Perry Baker knows plenty about football. He played for Division II Fairmont State. He grew up playing football. When explaining his current sport — rugby sevens — he even uses a football analogy.
“Rugby is sandlot football. And if you were a football player, you grew up playing sandlot football. Everyone grew up playing sandlot football,” Baker told Bally Sports. “Rugby is just structured. That's it. It's only structured now. It's sandlot football, but it's structured.”
Baker learned about rugby when he was still in high school in Florida. He tried it out for fun, with older men who were just playing for the love of the game. Even when he was focused on playing for a scholarship, he learned that there was something he could bring to rugby.
“I'm not even taught anything about rugby. I'm just told to run, that's it. And since I was young, 18, small, 135-pound kid, I'm faster than everyone,” Baker said. “So I'm easily outrunning everyone.”
After that first brush with rugby, Baker moved on to Fairmont State and played there for four years. He had a cup of coffee with the Philadelphia Eagles, but a knee injury ended his NFL career. Next came a few seasons with Pittsburgh’s Arena League team.
But rugby still tugged at him. He saw a club team playing at Fairmont State and thought about joining, but he knew his football coach would be against that. In 2012, he played for the Daytona Beach Coconuts in the Florida Rugby League. Before long, he had joined the USA Eagles’ rugby sevens residency program.
Baker had found his sport. He played for the U.S. rugby sevens team at the Olympics in 2016. Despite high expectations going into the Rio Games, Team USA faltered in pool play and ended up in ninth place. Five years later, Baker still thinks about losing to Fiji.
“Our coach has always felt like we always start off really slow. And in that moment, I felt like that's what allowed us to not be on our game,” Baker said. “We were playing from behind because we lost that first possession and we never got that chance to go forward yet. And we instantly started playing D, so that moment always haunts me. It's like, ‘Should I have told him to give me the ball?’”
But even with that loss hanging over his head, Baker continued with Team USA as it played internationally. By 2017, he was named the World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year. He won the honor again in 2018, when the Americans finished the rugby sevens season ranked second and looked poised to have a strong showing in 2019, the last season before the Olympics.
Everything looked in place for Baker, but then the pandemic hit. Even worse, in February, he broke his tibia and dislocated his ankle in a match against Kenya. He got back to work as quickly as he could, rehabbing his leg, and now is poised to play in Tokyo. The speed that has been a hallmark of his game is coming back.
“It's just everything is going so fast,” he said. “Some doctors reached out to me and some nurses are telling me they've never seen something like this with my progress so fast, doing everything that I'm doing, because I post videos here and there of stuff that I'm doing.”
Baker said Team USA is not thinking about any particular opponent but is focused on making it to the medal round this time. He also wants to leave Japan without any lingering doubts.
“My goal for myself is just to be able to give it my all,” Baker said. “I don't want to have any regrets or looking back at things and saying, ‘I should have done this’ or ‘I should have did this differently.’ I just want to be able to be a hundred percent, be healthy and just be able to play the game.”