ASHBURN, Va. — Ron Rivera receives opinions about players on his team from countless factions. Not that the Washington Commanders’ head coach always seeks or, in some instances, desires feedback. That the sources offering praise on rookie offensive lineman Chris Paul came from others in the trenches grabbed his attention.
“Chris Paul is somebody that’s gonna make a mark,” Rivera said. “I say that because when you talk to some of our veteran defensive linemen, they talk about him as being a guy that can lock you up. And they’ve told me unsolicited … coach, we gotta keep an eye on this kid.”
The Commanders’ scouts watched the guard with tackle experience before the team selected the University of Tulsa alum 230th overall in the 2022 NFL Draft. Washington’s coaches zeroed in on the stout and physical lineman during spring and summer practices.
Teammates get a feel for the 6-foot-4, 324-pounder’s game during practices. For fans and offensive line connoisseurs, the wait continues.
Washington has not pushed the pace with the seventh-round selection who shares a name with a famous NBA point guard. The Commanders are 13 games deep into the regular season, and Paul has yet to make his NFL debut. This is despite interior line injuries and struggles throughout the season.
Future depth is another consideration. Four linemen are 2023 free agents, including starting right guard Trai Turner and key reserve Wes Schweitzer.
Rivera’s unsolicited gushing of Paul in response to a broad question about the 2022 draft class suggests patience over concern. When it comes to his adopted community, the interesting, interested, and musically inclined rookie is already contributing.
The Houston native finds comfort in learning, not simply football Xs and O’s. His veteran teammates certainly aid in the on-field college-to-pros adjustment. In between technique talk, Paul, 24, sought mentorship in real-life basics. “The kind of wisdom you can get with guys who will talk to you about anything,” said the three-year college starter.
Yes, everything. How do you install a ceiling fan? What’s the approach to their finances? Should he buy or rent a couch?
Earlier this season, starting left guard Andrew Norwell — correctly — steered Paul toward making a purchase. He suggested the rookie think long-term about a piece of furniture most keep for years, “so you want to make sure you like it,” Paul recalled. Center Tyler Larsen shared similar advice but offered the new guy a chance to peruse extra couches at his home.
The specific details matter, but the engaging Paul finds much more in these chats than home decor and savings account guidance. He loves the discovery that comes from group dynamics. Tulsa offered the chance to hang with “guys from totally different backgrounds,” but all were roughly the same age and at the same point in life. No more.
Norwell is one of three starting offensive linemen clocking in at 31 and playing for at least their second team. That includes left tackle Charles Leno, a father of three young girls.
“You had guys from totally different backgrounds (in college), but this is like that times ten,” Paul said, “because you’ve got just tons of different life experiences.”
Veterans are impressed with more than Paul’s potential.
“You can tell he was raised right,” offensive tackle Cornelius Lucas said.
Mental health isn’t a typical subject inside a locker room where machismo and bravado hold court. Paul, hardly your typical rookie or player, hopes to open a dialogue among athletes by helping remove any stigma with this personal subject.
“(Mental health is) not something that most guys want to talk about,” Paul said. “A lot of people try to avoid it or ignore it. But there are a lot of ramifications that come from doing that.”
Paul served as the American Athletic Conference’s representative to the NCAA Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee while spearheading mental health campaigns called Powerful Minds. He discovered a way to continue this work while prepping for a professional career.
At the 2022 Senior Bowl, one of the main pre-draft events for teams and prospects, Paul interacted with Athletes for Hope. The nonprofit, founded by former Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee, works to educate professional athletes about philanthropy and connect them with charitable causes.
Tulsa OL Chris Paul comes across as a mature leader by nature. “When I speak, I’m talking to you right now, but I’m representing a lot more than myself. I’m representing my family, I’m representing the over 7000 student athletes in our conference… I don’t take it lightly” pic.twitter.com/kQ9rrjKLKn
— Madelyn Burke (@MadelynBurke) March 3, 2022
He gravitated toward mental health awareness and became one of the group’s ambassadors. On Oct. 10, “World Mental Health” day, Paul and Athletes for Hope partnered locally for their Whole Being Athlete program.
Resources for Commanders players include Dr. Barbara Roberts, a clinical psychologist, and the team’s wellness and clinical services director.
“We’re continuing to get into more of a space where it’s okay to talk about things that you’re dealing with, or guys just need to be able to welcome vulnerability into the space,” Paul said. “The more you talk to guys … the more comfortable you become with each other and sharing.”
Paul said he does not struggle with mental health. However, the self-described “steady person” experienced a multi-week “funk” during the fall of 2021. During this stretch, he didn’t feel like “the same old Chris” and wasn’t eating much. Paul sought refuge by going outside for walks. There he took notice of nature’s sounds, from leaves rustling to the wind blowing.
Wanting to maintain that bond with the elements, Paul began journaling which he believes helped “connect me back to myself and get my mojo back.” This entry spun Paul toward another one of his passions.
While the lineman learns to handle the NFL’s speed, he often uses music to decompress and unplug. Paul isn’t only a listener. In college, he created a music video called “Mother Nature” under his stage name, The Seventh.
“He’s really into music,” offensive tackle Cornelius Lucas said. “The video is pretty good.”
Paul sees the song as personifying Mother Nature and “a dialogue between men and earth.”
Paul also seeks a connection with his Nigerian heritage. His parents, Paul and Victoria Unawunwa, independently immigrated from Nigeria to the United States for college and later met in Houston, where they settled and raised a family.
This October, Chris Paul met with another nonprofit in the District, the Nigerian Center. He attended the opening of their walk-in immigration clinic for community members who seek legal assistance regarding immigration and naturalization. The young man who “loves, loves, loves” human connection spoke to numerous people about their journey and dreams.
“I could see myself and my parents every time somebody shared their story about how they came over here,” Paul said.
The rookie’s professional football story is only beginning. Of course, he would love to be on the field for this week and future gamedays to help the Commanders. For now, Paul soaks up the knowledge around him while experiencing the “ebbs and flows of the season” and vibing with those around him.
“How I make others feel is important to me,” Paul said. “The impact I can have on others, and the impact others have had on me in my life, really sticks with me.”
If what Rivera heard from Washington’s defenders about the rookie guard’s football chops proves accurate, Paul will stick on the roster beyond this season.
“Players know players,” Rivera said. “(Chris is) a guy to keep an eye on.”
As a member of the locker room and the community, Paul is already making his mark.
(Photo: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)