Game Changer: The unusual road Perry Baker took to become an Olympic hopeful

CHULA VISTA, Calif. -- It's hard to stop Perry Baker's forward progress, but when he got the call in the summer of 2014, emotion pinned him against the driver's seat of his pickup truck.

There was an offer on the table from the USA Men's Eagles Sevens -- a place waiting for him at the pristine, arid training base south of San Diego, where a side for the first-ever Olympic sevens tournament would be shaped for the 2016 Rio Games.

It was a Wednesday. Could he start that weekend?

Behind the wheel of his Ford F-150 on a residential street in Columbus, Ohio, 2,200 miles away, Baker began to cry. He was in the middle of his shift with a pest control company, where he set mousetraps, sprayed beehives and swept cobwebs out of other people's corners while he tried to keep his own vision from collecting dust.

He'd put so many hard miles into earning this chance. But even as joy and relief washed over him, Baker knew exactly how much he didn't know.

"I'm still new to this game and now I'm on the big stage,'' Baker said in the sunny cafeteria at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista on an idle Sunday a few months ago.

After two full seasons and on the cusp of 30 years old, Baker has grown into the role. He was the only U.S. athlete named to the World Rugby Sevens Series "Dream Team'' this year and finished second in the series in tries scored. His ability to shake himself loose and accelerate into space makes him an exceptionally luminous presence in a high-voltage game that lasts 15 minutes start to finish.

He still views himself as a converted wide receiver with a lot to learn, but he has changed his image within the game.

"He's not just 'the fast bloke,''' said U.S. head coach Mike Friday. "He looks like a proper rugby player.''

That journey required swapping one long-held, unrequited ambition for another that seemed even more unlikely. Baker's uncle, Wes Chandler, and his brother, Dallas Baker, both played for the University of Florida and went on to the NFL. It was football, not its older, stripped-down, British-born antecedent, that infused Perry with single-minded purpose on the sandlots of New Smyrna Beach, Florida.

Little did he know that would serve him in two different games.

"They played 'hot ball,' where you go as far as you can before you get tackled, and then you get rid of it,'' said Chandler, an 11-year pro and longtime position coach who is now involved in a start-up developmental league. "He is so dangerous because he anticipates that step to daylight.''

A receiver from a line of receivers, Baker was bent on using his speed and elusiveness to make up for his slight build. And, Chandler added, their tight-knit, extended family includes generations of ministers, which might account for the conviction that "mere mortals couldn't determine our fate ... he's walked that same line.''

Baker played basketball and ran track in high school but refused to give up on football and wound up excelling at Division II Fairmont State University in West Virginia. By then, someone had already put Baker on another path, although he didn't understand that at the time. His high school position coach Brian Richardson was also an avid club rugby player and took a then-18-year-old Baker along to a Daytona Beach Coconuts training session.

"I had no idea what rugby was,'' Baker said. "Had never seen it, never heard of it. I didn't tell my parents where I was going or anything. No one could catch me, they didn't know who I was and I was playing with these older guys. I fell in love with it that night.''

For years, Baker treated the sport as an illicit pleasure, sneaking off to tournaments -- sometimes against other coaches' orders -- while pursuing what was always a long shot bid for the NFL. Rugby was a side gig, his carefree space, unencumbered by X's and O's.

"We didn't ask him to play rugby -- we asked him to catch the ball and run,'' Richardson said.

Baker was invited to the East-West Shrine Game. He was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent in 2011, but he flunked his physical because of a torn meniscus that he had done his best to ignore. Uncertain of his next step, he returned to West Virginia and took the first of what would be a few odd jobs: overseeing urine tests in a courthouse for men enrolled in a deferral program.

Baker accepted an invitation to training camp with the U.S. sevens in 2012, but he continued to view rugby as a hobby, not a vocation. He signed with the Arena Football League and moved to Pittsburgh, still convinced he could barge into the NFL's line of sight.

"I had no idea what rugby was. Had never seen it, never heard of it. No one could catch me, they didn't know who I was and I was playing with these older guys. I fell in love with it that night." Perry Baker

He found the life to be a treadmill of night practices, meal vouchers for strip mall eateries and a weekly $825 paycheck. In footage from those two years, Baker looks like a shark banging into the walls of a tropical fish tank, without enough room to maneuver.

Richardson steered him to Paul Holmes, who runs the Tiger Rugby Academy in Columbus, a feeder for the Olympic program. Holmes asked Baker whether he was ready to eat, sleep and breathe the game. He wasn't completely sure, but he said he was all-in.

The transition came without protective padding in more ways than one. Baker had a literal need to use his head differently and began to rewire his athletic brain, trying to understand how to tackle and absorb the alien notion of playing defense, as well as how to pass and receive.

He was pulling 8-to-5 shifts with Orkin and training at night, and there were times the enterprise didn't seem worth it. Holmes was helping him financially, and friends back home were chipping in for his truck payment.

"I felt like I became a burden,'' Baker said.

But the yearlong stint enabled Baker to play in local, national and international tournaments, and USA Rugby's lens swung back around and focused on him. The six-month offer that made him weep in his truck in 2014 was extended, and Baker -- along with fellow football crossover Carlin Isles -- is now a fixture on the USA Eagles team that will be one of 12 at the Rio Games. (The same number will compete on the women's side.) The final roster for Rio won't be named until July.

Baker said he understands the role he and Isles, among others, have to play in broadening rugby's appeal to athletes of color.

"I get messages on Instagram and Facebook [from] black kids: 'I'm playing this game because of you. You're an inspiration to me. Can you come down and talk to my school?''' he said. "Every time someone says I inspire them, I say it goes both ways.''

Friday, who formerly coached the England and Kenya national teams, said most people look at Baker's talent and underestimate how challenging it's been to prove he belongs at the elite level.

"The learning years in rugby are 12 to 18, where you develop your rugby IQ,'' the coach said. "For him to pick it up starting at age 20 or 22 is really an accomplishment.''

Baker's first season at the top was a mixed bag of jaw-dropping highlights and, as Friday put it, occasions where he had to "get things wrong to get them right -- very tough mistakes to make in the public eye.''

One incident had nothing to do with tactics but still went viral. In Baker's second tournament with the Eagles, in South Africa, a fan rushed and tackled him on the pitch and Baker reacted instinctively by kicking him. The episode generated some flack on Twitter.

Still, Baker was a finalist for the World Series rookie of the year in 2014-15. This season, in which the U.S. finished sixth (perennial power Fiji topped the standings), was his second trip around the world, and he is no longer a cipher to opponents. "They all know I can run,'' Baker said. "They play [me] different now. Now it's, 'What's my next option?' It's a thinking game, a huge thinking game.''

Friday said Baker has learned that creating space and drawing attention away from the other scoring threats on the team are just as valuable as his sensational runs -- not the easiest lesson for "a striker, a born scorer who's on the pitch to finish.''

"Behind the bravado is real humility,'' the coach said. "He has such a positive, effervescent personality.''

Friday's chief, and only half-teasing, critique is that he wishes Baker, who still has trouble keeping weight on his lithe, lean 6-foot-1 frame, would lay off the fast-food he sometimes gravitates toward on the road.

Despite all the twists in Baker's saga and all the room for improvement he and others see, the game still boils down to its simplest element sometimes, when the ball comes to him and the world seems to part.

"The first thing on my mind is, do not get caught,'' Baker said. "By the time I get into that next gear, I'm there. No one's around me, and I'm running like I'm racing someone.''