When Redskins tight end
Paulsen, who became the team’s starter after Davis was sidelined, knows exactly what it’s like to face a devastating injury that prematurely ends a season.
For Paulsen, it was the first game of his senior season at UCLA, when he broke his foot during the season opener against Tennessee. That experience, showed Paulsen just how tough a season-ending injury is both physically and emotionally.
“It’s very difficult,” Paulsen said. “The fact that your team is still going on without you when you were such a big part of it for such a long time – I was at UCLA four years, Fred’s been here for three years. It just seems like there’s a seamless transition without you there.
“I think that’s the hardest thing psychologically is you kind of lose yourself a little bit. You don’t really have a direction for a little bit of time.”
During his rehabilitation, Paulsen focused on recovering from the injury while also being mentally ready if and when his team needed him again. That same mindset and preparedness also helped the 25-year-old this season when it came time to step in for the injured Davis.
“Obviously, it’s extremely difficult when one of your friends or teammates gets hurt,” said Paulsen. “I’ve had some experience with that and I know how difficult it can be. For him, I feel really bad, but at the same time, I’m on the Redskins for this moment, for this situation. However dark it is, this is my opportunity and this is why I have a job. So I need to make sure I’m prepared to do my job to the best of my ability and be a pro. I think I’ve done that.”
Paulsen’s path to becoming the starting tight end for the Redskins has been an unlikely one. Growing up in Northridge, Calif., Paulsen was always interested in sports, but it was actually soccer, not football, that he devoted most of his time to as an adolescent.
Paulsen admits he didn’t really follow professional football until he got to middle school and began playing some flag football. Then, when he got to high school, football became a much larger part of his life. And eventually, he had to make a choice between the two sports, since he didn’t have time to play high school football and still be a part of his club soccer team.
“Inevitably, one of those things had to give. I guess, fortunately, it was the soccer,” said Paulsen.
Even as football became a larger part of his life, he still didn’t realize it would become his life – until recruiters showed interest in him.
“Honestly, I didn’t think anything was going to become of the football thing. Then, lo and behold, my junior year rolled around and I had a couple of scholarship offers. It just kind of all happened really seamlessly,” Paulsen admitted.
For Paulsen, choosing a college was as much about academics as it was about football. His father graduated from MIT and he had an uncle graduate from Harvard, so needless to say, his family expected him to go to a strong academic school. Paulsen narrowed his choices down to UCLA, Stanford and Duke, before ultimately settling on UCLA.
“I always wanted to go to UCLA growing up,” he said. “Really it was a no decision.”
Paulsen majored in both history and political science while in college. He left there with two degrees, taking the one class he still needed for his history degree during his fifth year.
“It kind of worked out perfectly,” said Paulsen.
The timing of his injury all around was rather fortunate. Paulsen had a lingering foot pain for the three months leading up to that first game, but he never alerted the medical staff to the injury. When it did break, doctor found that he had had a stress fracture for months that had been eroding the bone.
“It was kind of a godsend,” said Paulsen. “I was going to need to be off of it anyway, so the fact that it broke when it did in the first game gave me the opportunity to get that medical redshirt and come back for my fifth year at UCLA.”
After his senior year, Paulsen hoped to end up in the NFL, but knew that being drafted was a long shot.
“I really had no expectations of being drafted. You kind of fantasize ‘what if,’ but in my core I knew I wasn’t going to be drafted,” he said.
With no Senior Bowl or trip to the Combine, Paulsen focused on training for his pro day. One person he reached out to for advice was Jon Embree, who was his tight end coach at UCLA his freshman year.
Since that year, Embree had made his way to the pros, finding a position as the tight end coach for the Redskins. While the San Diego Chargers were also interested in signing Paulsen, it was Embree who talked him into signing with Washington.
“Ultimately, I decided to go with what I knew and go with the guy who I knew would give me an opportunity and a guy that I had a lot of faith in,” said Paulsen.
While he had faith in Embree, he still was only cautiously optimistic about his tenure in Washington. For his rookie season in 2010, instead of buying a house or settling into an apartment on the East Coast, he instead decided to see how things panned out first.
“My first year, I had my feet in both pools, so to speak, in the sense that I lived in an Extended Stay Hotel,” Paulsen said. “I didn’t really have any roots here because I thought I was going to get cut.”
“I hadn’t really moved out here until last year when I got the apartment and settled in,” he continued. “And obviously, this year I’m fully here now and my wife’s out here with me, which has been very nice.”
While his time in the Extended Stay certainly wasn’t the luxurious lifestyle fans picture most NFL athletes living, it did help him become a better player thanks to the sheer boredom of living in a tiny one bedroom hotel.
“Every day you come home you have like three movie channels and the bed in the room and that’s it. It was kind of difficult I think, more from a psychological perspective. However, it did allow me to pour myself into my work and really focus on football,” said Paulsen.
That focus and hard work is what has served him well thus far in his football career and it is what will continue to serve him moving forward. That determination and ability to overcome adversity has also carried over into his off-field life, where he is currently trying to help his college roommate, who had a devastating injury of his own.
In July, Amir "Nick" Ekbatani was riding his motorcycle down the Pacific Coast Highway in California when he was struck by a taxi cab. His left leg had to be amputated after the accident.
This season, Paulsen has put away his razor and vowed to grow his beard out until his friend can walk again. He is also helping to raise money for the Big Nick Fund to help Ekbatani pay for his medical bills.
Those interested in donating, can go here [www.gofundme.com/venb8] for more information.