September 4, 2012

Pannell In His Own Words: Part I – The Journey

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Rob Pannell, wearing a No. 21 Cornell t-shirt in memory of George Boiardi, shows off helmets from Smithtown West (white), Deerfield Academy (green) and the Big Red.
© Lee Weissman

* Forman: How Do You Measure 'The Red Mamba'?

Who is Rob Pannell the person, behind Rob Pannell the player? In search of the answer to that question and more, Lacrosse Magazine's Matt Forman spent two days with Pannell at his home on Long Island in Smithtown, N.Y., in late July as he awaited a decision from the Ivy League on his fifth year of eligibility. What quickly became apparent is that Pannell needed his own platform, to tell his own story. To tell us everything in uncensored, stream-of-consciousness reflections.

As you'll read in a three-part interview released on LaxMagazine.com over the next three days, Pannell's career has been a winding road, one which Pannell will chronicle in his own words. He takes us through the twists and turns — the recruiting snubs, the college commitments (plural), the post-grad experience at Deerfield Academy, the freshman season in which he was one fluky flip in Foxborough away from a national championship, a Tewaaraton-caliber season overshadowed by Steele Stanwick's title run, and the season-ending injury that left more questions than answers — that have defined the career of arguably the best attackman of his generation.

Part I addresses the journey from unknown to Tewaaraton Award candidate. Check back Wednesday and Thursday for Parts II and III.

MF: Do you ever think about how unique your journey has been?

RP: Having a couple months of not playing and missing the game has allowed me to look at the whole journey that's gotten me here. It really has allowed me to reflect. It's truly remarkable that I am where I am today. It's been an amazing experience. It's been stressful, long and strange, certainly, but it's been rewarding. And going through what I did makes it that much sweeter. People question decisions all the time. But with the way things have turned out, there's nothing to question. I wouldn't change any of that — any of my decisions — for the world.

What have been your favorite experiences along the way?

Being named All-American in high school [Smithtown West, N.Y.] was an unexpected thrill. I had a great year, but I had never really been noticed and wasn't the most recognized or decorated athlete. I had set myself up to have low expectations. It was awesome. It was great to know my hard work paid off. As a freshman at Cornell, beating Virginia in the semifinals is one of the highlights of my career. It was just an unbelievable game, being the underdog and absolutely dominating them; 15-6 was the final. I had three goals and three assists. I remember watching the game on TV afterwards and them showing 'Get to know Rob Pannell.' It was my dream, watching the final four on TV as a kid. And it was all happening.

You were barely recruited in high school. Why?

I was a team player. I was a feeder, trying to make those around me better. I was never the fastest, strongest, biggest or most dominating figure. I wasn't flashy. My goals go in, but they're not Top 10 ESPN. I like to think I make it look easy, and at the end of the game when my stat line is the way it is, people are like, 'Really?' Some people just have that way about them — they get noticed. I never had that. I matured physically from my junior year to my senior year, and two of my best friends — Scott Perri and Matt Stefurak — were being recruited a little bit. They were looked at as better players than me. I love those guys and they were my best friends, but they were driving motivational factors for me to be better than them.

What did the coaches not see?

My knowledge of the game. My ability to make those people around me better. My vision to make the right play. They saw the size of me and didn't want to give me a shot.

What was your physical size?

I was probably 5-foot-6, and I went to 5-foot-9 as a senior. And I weighed 165 pounds, and I went to 185. I started working out. But I became faster too, quicker and stronger.

What impressions did that leave on you of the recruiting process? And did you help your younger brother James [now a Virginia freshman] along the way?

I'm not a big fan of the recruiting scene today. Especially given my situation and what happened to me. Kids need more time to develop — to mature physically and mentally. They need to know what they want, and not feel pressured to make a decision on a school they may not necessarily want to go to in two or three years. The whole recruiting process needs to be pushed back, and that's up to the NCAA and the coaches of lacrosse. It needs to be bumped back to junior year, like it used to be, or senior year. Unfortunately, I don't think that's going to happen. There are very talented players that are being swept under the radar. My brother was very mature as a young man in high school. I tried to help him, but his recruiting process was completely different than mine, so I could not relate to him at all. He'd get letters in the mail from every school every day. That's something I never experienced. I'm sure it was overwhelming. But I told him to take his time. I guess relative to today, as one of the top recruits in the country, he did take his time. He waited until October of his junior year to commit.

Did being overlooked fuel you?

I fuel myself more than anybody could. Sometimes I need to just take a break and relax, but it certainly was in the back of my mind. At this point I've proven myself. All those coaches that overlooked me know and regret it to some extent. I never was bitter about it. I realize that I'm a different player now than I was then.

Tell me about the recruitment and commitment process...

I'm not a big fan of the recruiting scene today. Especially given my situation and what happened to me. Kids need more time to develop — to mature physically and mentally.

- Cornell fifth-year attackman Rob Pannell

I originally verbally committed to Towson. It was probably the best school, lacrosse-wise, I was being recruited by. I liked that, like any young kid does. They want to go to the best lacrosse school they can. I didn't think of other things. I looked at their lacrosse program — the locker room, field, offices overlooking the field — and I was intrigued. I went on my official visit there, and it didn't feel right. It just wasn't for me. I immediately thought I needed to be committed somewhere else. I was rushing. I went to Quinnipiac, and it was the first school I went to, and I was like, 'All right, this campus is beautiful. It's a good school, close to home. Let's do it.' Scholarships obviously played a factor. That was enticing. I just felt pressure, and I felt rushed. Everyone around me was committing. I wanted to know where I was going and not have to worry about it. That's what rushed that decision. I was very content with going to Quinnipiac. Then at the end of my senior season my uncle put this idea into my head of, 'You need to play for a better program and somewhere where you can shine.' I talked to my parents about it and said, 'All right, let's do this.'

And you ended up going to Deerfield for a year?

I got the last bed in the school, as a post-grad basketball player, believe it or not. It was a great experience for me. It allowed me to start to work out on a more serious note, allowed me to meet some different people and see a different side of life that kids experience that I would have never experienced before. The school is truly phenomenal. I feel privileged, to be completely honest with you. It was a great year and certainly paid off.

So you were a basketball player too?

I played basketball the way I play lacrosse, with that point-guard mentality. I played basketball before I ever played lacrosse, so I always thought of myself as a point guard on the lacrosse field — controlling the game, controlling the tempo, making the right decisions, knowing when to speed the game up and knowing when to slow it down and just always having control. In lacrosse, I think people would agree that whenever I have the ball in my stick there's a sense of calm. I think it's the same way in basketball. That's always how I compared the two and how I played both of them.

You eventually ended up at Cornell. How?

I was considering Brown and Penn, and then the same day they both told me they couldn't take me. I was miserable in my room, on the phone with my mom saying, 'What am I going to do?' And then I got an email from Cornell. They asked me to come visit. Harvard also wanted me to visit. I sent my SAT scores to Harvard, but they didn't get them; there was some miscommunication. Meanwhile, I already had a visit scheduled with Cornell. I went up there Homecoming weekend. The team was extremely welcoming. Great guys — they had a passion for the sport. The passion from the coaching staff was unbelievable — their love for the game and the drive to be the best. That's what really attracted me. They really wanted to push you. That's a place where I belong. They gave me some time to think about it and come back. It was me and another kid they were looking at. They decided they would like to give me the spot, and I got a call from coach [Jeff Tambroni] the next day saying they really wanted me to commit. I called my mom and called coach right back, and it was a done deal. I haven't looked back since.

And your family has been there for you the whole way?

My parents, they're my parents. They come to every game. They've been behind me the whole way. They've been pushing me. My dad [Robert] was always in the back yard with me, helping me with everything. My mom [Susan] was always there for me, supporting me. My sister, Genevieve, is my biggest fan. Through victory and through defeat, she's there celebrating or crying on my shoulder. It affects her more than it affects anybody. It's been a tough journey for her too, because she feels my pain. She's incredible in that way. She's unbelievable. I'm extremely thankful to have a sister like that, who cares so much. My brother was kind of a motivating factor. He's a great player. Everything always came natural to him. He started on varsity as an eighth grader. I always had to work to be the player I was. I had to work to be better than he was, and to still be the big brother in the family. I wanted him to look up to me, as a brother and lacrosse player. My grandparents have come to every game, and they're so involved emotionally. That brought my whole family together. And then there's my uncle [Jim Metzger], who's one-of-a-kind. He's energetic, entertaining. He kind of made the whole journey happen the way it did. He believed in me as a player. He's been a great role model for me, as the only member of my family who previously played lacrosse. He treats me as good as anybody, very well. He's an extremely important person in my life; I certainly wouldn't be where I am today without him. Or without my parents, or anybody in my family, as they've all become so wrapped up in the game of lacrosse. It's truly been a life-changing journey for my family.

Check back to LaxMagazine.com on Wednesday and Thursday for Parts II and III of Rob Pannell: In His Own Words.

A version of this article appears in the September issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription.


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