John Paul, head coach of Atlas Lacrosse Club, listened intently as his roster for the inaugural season of the Premiere Lacrosse League was read off to him, waiting to hear what kind of talent he would have at his disposal.
Like the rest of the coaches in the PLL, Paul didn’t have any input on who was going to be on his team’s roster. Initial players were officially assigned to teams in early March.
The Atlas’ roster is not lacking in talent or fame. It is littered with players like midfielder Paul Rabil, one of the PLL’s co-founders, and World Games gold medalists like Trevor Baptiste and Tom Schreiber — players who have become as connected to their sport as LeBron James is to basketball or Tom Brady to football.
As the players were listed one by one, Paul knew them all… Almost. When he heard the name Tim Semisch, Paul had one question: “Who?”
That’s to be expected. Anyone who follows college or pro lacrosse would have likely had the same reaction. That’s because for the last four years, Semisch has been a tight end in the NFL.
The 6-foot-8, 267-pound Semisch retired from the NFL in December after stints with the Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers, Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos. As a three-sport athlete at Millard North High School in Omaha, Nebraska, Semisch won all-state honors three times in hockey and lacrosse. He now spends his time in Tennessee as a youth and high school lacrosse coach.
“Once it was explained to me, I was fired up,” Paul said. “Because this is such a great story…that the PLL is giving someone like this an opportunity.”
To Semisch, football was something to do in the fall. His real love was always lacrosse, and he always found his way back to it. Whether it was playing in pickup games in the offseason, participating in summer leagues or coaching, Semisch gravitated back to lacrosse.
So, when rumors started to swirl about Rabil starting the PLL, it was not a prospect Semisch could pass up. And now he wants to make an imprint on the sport that has always found a way to stay in his life.
“I couldn’t turn that opportunity down,” Semisch said. “(It was a chance) to go back to something I truly loved on a fundamental level that I would even do for free and play with some of the best lacrosse players in the world.”
Learning as you go: ‘It’s kind of what made me fall in love’
You wouldn’t find the Millard North lacrosse team on one of the high school’s practice fields when Semisch was learning to swing a stick in his childhood town of Omaha, Nebraska. For that, you would have to walk about a mile up the road, where you’d find about a dozen bicycles chained to trees next to Pacific Meadows Park
Back then, Nebraska lacrosse was a sport that was just starting to grow in popularity. There were only a handful of schools that actually received funding as a high school team, and despite requests from Semisch and his teammates, Millard North was not one of them.
So afternoons in the spring, players would trek to the park to practice.
“It was frustrating,” Semisch said. “Other than an early season information session, we weren’t allowed anything.”
With a lack of funding came a lack of coaching. Leadership of the team was “a revolving door” according to Semisch. His freshman and sophomore seasons featured two volunteer coaches who, despite their good intentions, had trouble finding time to fit being a lacrosse coach into their weeks on top of a 40-hour work schedule.
So, in Semisch’s junior season, he and one of his teammates took on the role of head coaches themselves.
“It was nice not really having someone to tell us what to do, but it was frustrating,” Semisch said. “We basically did what we could, but high school kids coaching high school kids really wasn’t super productive.”
With an inconsistent voice at the head of the team, Semisch mostly learned the game by playing it. After taking the team through line drills and fast breaks, practices turned into scrimmages for the final 45 minutes with the best players “doing their own thing.”
But out of all the turbulence with team’s leadership, Semisch had the benefit of learning the sport through coaching it, which became the core of his passion.
“It’s kind of what made me fall in love with lacrosse in a weird way,” he said. “The sport itself is great, but it was even better being able to coach it.”
The Millard North team didn’t have much success as a self-led squad. They consistently found themselves fighting for the one or two wins that kept them from the bottom of the standings. It didn’t long for Semisch to realize that a scholarship wasn’t going to come from lacrosse, so it made taking a step back from lacrosse in favor of football a little easier.
But it was lacrosse, not football, that kept finding a way to come back to him.
“It’s kind of a weird, beautiful mix of football’s schematics…and the ability to create,” Semisch said. “It’s that controlled aggression of being able to hit people and rip a hard shot on a fast break that always got my blood pumping in a different way than any other sport ever did.”
Translating and adjusting
Paul doesn’t doubt Semisch’s athleticism. Someone who played Division I football and spent four seasons in the NFL does not have to do much to prove to him that they can fit in from an athletic standpoint.
And he knows Semisch has the skills to play the sport. While Paul hasn’t spent much time with the former tight end, he’s impressed with what he’s seen from afar. Semisch’s social media pages are filled with videos of him training for the upcoming season, and they’re enough to show Paul has the potential be a good lacrosse player.
“When I watch stuff on him, I see he’s a big guy but he moves really well,” Paul said. “He’s got great feet. Those are difference makers for defensemen, especially at the higher levels.”
But the real adjustment is going to be taking the athleticism and skill and turning them into the ability to play at an elite level.
“This is a huge jump for him,” Paul said. “In fact, he’s skipping a couple of steps. It’s the speed of the game, the decisions that he’s going to have to make. That’s what he’s going to have to adjust to. With some guys, it comes to them quicker than others, but it comes with experience.”
Semisch admits he’s not on par with Rabil or some of the other well-known names in the sport. They’ve been playing lacrosse professionally for years, so there is initially going to be a gap in ability between Semisch and the rest of the players on the Atlas’ roster.
But from a mental perspective, Semisch knows the sport. After dedicating most of his professional life to football, it did take some time for him to switch his mindset from football to the lacrosse.And for someone who spent much of his offseasons staying involved in lacrosse, that adjustment period might not take long.
Coaching has helped. He coaches middle school players and assisted in clinics in Tennessee, Florida and Nebraska. It’s all helped improve his understanding of the game and how he approaches it.
“It’s really opened my eyes to the different varieties of lacrosse that’s played out there,” he said. “It’s just like in football. One team can have a certain system and then another can have a completely different system.”
And having a background that is based predominantly in football doesn’t hurt either. In fact, Semisch believes it helps him. He’s always advocated that lacrosse is better for football players to play in the spring than other sports like track and field.
It isn’t hard to understand the connection between the two sports. Lacrosse is one of the few sports that is comparable to football in terms of sheer physicality. But it isn’t just being able to hit someone that helps Semisch; many of the techniques that lacrosse and football players use are similar, if not exactly alike.
“There’s the cutting, the ins and outs, hitting a burst for 20 yards,” Semisch said. “At the end of the day, pushing a guy away from a ground ball is the same thing as run blocking. I teach my kids, and I do this as well, the same kick slide that tackles are using against Von Miller and some of the best pass rushers in the game. It’s essentially the same footwork. The only difference is instead of using your hands, you get a six-foot stick.”
“He’s just used to what you have to do physically and mentally be ready and to process information,” Paul said. “But there’s a big difference between lacrosse and football, the biggest one being we don’t have a few seconds to reset. And again, that’s where the speed of the game is going to be an adjustment, and I’m looking forward to seeing how quickly he can make that adjustment.”
As a speed and agility coach in Tennessee, Jeremy Holt works with athletes from all sports and players of all ages, but football players — and more specifically wide receivers and tight ends — are his specialty. A regular day can include several receivers, linebackers, offensive linemen and tight ends who play in the NFL. It’s how he and Semisch met when he was on the practice squad for the Titans.
Semisch is the only lacrosse player that Holt is working with right now, but he has experience working with other lacrosse players. He knows how to train them, and he knows how the skills translate from one sport to the other.
“It’s essentially like training a defensive back because of the skillsets they have to have,” Holt said. “If I’m training a DB, I can throw a lacrosse player in that same session, give them a stick and tell them to do what we’re doing.”
When Holt heard that Semisch was hanging up his cleats in football, he was slightly disappointed. He thought Semisch had the talent to play at the professional level, and given the right opportunity, he could have a successful career.
But when Semisch told him he was switching to lacrosse, Holt knew the former tight end was making a good move.
“I said, ‘Dude, you’re going to dominate,’” Holt said.
Holt believes Semisch’s size and quickness are going help him when the PLL’s first season begins. The skills he learned working on the line with offensive linemen are also aspects of Semisch’s game that will make for an easier transition to the lacrosse field.
“It was a no brainer training with Jeremy since he helped me develop while playing in the NFL,” Semisch said. “He’s one of [the best], if not the best, out there when it comes speed/agility training. He just knows how to push and challenge you in different ways.”
Most of the drills Semisch goes through are defensive back drills that involve backpedaling, shuffling turning and flipping his hips. This is all done so that when Semisch does take the field, he can quickly change direction, have good bursts out of his breaks and create separation.
Holt still foresees an adjustment period for Semisch, but that learning curve should be smaller because of the work Semisch has done over the past few months.
“It won’t be as big as it would be for someone who’s jumping into a new sport,” Holt said. “It’s not like he’s just picking up a stick and trying to play. He knows the game, he understands it from an X’s and O’s standpoint. The only curve will be just getting back into the grind of being in the sport, but I don’t think it’ll be that much.”
Since Semisch’s decision to pursue a career in professional football, lacrosse has been a distant but integral part of his identity. Regardless of where he has been with the NFL, Semisch found a way to keep a stick close to him, just in case his true love, ever came calling for him.
Now he’s picking up that stick for good. There’s no more football or hockey or any other sports. Instead, it’s the sport he kept within reach that is in the forefront.
He has the ingredients to make a successful career a reality. He has the background, the size, the ability and the support; the only thing left for him to do is put it all together. That’s creates a shroud of mystery in what his future holds, but there is also confidence that his future is a bright one.
“I see someone who’s a really good athlete and working really hard right now,” Paul said. “I’ve been incredibly impressed by everything that I’ve learned from and about Tim … I’m impressed with who he is and what he seems to be about. I can’t wait to get to know him better.”