Feature

Four-time rugby All-American anchors in grid backfield

New Zealander Paul Lasike, a senior in the Cougar grid backfield, led BYU to national rugby titles in 2009, 2012, 2013 and 2014. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)

This story was originally published in the BYU-Utah State football game program on October 3, 2014

Paul Lasike did not plan on playing football at BYU. Football was not even on his radar. And yet, in his senior year at BYU he is not only leading the BYU rugby team to championships, but he is also a strong member of the BYU football team.

In the past year, senior running back Lasike has won a national championship with BYU rugby and scored one touchdown and rushed for 350 yards during the BYU football season. This is a feat that no other athlete can claim, a feat that was not even thought possible by Lasike four years ago.

In his home country of New Zealand, Lasike grew up playing rugby, the most popular sport there. Then in 2010 he came to the United States to play for BYU. After a two-year LDS mission in Alabama, football was presented as an option to him.

“I was lifting with (strength and conditioning) coach Omer, and he was said I should give football a go,” Lasike said. “He took it to coach Mendenhall who gave me the opportunity to come to spring ball.”

As Lasike mentioned, coach Jay Omer discovered him in the weight room and saw potential despite the fact that he had never played football before.

“We encouraged him because we could see that he had the possibilities,” Omer said. “He’s a tough kid. Where he plays in rugby is very similar to a running back in football, so the transition wouldn’t be very hard.”

After head coach Bronco Mendenhall agreed to give Lasike a shot, spring camp was just around the corner. Spring ball was the catapult to the rest of his football career.

“Spring ball was like my tryout, so to speak,” Lasike said. “I did well enough in spring ball where he invited me back for fall camp and gave me a scholarship. And I have been stuck with it ever since.”

Though Lasike never imagined he would be playing football for BYU, he did think of what it would be like to play and how he could hold up against college football players. Football and rugby are often compared, so it made sense for Lasike to compare the two as well.

“I knew that I could be a good football player, not an outstanding player,” Lasike said. “But I knew I could keep up with college football. I didn’t realize it would be this hard to learn all of the nuances of the game.”

Omer had nothing but confidence in the young rugby star. He knew Lasike was strong from seeing him in the weight room, but he also saw how the transition from rugby to football could be successful.

“(Lasike)had never played it. I don’t even know how much he had ever even seen American football,” Omer said. “But the position is very similar and he’s a tough kid.”

After two years playing football for BYU, Lasike has become comfortable with the sport. He is still not as natural as he is in rugby, but he is leaps and bounds ahead of where he was when he first started.

“I’m still learning (football), but it’s like a language,” Lasike said. “I’ve kind of learned the language for the most part. I’m able to play a little more fluently rather than thinking it through.”

Lasike liked football enough at the beginning to continue playing, but he was frustrated trying to understand everything at the start. He did not fall in love with it until the fifth game of his career when BYU played Hawai’i in Provo on September 28, 2012.

“It was probably the Hawai’i game my very first year when I scored my first touchdown that I realized I loved football,” Lasike said. “Then I really loved football against Texas last year. Ever since then, now that I know the actual game a little more, I’m able to have more fun out there.”

In his two years on the football team, Lasike has a total of 479 rushing yards and three touchdowns. His improvement over the two seasons is clear. After the 2012 season, he had just 129 rushing yards. But after the 2013 season, he rushed for 350 yards, a 221-yard difference.

As much as he has grown to love football, rugby is still a huge part of Lasike’s life. After BYU beat California 43-33 in the national championship game for its third straight title, Lasike was named as an All-American for the fourth time.

One play that he made this past season was shared all around the BYU community. BYU was playing Navy in the Varsity Cup semifinal game and Lasike plowed past a player on the other team, which led to him scoring. Months later, people are still talking to him about this play. Lasike, however, was humble about it.

“The guy was off balance actually,” Lasike said. “So he kind of fell over and took it easy on me. I loved it though.”

The Cougars won that game 60-0 and went on to win the national championship game.

With all of the success that Lasike has had becoming a dual sport athlete, BYU football decided to pick up another rugby player. Sophomore Joshua Whippy is following in the footsteps of Lasike and has become a running back on the team. Not only are their positions the same, but the way they became involved with football is similar as well.

“In my situation, I came in through the lifting program and Josh did as well,” Lasike said. “After the rugby final game, a lot of the coaches came up to me and said, ‘We want to get this dude on board!’ So coach Omer and I talked about his possibilities, and coach Omer took it to coach Mendenhall.”

Being here to help Whippy make the transition from rugby to football has been a lot of fun for Lasike, helping him understand football more easily when Lasike did not have that luxury.

“When I was here, it was so hard because I pretty much had no one,” Lasike said. “It was really stressful. But I told him to not be as stressed as I was my first year. Just relax. This year is going to be a learning curve… Just hang in there with it, be patient while he learns the plays. That’s my advice to him.”

Whippy’s time playing football has been difficult, but it has been great to have Lasike help him out.

“When I mess up everyday and get yelled at, he says, ‘Don’t worry. I made the same mistakes when I first started,’” Whippy said. “It’s good to know that I’m on the right track and that he’s made the same mistakes I’ve made… He explains things to me in rugby terms, which is a lot easier for me.”

After the football team has taken two of his rugby players, Lasike joked that BYU rugby head coach David Smyth is probably mad at the football team for taking some of his players.

“Coach Smyth is angry. I know coach Smyth is angry,” Lasike said. “Josh (Whippy) told me that coach Smyth said, ‘Hey, you haven’t even talked to me. What’s going on?’ And we were just laughing because I think he says this football thing is taking all of his players.”

Spending so much time together playing rugby and now football has had a positive impact on Lasike and Whippy’s friendship. The mutual respect that they have for each other is clear.

“He’s a humble guy,” Whippy said. “He’s the man, but he’ll never say it.”

Whippy is not the only running back singing Lasike’s praises. Junior Jamaal Williams might be Lasike’s biggest fan.

“Paul is my boy. Paul is my rugby man,” Williams said. “He is the nicest person you’ll meet off the field. On the field, he’s still the same until he gets the ball and he tries to run you over. Then he tries to help you up. He’s a kind, brutal bruiser, but he’s fun to watch play.”

Williams, who is also a dual sport athlete on the track team, has seen first-hand how Lasike has changed since beginning his football journey.

“Paul, from when he came here to now, has turned into a veteran,” Williams said. “He knows everything. He knows the plays, he knows who to go get, he knows who to block, everything. I have to listen to Paul because sometimes he knows more than me.”

Lasike has come a long way since his first year at spring camp. In his final year playing football, Lasike has high hopes for himself and for the team.

“My main goal for this season is to be able to contribute in any area I can,” Lasike said. “As a team, we want to ultimately be able to be in the top 25.”

A lot has changed in Lasike’s life in the past four years. He has become an All-American rugby player, he is a key running back for the football team, and he has also started a family of his own.

“I have a four month old child. It’s awesome,” Lasike said. “It’s fun. He’s a little bit older now. He’s not so much of a baby now. He’s actually really big… And the whole balancing part is really fun too, trying to balance school and family life and football. It’s a good test.”

More tests are yet to come in Lasike’s career, but as with the challenge of rugby and football, he is sure to face them head on.

 

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