha North’s football team, on top of holding camps for players and other youth in North Omaha. In 2014, he began giving players one of the most cost-prohibitive accessories for football families: cleats.
“I played my whole high school career in one pair of cleats,” Paul says as he unwraps the athletic tape from his ankle. “I kept those cleats together with this same kind of tape.”
“I grew up not having much,” he says. “I know what it’s like. If you’re able to give back, you have to give back. I just hope I’m doing some good.”
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