AMERICAN FOOTBALL THE IRISH ANGLE: Glenn Baker has his US playbook and designs on the Ireland team.
NOT MANY 16-year-olds have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Especially not many who weigh 19 1/2 stone. But then Glenn 'Bubba' Baker wasn't your average 16-year-old.Now 20, he is on course to complete his freshman year in Animated Graphic Design at Mount Ida College, just outside Boston. Oh yeah, although Irish born and bred 'Bubba' made right tackle in the varsity offensive line.
Having taken up American football four years ago, around the same time he returned from his adventures in Tanzania, Baker is playing division-three college football, and that is a notable achievement. But he is not finished there.
"From now until the summer is a big period for football because coaches from different schools are trying to fill positions in their teams," he told us last week from his campus dorm room. "In two weeks I'm going to visit a school in New Hampshire - a division one football school, so that's pretty cool."
This is the story about a young man on a seemingly permanent upward trajectory. "I'll tell you how independent he is," says his father, Eugene. "At 16 years of age, in transition year, he packed in the rugby . . . I was very disappointed because I was coach for 10 years in Cork Con.
"Anyway, he came home one day and told us he was going to climb Kilimanjaro in Africa for charity and to my shame and embarrassment I told him he was mad, and that he'd never be able to do that. He went off and raised €4,000. Climbed 22,500 feet . . . Started off in shorts and runners and ended up in an oxygen mask and full thermal gear on the summit."
So Eugene Baker refuses to take credit for his son's achievements? "He did that. I can't be associated with it. He did the American football. It was his dream. American football was his thing that he found. I brought him to soccer, football, rugby, hurling - you name it - but he picked this.
"He has proved himself independently so I had no fear of him leaving home at 17. He is big in character in every way. Big in shape, big in personality . . . My son is a unique animal."
It started with the Cork Admirals before the Baker family moved to Athlone and Glenn switched allegiance to the Dublin Dragons. Thanks to his physique, there was never any fear about him playing alongside the men.
Just over three years ago, an Irish representative team hosted John Carroll University in Greystones. Afterwards Patrick Steenberge, the founder of Global Football, a group that organises tours and has a worldwide scouting network, approached Baker.
"He started telling me about college football . . . and asked if I'd like to play in the States. I said yeah, and thought nothing more of it.
"Two weeks later I started getting calls from prep schools . . . I was flabbergasted."
The route to College football is through the Prep school. Baker was required to complete the 11th and 12th grade. His junior year at a private boarding school called Salisbury in Connecticut, where he also won the New England shot-putt title was pretty much a trial.
He was then recruited by a more recognised football school. Cheshire Academy, Massachusetts, provided the stepping stone to NCAA football. But he was still raw: naive to the nuances of a foreign sport.
"The coaches liked that because I didn't have an attitude built up. I was willing to work hard. Everything was always explained anyway."
The coach, Roger Caron, is a six-year NFL veteran with the Indianapolis Colts.
"By God did he kick the boys into shape," said Eugene Baker. "The fitness regime saw Glenn up at 23 1/2 stone but fit. He was bench pressing ferocious weight.
"RTÉ came down to Athlone last summer and did a piece for the six o'clock news. TV3 had him on in the morning. The Westmeath Independent gave him a monthly sports star award."
The secret was out. Scan the message boards and the begrudgers are out in force - the usual sign an Irish sportsman is making progress. They said Baker would fail; that no Irish kid could play college football.
Last August he arrived at the Mustangs' preseason.
"Glenn adapted well to college football," says the offensive line coach Steve MacDonald. "He had to get used to the way I teach and the way I speak. He started the first game of the season as right tackle on the offensive line against Norwich Academy and he had four pancake blocks - that is when he puts the other guy on his ass.
"He wants to learn, has a good work ethic and loves the game of football. But he has to stay healthy. He got hurt this season and had to have major surgery on both knees. He is in the training room trying to get back.
"I coached a couple of college guys that were seniors and captains of their teams this year, all three should get drafted by the NFL. Size-wise Glenn is the same as all three, playing-wise he is not there yet. He is raw with a lot of upsize. If he comes back healthy we have a chance to play for a league title. Along with him, we have five in the O-line that are freshman and real good."
From his first day, a playbook was permanently under Baker's arm and he made the offensive line for the first preseason game.
"It was 102 degrees. We won and I had a blast. I didn't expect to start so I was nervous but the minute the game began everything changes because you have been so well trained. You pick things up as the game develops and it becomes so natural. It was a great feeling when coach Mac shook my hand and said 'good job' as I came off the field."
What is the primary duty of a right tackle in the offensive line? "Protect quarterback PJ Matthews. My job is to kill everyone so no one kills my quarterback. Watching his back and protecting his arm. They rush me with two guys, one to hit me and the other to come around and sack my quarterback.
"PJ was awesome. He had a Tom Brady-like arm. He could just rocket that thing. A freak athlete."
With a 3-7 win ratio, the season (September to December) was a disappointment. It also led to the departure of the head coach. Baker can't be blamed though as his knee blew out against Becker College in game four, when the Mustangs were on a 2-2 record, ruling him out for the season. "At the moment the school's recruiting a head coach . . . I'm waiting to see who comes in before making any decision about my future."
Either way, there will also be a new quarterback for Baker to chaperone. The big fella is realistic. He knows this is a means to an end and will not change school unless his five-year course is available. "My mom was big on my major, in case something happened or whatever, so that was part of the consideration process when choosing a school.
"I chose animation and graphic design so I can become an animator like Pixar, you know? The Incredibles, that kind of work. I'd love to go into the film industry, some way to do with animation or even just a filmmaker."
After his second term Baker hopes to come back to Athlone. "This summer is big for me training-wise because I know what's needed of me now.
"I was thinking of playing with the Irish team this summer. I'm waiting on a call from the coach. I'll go down for the trials. I've no problem with that. I did it before, I'll do it again.
"I can bring my playbook and show them some of the drills - which are all football specific - it might be able to help them out."
That would be a neat full circle.
GRID IRELAND THE SET-UP
American Football in Ireland began in the 1980s, when the NFL teams like the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins had a worldwide appeal, but a national governing body and league were formed only in 2001.
The IAFL has approximately 1,000 members, including coaches and players, with nine teams spread over three divisions.
IAFL North: Belfast Bulls, Belfast Trojans, Carrickfergus Knights.
IAFL Central: DCU Saints, Dublin Rebels, Dublin Rhinos.
IAFL South: Cork Admirals, Tallaght Outlaws, University of Limerick Vikings.
Each team plays eight regular-season games, four inter-divisional, between March and June with the play-offs in July and Shamrock Bowl on August 10th.
NCAA (American College) rules apply. The UL Vikings beat the Cork Admirals in the 2006 Shamrock Bowl, while the Dublin Rebels (champions from 2003 to 2006) are also expected to be serious contenders this season.