Rugby sevens spotlight on: Perry Baker
He laughs for a solid ten seconds before clearing things up. “Na, man,” insists Perry Baker, “I never chased anyone down the street! I just had to make sure the girls didn’t try to sneak any guys into the sorority house!”
This is the man known as the ‘Speed Stick’, the headline-grabber who has sparkled on the HSBC Sevens World Series over the past year, being named in the end-of-season Dream Team. He is talking about a time two years ago, before all the attention and international touring, when he was the security guard for a college sorority in Ohio. It was not glamorous in any way.
As his nickname suggests, Baker is not a big unit, but all his childhood dreams revolved around American Football. He was a wide receiver from a family of footballers who had played high-end college ball in Florida before going to the NFL. He never reached truly giddy heights but he had determination. A short stint as an undrafted free agent at the Philadelphia Eagles and a spell playing professional American Indoor Football testifies to that determination. Then, in the second half of his 20s, he was at the Tiger Academy in Columbus, learning the ropes of the game of rugby.
Baker initially went on a freebie but soon realised he needed extra money. At first he was a security guard, looking after college girls, but working one or two shifts a week didn’t cut it. So he went into pest control.
“I didn’t have to find the problems, man,” he reassures Rugby World. “I went back a few weeks after the guys had done that, for a check-up.” As we all know, however, it would not last. For the very best of reasons.
“It was the biggest relief ever when I got the call asking if I was prepared to join up with the USA Sevens team. I said to myself right away, ‘I’m not going to that next house!’ My boss understood and I went for it. I didn’t expect it, but getting somewhere was always in my mind. I’m a big believer in doing the hard work, because I’ve witnessed first-hand how hard it is. You gotta keep going no matter how tough it is. I keep reminding the guys, ‘Nothing comes easy when you’re going for gold’.”
It is an impassioned, wholesome sentiment – but remember this is a standout star in a wide-open sport representing a nation with an Olympic obsession. Americans don’t do half-arsed. And he is on the crest of goodwill and adrenaline that comes from shining after only two seasons of serious sevens circuit rugby, under a coach in Mike Friday who’s nurtured and pushed him.
If this is all getting a little serious, though, that warming laugh laps the sides of the conversation again. Baker has just been asked if his house is wall-to-wall crates of beer, since signing a big Budweiser sponsorship deal. Perhaps missing the irony, or maybe sensing an easy sale, he says: “Not at the moment because I’m focused on training, but there is nothing better than getting back after a hard day and grabbing a cold one.”
But going from an academy to being in advertising campaigns within two years, that is huge, right? “It’s happened fast. I am unbelievably grateful because I didn’t realise this would ever happen, definitely not this quick. I mean, I’m just glad to be a part of it all and this team, and I’m willing to do whatever.”
With the TV pull and market forces at play in the US it could be a bit of a distraction, but there is serious Olympics business to get on with and the Eagles are no longer a team content with simply taking part. Baker voices all of this clearly, and although there is a nod to the outsider nature of rugby in the country, there is still a bit of that Stars-and-Stripes, can-do chat that draws us to American athletes. No more laughing, this is a telling sign-off from a player willing to sweat for the cause under an unwavering media gaze.
“The US is all about the Olympics and it will definitely get attention. Many people here will be picking up the game of sevens and they’ll appreciate that it’s really fast. And the commentators will help explain the game on the fly, so it will be well exposed.
“It also speaks volumes that Americans will expect something from us without knowing too much about us. But some of that has to be recognition of what we’re doing. We’ve beaten New Zealand a couple of times, for example. We are making a lot of noise and getting better and improving.
“So to be there, as an Olympian, you embrace the hard work. It gets inside your head but you talk to it and push it beyond anything that you thought you could ever do before. When that happens, man, the stars are the limit.”