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Baldwin has overcome doubters to have big impact at safety

09/27/2017, 6:00pm PDT
By Tod Leonard

NCAA Football: San Diego State at Air Force

Relaxing on a couch in San Diego State’s Fowler Athletic Center, Parker Baldwin looks like any other student who stepped off the street for some quiet time between classes.

There is little to indicate he is a starting safety on the 19th-ranked football team in the country.

With pale blue eyes and clear, slightly freckled skin, his thick hair tousled as if he just got out of bed, Baldwin would look about 16 if he didn’t have the beard of a lumberjack.

He speaks thoughtfully and calmly. His neck is not overly thick and he doesn’t seem particularly ripped in his Aztecs polo shirt.

Nothing about him gives off a menacing football aura.

That’s probably why when acquaintances on campus learn that he’s on the football team, they’re eager to guess what positions he plays. Seems like a no-brainer.

Top two picks: Kicker and punter.

Baldwin rolls his eyes.

“It’s kind of funny,” he says. “I don’t let any of that stuff bother me.”

If Baldwin listened to nearly everybody else, he wouldn’t be here.

There were coaches who said he’d never play high school football. When he proved them wrong by becoming a two-way star at Siloam Springs High in northwest Arkansas, big colleges all but ignored his impressive highlight reel.

When SDSU took a chance and brought him in as an “athlete,” the coaches had no idea if he’d ever get beyond the selfless, body-battering missions on special teams.

“He’s a 6-foot-2 white kid,” said Aztecs defensive coordinator and safeties coach Danny Gonzales. “He’s not your prototypical wide receiver or DB. He’s not going to pass the eye test when you’re looking at tapes.”

Time and again, however, SDSU’s staff seems to pick young men with underrated skills and overlooked desire, and that’s what they got in Baldwin.

As a true sophomore last season, he was pressed into extensive duty when senior Na’im McGee suffered a season-ending injury in the Mountain West opener against UNLV. Baldwin has been a starter ever since at the Warrior free safety spot, and after a strong performance in the win over Air Force on Saturday, he leads the team in tackles with 27, including 14 solo.

Mira Mesa High alum Trey Lomax is having his own stellar year alongside Baldwin at Warrior, ranking No. 2 in tackles with 25.

“It’s been a blessing,” Baldwin said. “It really is validation. It makes me feel really good – that you can do anything, no matter where you’re from.”

The way Tad Davis tells it, very few thought Baldwin would make it beyond seventh-grade football. Davis was a coach for the Siloam youth team, and he said Baldwin was “very average,” taller than most, but clumsy. They could count on him drawing a couple of penalties a game for jumping offside.

“And it was usually on third-and-two when there was no way we were going to throw him the ball,” Davis said. “It’s funny when you look back on it now.”

Yet Baldwin had an extraordinary gift for believing in himself. He tells the story of fibbing to his dad that he was a starter on his youth team when he was really third string. He thought he’d get away with it, but his dad drove two hours to see the game.

The son was horrified, but learned a valuable lesson.

“That was a big day for me,” he said.

He wouldn’t be embarrassed like that again.

Davis said Baldwin worked diligently at getting better. In high school, he rose early in the morning to drive 45 minutes to see a personal trainer before heading to school.

“He has an extraordinary work ethic,” Davis said. “It’s kind of sneaky. He’s laid-back, personality-wise. Sometimes you wondered if he cared. But he worked hard. He set goals, but he wasn’t going to brag about them.”

Davis also coached track, and he learned something about Baldwin’s fortitude during his junior year. The boy qualified for the state finals in the 200 meters, and on the day of the meet the conditions were nasty, the track made slick by rain.

“There were better athletes in that race, but most of those guys didn’t want to run in those conditions,” Davis said. “With Parker, he has that mindset to finish things. You give him a job, he’ll finish it.

“When the gun went off that day, he was better than everybody else. He won the state championship of Arkansas at 200 meters.”

Aztecs head coach Rocky Long said he sees highly talented players who don’t become great defensive players because they don’t like contact. Baldwin is not one of those guys.

“People ask me all the time what makes a good tackler,” Long said. “It’s a good athlete who’s not afraid to hit somebody. It has nothing to do with technique or what you teach.”

Long added, “I think he has natural instincts. He know where the ball is, and he goes and gets it.”

Baldwin would not be at SDSU at all if not for another coach’s career twist. Bobby Hauck, the Aztecs’ special teams coordinator, was recruiting Baldwin while he was still the head coach at UNLV. The Rebels were the only FBS school showing much interest.

Then Hauck resigned in November 2014, was hired by Long soon after, and the Aztecs immediately reached out to Baldwin. The recruit fell in love with SDSU as soon as he visited.

The early adjustment to Southern California was difficult for a kid who had spent much of his early childhood on the farm of his grandparents, who hosted Thanksgiving dinners with as many as 50 in their home.

“I missed my family and some of the peace and quiet,” Baldwin said. “I wasn’t used to all the traffic and the noise.”

It didn’t help that on the very first day of practice, his car was towed from in front of his dorm.

“Welcome to California,” Baldwin said.

As a true freshman, Baldwin established himself as a fearless special teams player, and he came into his own in a 2015 game at Penn State, where he made three unassisted tackles on special teams.

“That was when I realized I could play against anybody,” Baldwin said.

In the terrible conditions of the Air Force game on Saturday, Baldwin had a critical role of plugging holes against the Falcons’ wishbone offense while basically playing middle linebacker. He stepped up with a team-high 13 tackles.

Baldwin later revealed to Gonzales that he hyperextended his knee on the fifth play of the game.

“He didn’t want to have to wear a brace because it would slow him down,” Gonzales said. “He told me later his knee was sore. … But he practiced (Monday) and didn’t’ miss a beat. There are numerous kids on this team who would not be practicing right now.

“He’s a tough kid who loves to play football.”

Those are things that pass the eye test every time

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tod.leonard@sduniontribune.com; Twitter: @sdutleonard

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