Niles Paul, tight end

The Washington Post Sunday - - REDSKINS TRAINING CAMP -

Paul, 27, is en­ter­ing his sev­enth NFL sea­son, but he said he feels he has to prove him­self all over again. The past two sea­sons, he has spent three times as many games on in­jured re­serve (24) as he has on the field. Paul missed the en­tire 2015 sea­son be­cause of an an­kle in­jury suf­fered in the pre­sea­son opener. He re­turned last year and was placed on in­jured re­serve Nov. 7, a week af­ter suf­fer­ing a torn labrum in his left shoul­der.

Four days later, Paul was named the Red­skins’ Ed Block Courage Award re­cip­i­ent, given an­nu­ally to a player from each NFL team who dis­plays “ex­tra­or­di­nary courage in the face of ad­ver­sity,” for re­turn­ing to the field fol­low­ing the an­kle in­jury. It was a bit­ter­sweet mo­ment.

“Just imag­ine play­ing foot­ball all of your life and not be­ing able to do what you love,” Paul said at the Ed Block Courage Award re­cep­tion in March. “You’ve got to sit back and watch other peo­ple do what you love.”

Paul hadn’t sat out a sea­son since he was “9 or 10 years old.” He frac­tured a foot in col­lege at Ne­braska but missed just two games. That was his most sig­nif­i­cant in­jury be­fore 2015.

“The hard­est part was stay­ing out of the de­pres­sion you go in when you get in­jured,” Paul said.

The an­kle in­jury cre­ated one of the tough­est chal­lenges he has faced in his ca­reer. Paul re­called at­tend­ing his first reg­u­lar sea­son game in 2015, a Week 13 Mon­day night matchup against the Dal­las Cow­boys, and how emo­tional he felt.

“It was a bat­tle I had to over­come men­tally,” Paul said. “It was a de­press­ing time in my life, and most peo­ple don’t un­der­stand how hard it is for play­ers. We’re hu­mans at the end of the day. No mat­ter what we claim to be, su­per­heroes or what­ever, at the end of the day, we’re hu­mans. Go­ing through some­thing like that, it felt like I was at the pit of my ca­reer.”

Paul was of­ten frus­trated dur­ing train­ing camp last year. He was bumped down to the third tight end on the depth chart, be­hind Jor­dan Reed and free agent ac­qui­si­tion Ver­non Davis, and served as the team’s full­back. The niche role was the only way Paul could con­trib­ute on of­fense un­til he suf­fered the shoul­der in­jury while lay­ing out for an over­thrown pass.

“I put my body on the line just for a catch that I knew at the time was prob­a­bly not catch­able, but I wanted to do some freak of na­ture stuff just to earn my stripes back again,” Paul said. “I feel like from 2014 un­til now, I’m back in the be­gin­ning stages of my ca­reer where I’ve got to earn my stripes again on the field.”

The tight end po­si­tion has been even more com­pet­i­tive this sum­mer with the ad­di­tion of Jeremy Sprin­kle, a fifth-round pick out of Arkansas. Paul will have to fight for a spot on the 53-man ros­ter.

“I don’t want to go back to how far I was or how low I felt,” Paul said. “You’ve got to keep your­self mo­ti­vated, keep push­ing and un­der­stand that this is just an in­jury. It’s just time. Know­ing the ad­ver­sity that I’ve got to face com­ing back in is that I’ve got to prove my­self again.”

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