Written By: Mark Janzen
While Perry Baker was at Fairmont State University in Fairmont, West Virginia, the university’s club rugby team practiced after the football team.
With the teams exchanging passing glances, while the well-padded group were leaving the field and the unpadded varietals were sauntering onto to the pitch, the wiry receiver –who had dabbled in rugby with the Daytona Beach Coconuts and was ever the chatty type – kibitzed.
“I tell you guys, I can play rugby,” he would suggest.
The retort came with a snicker: “Nah…you’re too small.”
Baker (who indeed possessed a rather slender figure while with the Fighting Falcons coming in at 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds) responded with something like: “All right, whatever (you think).”
The man known as “Speed Stick,” who graduated from Fairmont State in 2010 with a degree in criminal justice, had little more than a smattering of rugby-playing experiences. He hadn’t touched a rugby ball until the very end of high school, and his go-rounds with Daytona Beach were little more than a summer fling. Yet, the product of New Smyrna Beach, Florida, who once rushed for 244 yards on just 12 carries in a single game for Fairmont State (vs. Seton Hill in 2008) and whose 19 career receiving touchdowns are tied for the third most in school history, knew something the world wouldn’t come to understand for several more years.
When Baker answered his cell phone, he was in the middle of a shift, working with a pest control company. The job wasn’t pretty, but it paid the bills. The company was also flexible, allowing Baker to have weekends off – a concession few employees received – to play rugby.
It was the summer of 2014 and Baker was four years beyond his graduation from Fairmont State, three years removed from signing a free-agent contract with the National Football League’s Philadelphia Eagles, and it had been a year since giving up his dream of playing professional football.
However, he was just three years away from being named the World Rugby Men’s Sevens Player of the Year.
Alex Magleby, USA Rugby’s national sevens director, was on the other end of the line. He offered Baker a contract with the USA sevens program. It was a Wednesday and Baker was in Columbus, Ohio. Magleby wanted Baker to join the team at its training centre in Chula Vista, California by Saturday. Baker had been training with Tiger Rugby in Ohio for the better part of the previous year under the watchful and encouraging eye of Paul Holmes, the program’s national academy director. With his football career jettisoned and his true love – rugby – taking centre stage, Magleby’s phone call was the dream Baker had only imagined.
From the first time he touched a rugby ball – thanks to the convincing of Daytona Beach’s Brian Richardson, who was also one of Baker’s football coaches at Spruce Creek High School – he was enraptured.
“I went to the training and I fell in love with it from that moment on,” says Baker. “I was like, ‘this is cool,’ and I’m telling the guys, ‘…you all are so close and you all are so fun.’ It reminded me of sandlot football…but I fell in love with the game because of the brotherhood. I liked that atmosphere and that made me pursue it even more.”
A pre-existing torn meniscus derailed his opportunity with the Philadelphia Eagles before it even began. After that, he needed two years of playing arena football before he got the football dream “out of his system.”
“I gave it a second year and I wasn’t loving it anymore,” says Baker, who spent the 2012 and 2013 seasons with the Pittsburgh Power of the Arena Football League. “That’s when I decided to switch over.”
After he got off the phone with Magleby, he went to his work truck and cried. He called his dad.
“We’re on our way,” he blurted through a mess of tears.
The pest control company threw a party for him two days later, on Friday morning. Then, after sending out more than a few excitable Snaps, he began his drive to California.
For Baker, it was first Richardson, then Holmes and then it was Mike Friday, who coincidentally was hired as USA Rugby’s men’s sevens head coach the same month Baker joined the program.
Since graduating from Spruce Creek, Baker always had that one person who believed he had what it would take to make it in the world of rugby sevens.
“I just takes one person to see you,” he says. “Someone will find you. Just keep doing what you’re doing. The opportunity will come if you stay on course and stay focused. That’s how I look at life in general. Whatever you want to do, you can do. Just keep focused on it and keep going. You just have to be ready when the opportunity comes.”
Upon arrival in Chula Vista, Friday became that guy within USA Rugby and Baker seized his chance.
“Once I came to the Eagles, my game elevated,” he says. “Being under Mike Friday and Chris Brown (when I came) was perfect timing.”
Competing alongside the very best sevens players in the country helped take Baker from rugby-playing speedster to, as Friday once put it, “(looking) like a proper rugby player.” At the same time, Baker continued to uncover the nuances, both on and off the field, of the game.
“Rugby can take you so far and teach you so much,” he says. “And I played football and basketball and did track, but rugby is totally different. Our culture is just so diverse. It’s crazy. You have all these people with different backgrounds and personalities and…it’s a brotherhood. In rugby, everyone is together.”
Baker made his Sevens World Series debut in October 2014 at the Gold Coast Sevens in Australia.
The following year, 2015-16, he earned a USA record 47 tries on the World Series circuit and was named to the Sevens World Series Dream Team.
The Olympic Games in Rio followed, but it was what came after that – the 2016-17 season – which took Perry from very, very good to very, very great.
Fifty-seven tries later, Baker made the Dream Team again following the conclusion of the 2016-17 campaign, but this time he was nominated for the Player of the Year award.
His story was already an inspiration. However, with his game and his name ascending to the top of the sevens game, his position became amplified, allowing him a stage to inspire the next generation to take up rugby.
“Once I became an Eagle, I realized this is a big platform and it’s around the entire world,” he says. “But people don’t understand that when they tell me I inspire them. I’m like, ‘It goes both ways.’ You’re inspiring me to keep doing this. You’re the reason why I’m doing this. It goes hand in hand. As long as I’m inspiring you guys, you’re inspiring me to keep going.”
Baker arrived at the World Rugby awards night in a grey suit with a black shirt and a black bow tie. In an Instagram post, Baker – he of 48.7K followers – stood beside New Zealand rugby legend Dan Carter – he of 832K followers. In Baker’s caption, he explained that Carter had suggested Baker was dressed in a manner more suited for the ESPYs than a rugby awards night. As it would turn out, Baker’s attire would perfectly befit the moment when his name was announced as the Men’s Sevens Player of the Year.
“Honestly, I was in shock,” he recalls. “It was never a dream of mine. I just wanted to be the best I could be. When they said my name, I didn’t move for a second. I was looking around. Is this me they're calling to come up to the podium?”
A few days later, in the series-opening tournament, Baker suffered a concussion that disappointingly sent him home from the Dubai Sevens and forced him to miss the event in Cape Town. With the series’ best player on the sidelines, Baker – the one who whose name, not four years ago, was more recognizable to terrified vermin than to rugby experts – was deeply missed.
With tour stops in Sydney (Jan. 26-28) and Hamilton, New Zealand (Feb. 3-4) on the horizon, Baker will be back.
And once again, set to inspire.