By Joe Scalzo
From his lowtop Chuck Taylors (which he wears during workouts) to his 1970s hairdo (he’s a mustache away from looking like a “Starsky and Hutch” villain) to his lunchpail approach to football (he’s a Mahoning Valley guy, after all), Sean Baker is a throwback who has spent his life impressing coaches and who will soon spend his energy becoming one.
But that can wait. The Canfield High graduate can still play, something he proved last year when he overcame comical odds to finish the season on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad.
Not only did he go undrafted out of Ball State, the safety went unsigned, with Tampa Bay inviting him to a tryout camp with 74 other players. He was one of 13 players to get a free-agent deal, then played well enough in the preseason (he had two interceptions and a fumble in the final exhibition game) to survive until the final cut.
Then, nothing. He spent the next two months staying in shape, hoping for another chance. Tampa Bay finally worked him out in November, signing him to its practice squad for the final five games.
Six months later, Baker is pretty much where he was at the end of the season — trying to do anything he can to make it. Only now, he’s trying to do so on a team that drafted Alabama safety Mark Barron in the first round and signed free agent safety Dashon Goldson, who started every game for the 49ers last season.
“I’m going into [camp] with the same kind of attitude I had last year,” Baker said. “I’m just trying to get better and help make the team better.
“I’m just really blessed to have this opportunity. Not a lot of people get this chance and I’m trying to make the most of it.”
Baker got his “Welcome to the NFL” moment last summer when he ran into two linemen on kickoff coverage — “It didn’t feel good,” he said — but he said other than getting used to the size and speed, it wasn’t a huge adjustment. He considered it an honor to practice next to CB Ronde Barber (who retired last month) and work across from WR Vincent Jackson.
“Vincent Jackson works his tail off,” Baker said. “He’s a great guy and he really helps out the rookies. On top of that, his play speaks for itself.”
Tampa Bay has seven safeties on its 90-man roster — one fewer than it had this time last year and three more than it kept on its final roster.
Baker thinks playing with safeties like Barron will only make him better.
“That’s what competition does,” he said.
Baker isn’t sure how long he’ll stay in the NFL but as someone eyeing a coaching career, he’s trying to soak up as much as possible.
“I’m going to use everything I can,” he said. “I’m learning so much every day, just being around great coaches and great players.”
And, he said, he’s already benefited from being around coaches like Mike Pavlansky and John Cullen at Canfield.
“Coach Pavlansky was unbelievable,” he said. “I had so much fun playing for him. And Coach Cullen, my brother played for him and we were around him our whole lives. He kind of really ingrained hard work and being a good teammate.
“I was so blessed to be around head coaches who cared about you, even off the field.”