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Spotlight finds Rabil

Star midfielder shoots to front

Paul Rabil had lacrosse fans in Harvard Stadium revved up by clearing a Ford Fusion during the MLL skills competition. Paul Rabil had lacrosse fans in Harvard Stadium revved up by clearing a Ford Fusion during the MLL skills competition. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
By Nicole Auerbach
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2011

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An hour before the start of last night’s Major League Lacrosse all-star game at Harvard Stadium, memorabilia stands had trouble keeping No. 99 Boston Cannons jerseys in stock.

Fans were buying three or four at a time. Children were running around in jerseys with price tags sticking out, not caring that it appeared their interest had been a recent development.

For lacrosse fans, it doesn’t matter when you become aware of midfielder Paul Rabil - as long as you do.

“He does insane moves,’’ said 9-year-old Zachary Jackson, wearing a new Rabil jersey.

Zachary, at the game with his 10-year-old brother Steven and father, said Rabil has been his favorite player for a while, even though the family recently moved back to Leominster from San Diego.

It’s not surprising - Rabil has become the face of the sport.

The Cannons took Rabil with the No. 1 pick in the 2008 MLL draft after a four-year career at Johns Hopkins that included two NCAA championships. Since college, he’s also played for the Washington Stealth of the indoor National Lacrosse League.

Rabil earned MVP honors and led Team USA to the gold medal at the World Championships last July.

“He’s the best player in the world right now,’’ Cannons general manager Kevin Barney said. “He doesn’t seek that attention, but he embraces and understands it.

“He’s more than just trying to be a professional athlete. He’s trying to do everything he can to build the sport.’’

Building the sport means a variety of roles. Rabil plays the educator, running camps for youth players. He also plays the celebrity, appearing in ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue last year. And of course, he also tries to drum up interest for lacrosse with his impressive on-field skills.

Last night at halftime, the 6-foot-3-inch, 220-pound Rabil wowed fans during the freestyle portion of the skills competition. He leaped over the hood of a Ford Fusion before shooting, a move NBA forward Blake Griffin would have been proud of.

“I had a heads-up on it,’’ said Cannons coach Bill Daye. “I wasn’t nervous, but when your star player is going to do something that crazy, you’re holding your breath a little bit. But I thought it was great - it was creative, it was just Paul.”

During the game - the MLL’s best spread evenly between Team Warrior and Team Authority, which featured Rabil and was coached by Daye - Rabil scored twice in a 21-20 loss in front of 11,186 fans.

Part of the reason Rabil has become lacrosse’s current ambassador is his mainstream appeal. He’s not the first lacrosse player to secure endorsement and sponsorship deals, but because he’s partnered with major companies such as Under Armour and Red Bull, he’s helped bring the sport to people who normally wouldn’t follow lacrosse.

“If you’re a lacrosse fan, you’re likely a diehard lacrosse fan,’’ Rabil said. “Right now, the sport is getting more and more fans involved. More and more people are getting exposed to it.

“The attention from non-traditional lacrosse markets is what’s going to continue to grow the sport.”

As the sport has widened its fan base, it’s also become more profitable for players. However, MLL rosters are filled with players with all sorts of day jobs - lawyers, businessmen, and the like.

But Rabil is just a lacrosse player, and that stands out.

“He’s the one who’s really made it his job - he’s a professional lacrosse player,” Barney said. “Between playing indoor, outdoor, the sponsorships, the camps, and everything else that he does, it’s his full-time [job].”

And though jerseys are selling well and media attention to the sport is growing - Comcast SportsNet New England will premiere a three-part series “Stick To It with Paul Rabil” on July 16 - Rabil is cautious.

He understands that there are more steps to take if he wants his sport to succeed.

“It’s important that we take all that in stride, but continue to stay humble,” Rabil said.

A little bit of flashy - be it jumping over cars or appearing shirtless in magazines - can’t hurt, either.