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Once “Forgotten” Rob Pannell is Primed to Prove He Belongs

By Josh Schafer

Jul 22, 2020

On Oct. 22, 2018, Mike and Paul Rabil sent shockwaves through the lacrosse world with the creation of the Premier Lacrosse League. The announcement of the league and its initial pool of players took over social media from Instagram to Twitter. But one of Paul Rabil’s longtime teammates was notably left off the list. 

Rob Pannell posted on Instagram that day, too. The photo of Pannell handling a camera pointing back at himself preparing for a vlog was more indicative of the star attackman’s next 18 months ahead than most fans realized. As the PLL took off and flashed nuggets of various players across different forms of media, Pannell was left with no one to bolster his brand other than himself. 

“Join the PLL,” fans pleaded in the comments of Pannell’s post. 

The former Tewaaraton Award winner couldn’t. A prior contract restricted him from joining the PLL for its inaugural season and forced him into a year of existing out of the lacrosse spotlight. While former teammates posted their bitmoji selves or boasted about the extravagant All-StarGame weekend and red carpet entrance, Pannell followed along from the other side of the screen. A player that had just won an MVP playing alongside many PLL athletes and a gold medal with them at Team USA was now excluded from the conversation of the best attackman in the world. 

“It’s just like I've been in that conversation for the last eight years,” Pannell said. “So to not be in it, in a league where all the best players are, it was frustrating and I definitely felt forgotten about a little a bit.”

As Pannell enters his PLL debut with Atlas on July 26 on NBC at 4 p.m. ET, it’s likely he’ll remerge into the conversation that omitted him last season. The last time Pannell played with the six other Team USA members on Atlas, he earned All-World honors as Team USA won gold at the 2018 World Lacrosse Championships. He truly believes he’s improved each year since he started at Cornell and the stats mostly support it. So while the coronavirus pandemic elongated Pannell’s transition into the PLL, the 30-year-old has continued improving, this time headlined by a new workout regime adopted a few years back. 

“It's been a long year-and-a-half and a long time coming. I just can't wait to get there and be back with the guys I love and be a part of the best lacrosse there is,” Pannell said ahead of training camp. “I think it's going to be a really special opportunity that we have these next few weeks and I'm just looking forward to taking it all in.” 

The last time Rob Pannell fell out of the lacrosse world’s limelight, he rode a scooter around Cornell’s sidelines. It was spring of 2012 and instead of leading Cornell to the National Championship he’d always wanted, a foot injury sidelined Pannell. A year removed from being nominated for an ESPY, Pannell spent what should’ve been his final season bouncing back and forth from Cornell to his home on Long Island, New York. He managed to gain an extra year of eligibility in the Ivy League after finagling around his class schedule but in doing so spent part of the preseason away from his teammates. 

When Pannell returned, he tallied 102 points for Cornell, won the Tewaaraton Trophy for best player in the country and led the Big Red to a Final Four appearance. 

“(The year off) put things in perspective more,” Pannell said. “It made me appreciate my teammates more...appreciate that I'm able to play the sport at a high level. I've definitely thought about those moments in preparation for this season.” 

When Pannell returns from his second stint of playing the waiting game, he’ll be close to the best shape of his life. Pannell’s body transformation began when he met Brian Mazza at ToneHouse in New York. Known as one of the toughest workout classes in New York City, the classes utilize bodyweight and functional training to keep clients moving for the duration of their workout. 

Pannell met Mazza, who’s been featured on the cover of Men’s Health Magazine, at the Tone House workouts and eventually started training with him at other gyms around 2017. They haven’t worked out together as often recently but much of what Pannell does now stems back to the principles he developed with Mazza. 

The pair crafted workouts together that incorporated more weights than the Tone House workouts but also emphasized providing max effort for a shorter total workout period of time than traditional athlete training sessions (most of Panell’s workouts only last about 30-40 minutes). 

The workouts are a combination of Crossfit, bodybuilding, and cross-training, Mazza said. Pannell’s a fan of the assault bike, and some of the pairs craziest workouts were something like: A 2500m row, 100 deadlifts (with 225lbs on the bar) into 100 burpees and finished off with a 2-mile run. 

The workouts are so taxing that they are often more challenging physically than games, Pannell said. That constant physical exertion for a similar time period that a game would last translates directly to the field and builds the mental toughness required to take a consistent beating throughout the game.

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In February, Pannell traveled to Los Angeles for a workout retreat organized by Mazza in coordination with his company High Performance Lifestyle Training. Part of the sessions were instructed by Navy Seals, one of whom played collegiate lacrosse. 

Instantly, Pannell was spotted and targeted. The drill instructors screamed at Pannell as he bear-crawled 40 yards into the ocean, filled his mouth with water, and ran back up the sand to spit the water in a bucket. Other activities included absorbing waves to the face while linking arms with the group, log carries and partner fireman carries while traversing a sand dune. After, the Seals said that Pannell may be able to compete in a real Seals workout. 

“You know when sharks are about to attack and their eyes go back to that shield of protection, it's like that’s what happens with Rob when he starts to train,” said Mazza. “His eyes go back and it's just all go.”

When gyms closed during the pandemic and Pannell’s year waiting to meet and train with his teammates carried on longer than expected, he started training his mother, Susan. While living at home, Pannell drew workouts on the whiteboard for Susan as well as other members of the family. 

Susan wasn’t a fan of the burpees he had her doing but listened to her son’s instruction as a workout tool after workout tool piled in through the mail. Susan learned that a loud banging likely meant her son was throwing around a giant medicine ball or slamming a barbell in the driveway. A walk around the local track wasn’t always a walk for Rob and sometimes meant 400m straight of walking lunges. 

One day, Susan walked onto her back patio to find her son, fully suited up in a weighted vest,  jumping from a cooler onto the patio dining table. 

“I was afraid that he was going to break his neck,” Susan said. “And he was like, mom you have to mix it up.”

Pannell’s knack for innovation in his workout is what brought him to places like Tone House and meeting people like Mazza. It put him in the best shape of his life two summers ago and has him close to it again. Atlas long-stick midfielder Kyle Hartzell noted that Pannell still looks the same as he did before everyone left him for a year off. 

“You're going to see one of the best versions of No. 3 this year,” Hartzell said. “You can tell he's got a lot of anger in there that this Sunday is going to come out...I think he'll be a front runner for MVP after that first game.”

The Instagram workouts are over now. The early clips from training camp are surfacing. Pannell’s scoring off passes from Trevor Baptiste and setting up goals for Paul Rabil. It looks like he’ll come back stronger after a year away, just as did so many years ago at Cornell. 

The long wait is over. Pannell is back where he belongs. 

“After I get the ball in my stick for that first time, that first game on NBC, I'll calm down and it'll be all gas no brakes from there on,” Pannell said. “I'm just excited and more than anything I'll just be relieved.”

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