The spring of 2012, Niles Paul was visiting family in Omaha when he received a phone call from Washington, D.C. From Redskins Park, to be specific.
Uh-oh. Paul, a fifth-round pick in 2011, had just completed his rookie year. He didn't know much about the NFL, but he knew that a call from team headquarters in the offseason probably wasn't good.
“In my mind, I'm thinking, 'Oh, I think I'm getting cut.' ”
He considered letting the call go to his voice mail. But it was better to know now. He picked up. It was Mike Shanahan. Oh boy.
Hey, Niles, I want to ask you a question. How do you feel about playing tight end?
Paul breathed a sigh of relief.
“Coach Shanahan, I will play wherever you put me. If you want me to play safety, I'll play safety.”
The Omaha native and former Husker had spent years preparing to be an NFL wide receiver. But the call precipitated an identity change that made Paul one of the most versatile players in the league. Ask yourself this: How many tight ends return kickoffs?
Paul was back in Omaha this week, where he reflected on his first NFL touchdown, the personality quirks that make him a Redskins fan favorite, his gift to his alma mater, Omaha North, and the position change that could've derailed his career.
Still 23 years old, Paul could play another decade. But he crossed a major hurdle last year. Suddenly, at 228 pounds, he had to go face-to-face with 300-pound defensive ends, not 200-pound corners.
It's one thing moving to a new position in high school or college. It's another task entirely as a second-year reserve trying to make a roster, especially in a complicated Redskins offense.
One play Paul would line up at fullback, the next he'd be in motion, the next he'd be inside, the next he'd be out wide. He needed to learn new footwork. He had to recognize what gaps Jason Pierre-Paul and DeMarcus Ware were coming from — their angles dictated his assignment. Then he had to try to block them.
“Chris Cooley explained it to me this way. He said, 'I'm not the biggest tight end ever, but I play with leverage. That's why I'm able to hold all my blocks.'
“I didn't really understand it until probably the last eight games of the year. I really started to come into my own as a tight end.”
On Thanksgiving, Washington went into Dallas and upset the Cowboys. Leading 27-13 early in the fourth quarter, the Redskins had third-and-inches at the Dallas 28. Shanahan went play-action.
“I was so surprised that I came wide open,” Paul said.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III fired a strike, Paul caught it inside the 5, fell down, got up and backpedaled over the goal line.
“Everybody said, 'Oh, you moonwalked into the end zone!' I was like, 'No, I actually didn't know where I was.' ”
A week later, Shanahan had a new role for Paul — kickoff returns. He took his first one back 39 yards against the Giants. Then, in the fourth quarter of the playoff-clinching, Week 17 win over Dallas, he returned a kick 48 yards.
“It was a three-point game and he takes us out to midfield,” Shanahan said at the time. “It's the difference between winning and losing.”
The Redskins have a new special teams coach this year, so Paul doesn't know if he'll return kicks again. But during offseason workouts, Paul received compliments for his tight end play. Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan told him he was one of the hardest blockers to fight off.
At 236 pounds, Paul still isn't big by positional standards. But “I feel like a true tight end right now.”
He's developing a fan base, too. Last year in training camp, he engaged in a little scuffle with a defender. Teammates started calling him “Rambo.”
“That was like my alter ego,” Paul said.
Now he wears a red Nebraska headband during workouts. He dresses in Rambo garb — it goes well with his thick beard — and posts the photos on Twitter and Instagram.
Social media is where he requested last training camp that fans bring him Capri Sun juice pouches — Strawberry Kiwi, of course.
Trouble was, teammates kept stealing them. Capri Sun got word of the problem and sent Paul a whole case, removing the straws from every pouch. In their place, the company sent Paul a swirled silver straw, engraved with his name and number.
Redskins fans still yell at him when he drops a pass or misses a block, but it's easier to root for a guy who doesn't take himself so seriously.
“In my mind, I'm just a regular dude who was blessed with an opportunity,” Paul said. “I meet people, I have fun, I don't think I'm better than anybody. I just have a good time.”
He's spent most of the offseason training in D.C., but he was home Tuesday night helping with Steve Warren's high school camp at Central High. And Wednesday morning, he visited North to check out the Vikings' new uniforms.
Back in February, Paul told North coach Larry Martin he wanted to purchase Under Armour jerseys for the varsity, home and away. Wednesday he tried one on. Looked even better than he expected, Paul said.
“He's not forgotten the Omaha community,” North Principal Gene Haynes said. “We're just thankful to have him come back and help the poor school out.”
Paul said he misses Nebraska. Old teammates and coaches. Seeing his name on the scoreboard at Memorial Stadium during pregame introductions. The Sea of Red. He's been gone three years, but it feels like “just the other day,” he said.
“I think you really learn to appreciate high school and college when you finally become an adult.”
Five Questions on the Redskins
What's your assessment of RG3's health?
“I have complete confidence that he'll be back. Whether it's the first game, the second game or the third game, I don't know. But I know that he'll be back.”
You were there the year before he arrived. What's the difference now?
“Just the whole atmosphere. When they brought RG3 in, they brought in a couple other elements, too. They brought in Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan, that kind of just changed our offense completely — Alfred Morris getting drafted, too.”
How's your speed stack up to Griffin's?
“I always mess with him. RG3 and I ran Junior Olympics together. We never got to race each other, but my time when I was 13 was faster than his. And I always mess with him about it.”
Who's faster on the football field, RG3 or Taylor Martinez?
“Oh, Robert Griffin. Hands down. If you watch the Minnesota (Vikings) game and you see him open up, there's no question who's faster.”
What about Roy Helu, who missed last year with torn ligaments in his toe?
“Roy is healthy. He finally participated in minicamp and he looked amazing. I'm excited about him coming back.”