“Athletes’ Feet” is a series featuring interviews with athletes over the ritual of a pedicure. Because of the relaxing environment, the conversations tend to get more personal than your average interview. Previously: Alfred Morris and Martell Webster.
Niles Paul showed up to his pedicure with his older “brother,” Nate Prater, in tow. When another customer saw the two athletic-looking men walk by, she jokingly asked them about picking out a nail polish color.
Prater made his already large frame as big as he could and replied, “Why, would it be a problem if I did?” The woman was uneasy for about two seconds before both Paul and Prater broke into laughter and assured her that they were kidding.
The offbeat sense of humor is characteristic of both men, who aren’t actually blood brothers, but have considered each other family since they were kids growing up in Ohama, Neb. I would learn later why Paul, one of seven boys and six girls, was so much like Prater, who is three years his senior.
As we settled into our chairs, Paul on my right and Prater on my left, Paul looked down at his feet and two severely damaged nails on his big toes.
“This left foot gets stepped on all the time by Tyler Polumbus,” the Redskins tight end explained. “And the right one gets stepped on by Trent.”
Paul sat with his phone in his hands, tweeting and texting as we talked. The device seemed to be part security, part habit, and over the next hour, it would only leave his hands once.
As we started chatting about deeper things, I asked Paul about growing up in Omaha, and it wasn’t long before he told a story that explains a lot about who he is. Paul’s mother, Marjorie Paul, died when he was just 12 years old after a years-long battle with Hepatitis B. Paul’s dad, who spent his teen years getting in trouble before meeting Marjorie and turning his life around, did not handle her death well.
“He was lost,” said Paul. “My older sisters, they weren’t in the house anymore. My dad, this was the woman he was married to for 16 years. This is the woman who saved his life and she was suddenly gone. Then it was just him and a bunch of teenage boys. He was lost, and so he was never around. I pretty much was raised by my older brothers until my dad finally came to his senses and was able to be the man of the house again.”
With the relative absence of his father at that time, it was up to Paul’s older brothers to raise him and keep him in line.
“I have three brothers who are probably way more athletic than I could ever be. But they went down their own path. A bad path. And these were the dudes that raised me,” said Paul, who admitted he wanted to be just like them.
“I wanted to be a thug so bad,” he said. “You don’t understand. Staying out on school nights until 4 am. I didn’t want to go to school. I just wanted to follow my brothers around, but they wouldn’t let me do it. They made me go home, they made me go to school.”
Paul’s brothers did their best, and the family even tried therapy. Their first session didn’t go so well.
“We went one time,” Paul said, still playing with his phone. “It was a horrible experience. You could tell the therapist had never dealt with kids who grew up in the hood. He just assumed that we smoked weed and were gang members. We didn’t go back.”
Paul decided to use sports as a way to deal with his anger and process was going on in his life. Being in such a large family with no real parental figure, Paul struggled for attention and saw sports as a way to get it.
“A lot of people don’t know that when I was eight, I made a promise to my mom that I was going to be in the NFL like my uncle,” said Paul, whose uncle is former Green Bay Packers running back Ahman Green. “I was just a kid. I saw my uncle and the response he got from my family and I wanted that feeling. I wanted to feel like that.”
But being in his uncle’s shadow was tough, and after his mom died, Paul distanced himself from football and focused on basketball. He started for his high school’s varsity basketball team his freshman year, but after a heart to heart with his famous uncle, he went back to football the next year.
“I remembered the promise I made to my mom and said, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’”
Despite Green’s influence in his return to football, Paul did everything he could to avoid the comparisons to his uncle.
“I didn’t play running back because my uncle played it,” Paul admitted. “I didn’t go to his high school because I didn’t want to be known as his nephew. As a matter of fact, I went to his rival high school. I did everything I could to stay out of his shadow.”
Paul excelled at wide receiver and made honor roll throughout high school.
At the same time, he was entering the height of his teenage years, and his brothers were still teaming up to father him. Learning about relationships from boys not much older than he was had its downsides, and Paul admits that it affects the way he interacts with women now.
“I was raised by teenage boys,” he said, with emphasis on “boys.” “When you’re raised by teenage boys, you don’t get the best information. All my brothers now are settling down and becoming men. But growing up it was like, ‘Don’t you fall in love. Don’t you fall in love with nobody. That’s not the way to go. You’ll ruin things if you fall in love.’ So I grew up thinking that way, keeping women at a distance.”
Paul admits he was a bit of a player in high school and college, and his wariness of relationships came in handy his rookie year in the NFL when he and some of his teammates were victims of a “catfish” attempt.
“The chick’s name was Sidney,” he said, of the person who was trying to lure players with false information. “And I just remember when I got drafted she was in my mentions and all these Redskins fans were like, backing her up. And she was fine, so I followed her back. She started DMing me and I responded but something never seemed right about it, so I just never crossed a certain point with her.”
Despite his feelings about not being tied down, he knows that things will change as he matures.
“I’m still fairly young,” he said, of not wanting to be in a relationship. “I’ve thought about it. I just don’t see that happening anytime soon. Hopefully I’ll be married with kids in five years.”
For now, Paul lives with Prater, a mental health specialist who wants to work with at-risk youths.
“He is my therapist,” Paul laughed.
Prater smiled and said that the only help Paul needs is with a small case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
“Just the other day we were watching ‘Troy’ and the action starts and he just gets up and starts vacuuming,” Prater recounted. “I’m like, ‘No. We’re in the middle of this movie. I can’t even hear Achilles yelling no more.’”
I asked Paul what made him decide to clean at that exact moment.
“Because the floor was dirty and it was bothering me,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Seeing dishes in the sink doesn’t bother me, but I can’t go to sleep if my living room is dirty. I like my house clean.”
The anecdote led to a conversation about movies, and for the first time during our conversation, Paul stopped playing with his phone. He put it down in his lap and looked at me, eyes bright.
“I like to break down movies,” he said with genuine excitement. “Like ‘Man of Steel.’ People don’t understand. It’s a prelude. It’s setting the stage for what’s to come. No movie has ever explained how he became Superman, but the comic book did. The director clearly read the comic book and explained thoroughly how he became the Man of Steel. He wasn’t actually Superman until the last 30 minutes of the movie. So, that’s why people don’t like it.”
He speaks with authority on the subject, and Paul’s obsession with movies and superheroes offer him a temporary break from the anger that he admits he still carries with him.
“A lot of people see me and get this misconception about who I am,” he said. “I can have a temper at times, but I’m one of the chillest people on the team.”
“I always have [played angry],” he continued. “I was an angry child. I used to get into a lot of fights, especially after my mom died. I don’t use it as an excuse, but sometimes it’s hard to control it. If you’ve been at practice, you’ve probably seen my angry side get the best of me. But now, I let my anger out on the field instead of letting it out in everyday life.”