The amazing journey of Perry Baker: From sleeping in his car to the bright lights of Las Vegas
The year is 2013, and Perry Baker is sleeping in his truck. It is a far cry from the glamorous life he had envisaged for himself.
Having been signed by the Philadelphia Eagles in the National Football League (NFL) in 2011, he had been on the verge of riches and fame.
But a knee injury ended that dream, and after two years struggling to make ends meet playing indoor American football in the unglamorous Arena Football League, the Fairmont State University graduate decided to make a drastic change.
Baker got in touch with his high school football coach, who made some calls, and a day later Baker drove from Pittsburgh to Columbus to begin a month-long rugby trial at the Tiger Rugby Academy.
“When I got there, there were already guys in the apartment,” Baker told Olympics.com. “Our rugby house had two bedrooms. In one bedroom was one of the guys who signed the lease. He had his own room because he had a girlfriend at the time, and didn’t want to share.
“And then the other tiny room had three guys already in there. They had little twin mattresses, and there was no room left. Then the rest of the guys were in the living room and in the hallways. I think at one point in time it's probably twelve guys in this house.
“One of the guys was in college, and when he would leave, I would sleep on his couch. But when he was back in town, I had nowhere to sleep, so I’d just go sleep in my truck!”
Speeding into Team USA's Olympic team
Baker moved between the couch and his truck for the month. With the lack of good sleep and routine, it is perhaps unsurprising that he delivered an underwhelming performance in his first rugby tournament.
But he persisted. He continued to learn the sport and, after a move into more suitable accommodation, found his feet at the next tournament.
Baker’s reputation over the next 10 months grew almost as quickly as his feet on the pitch, and it wasn’t long before he appeared on the national team scouts’ radars.
The USA Eagles were looking for new players ahead of rugby sevens’ Olympic debut at the Rio 2016 Games, and Baker’s raw athletic talent was exactly what they were looking for.
The game had also just turned professional, and they offered the speedster a contract at the U.S. Olympic Training Facility in San Diego, California, which meant that he could also quit his side job in pest control.
“When they called me up, I was actually on a job,” the Florida native explained. “Pest control was actually great to me as they gave me weekends off to play rugby. It was perfect!
“I was on the site when USA Rugby called to offer me a contract, and I just started bawling. I called my dad, my best friend, and then I told my boss, who gave me the rest of the day off to pack.”
"Rugby sevens is all a mental state" - Perry Baker to Olympics.com
Getting to the top table of rugby is one thing, but staying there is another. Many have tried and failed at the sport due to it’s relentlessly physical nature.
The Olympic champion Fijian men’s sevens team is made up of giant, agile athletes that are as effective running over opponents, as they are around them. Therefore, players must be prepared to front up physically.
Many people doubted whether 73kg Baker had the frame to compete at the elite level. He also doubted himself, until he saw South African sevens legend Cecil Afrika, who was a similar build, in action.
“My buddy called me and he was like, “Hey, go check this guy Afrika right now. He just won World Rugby Player of the Year.
“So I turned on the T.V. and there he was, this small guy with crazy skill levels, just hitting everybody and getting hit.
“From that moment I knew I could do it, because I knew I had heart just like he does. I've been hit hard since I was a little kid playing football because I was never a big kid. Rugby is all a mental state.”
Baker answered his doubters in style.
In 2015 he recorded an astounding 48 tries to finish second in the World Rugby Sevens Series try-scoring charts.
The dainty winger was a key part of the USA team that agonisingly just missed out on progressing from their group at the Rio Olympics, but returned hungrier than ever in 2017, and even captained the team in South Africa.
By now, Baker’s electric exploits had started going viral on YouTube, and he was given the nickname “Speedstick”. He went on to win the 2017 and 2018 Player of the Year awards.
Living it up in Las Vegas
Despite his meteoric rise, every time he travelled to Las Vegas with the national team he was given a reminder of just how far he had actually come.
“This first time I played in Vegas was with Tiger Rugby, and I had no money,” he recalled. “I called my mum, who sent me one hundred bucks. She told me it was her lighting bill money but they didn’t want me there with no money. So I went to a Subway, bought two foot-long sandwiches for 10 bucks, and that’s what sustained me during the days.
“But when we went to a team dinner at an Italian restaurant, I only had 50 bucks left and I didn’t want to ask anyone for money as I was new on the scene, so I just had the smallest meal.
“But every time I go to Las Vegas with USA Rugby now, and this is God's honest truth, I splurge every single time. No matter who I’m with. My parents, wife, and kids come to Vegas now and I take them out. And I always tell them this story that the first time I went there, I didn’t have a dime in my pocket.
“Let’s live this moment up man, it’s what makes this journey so much better. All I’ve ever wanted to do was give, and inspire. It’s not just about money either, but about giving knowledge and wisdom.”
Looking for redemption at Tokyo 2020 in 2021
Baker and Team USA have gained plenty of knowledge since their disappointing early exit from the Rio 2016 Olympics.
The Eagles secured a best-ever finish of second in the 2018-19 season, signifying that they had transitioned from inconsistent entertainers to serious contenders.
The World Series was cancelled last season due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the USA have been training relentlessly in order to ensure that they are in the best possible shape ahead of their bid for redemption at the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021.
"I feel like we have unfinished business at the Olympics,” Baker said. “We want to be on that podium.
“Do we believe we can win gold? We do. Do we think it's going to be easy? No, we don't think any of the tests we face are easy, but we feel like we can achieve it. We can do it.”
At 34-years-old, it is more than likely that this will be Baker’s final shot at winning Olympic gold with the rugby sevens team.
While that is the focus right now, the coronavirus-enforced break from competition in 2020 gave him some space to think about life after sport.
Baker graduated with a degree in Criminal Justice, and in 2018 he completed an internship with the New York Police Department.
“I always wanted to be a homicide detective,” he said. “So I went to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and did ride-alongs with their police department for a couple of days.
“Then I spent a couple of days with the NYPD and went to a SWAT unit to see how that was set up. It was a blast and I would love to do that job.”
Crooks in the New York area beware. In the not too distant future there could be a two-time World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year with an Olympic medal around his neck enforcing the law, that is very unlikely to be outrun!