A star lacrosse player turned the world topsy-turvy Tuesday for a group of dyslexic middle schoolers.
"It may be difficult for you guys to understand now, but a learning disability can be a gift," Paul Rabil told a gathering of about 100 students at the Jemicy School in Owings Mills.
Rabil, 27, said his own struggles with auditory processing disorder in the classroom helped him on the athletic field, where he became a three-time first-team All-American midfielder at Johns Hopkins and, now, a standout with the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse.
"I've experienced a lot of the same day-to-day stuff that you guys do and, quite honestly, it has led to the success I've had as a lacrosse player," said Rabil, whose shot has been clocked at 111 mph. "In school, I'd have to do the same assignment over and over again. It wasn't easy, but I graduated from college with a 3.5 grade-point average.
"And I'm convinced that that repetition in the classroom [spilled over] to lacrosse where, in practice, I'd shoot and pass the ball way more than anyone else. That's why the disorder that I was diagnosed with in fifth grade was beneficial."
Rabil's words resonated with his audience at Jemicy, a magnet for college-bound students with langauge-based learning differences.
"What he said made a lot of sense — to never give up and have faith in yourself," said Katie Hormes, 11. "I'll remember everything."
Said Christopher Prigg, 13, "I know now that you can cope with [dyslexia] and make it so far in your career, as an athlete or anything else. Someday, I hope maybe to be like him."
Rabil, who grew up in Gaithersburg and now lives in Canton, heads his own foundation, begun three years ago to help children with dyslexia and related disorders to thrive both academically and athletically. His organization formed a partnership with Jemicy earlier this year and will help raise money for scholarships.
He was accompanied Tuesday by Tony Siragusa, the former Ravens defensive tackle who now broadcasts NFL games for Fox and hosts a home renovation show on cable TV. Siragusa and his crew filmed Rabil's talk at the school for the latter's upcoming appearance on that series, Man Caves, on the DIY Network. The reason?
"Because Paul isn't just about lacrosse," Siragusa said. "This shows a whole other side to him. That he would come here and speak to kids sort of paints a picture of who he is."
No one embraced Rabil's words more heartily than Alex Cashman, 11.
"I loved Paul's speech, how he persevered through his disorder and worked 10 times harder than most other people who don't even know how he feels," she said. "But we know, because we all have the same disorder, and maybe even more.
"I knew where he was going with everything he said, and it's very inspiring that he now plays on the U.S. team. I play lacrosse, and I have to practice, practice, practice too. Everyone here has to work really hard to get where they want to go, but that's OK.
"Everything in life can't be just an easy-peasy breeze."