From “knucklehead” to “family dude” – the making of ‘Speedstick’ Perry Baker

One of the fastest and most prolific scorers in rugby sevens history, Perry Baker talks about his upbringing in Florida and how he went from dreaming of playing in the NFL to becoming an Olympian in rugby sevens.

Ahead of HSBC SVNS Los Angeles, former England sevens captain Tom Mitchell caught up – in a metaphorical sense – with one of the fastest players to grace a rugby sevens field, Perry Baker, to hear about his likes, dislikes, the events that shaped his life, and why he’s told his kids not to be like him.

I was a knucklehead. I grew up in a small town in Volusia County called New Smyrna Beach. I didn't like school, for sure. Going to my junior year I had to go take extra classes during my junior year to even get eligible to play.So I didn't play from about 14 years old until I was 17. Senior year I did basketball. I did track and field and then I played football. So that's the only time I did sports in high school. 

I always dreamed of playing in the NFL. I played running back when I was a kid. So I buckled down. My dad got on my case about getting my grades and stuff. He was just like, “If you're not gonna get your grades you're gonna have to get a job”. I ain't ready to work! I don't want to work! 

Everything you do is never about yourself. My whole mindset about playing football was being on this big platform and taking care of my family, wanting my dad to retire, my mom to retire. Everything I was doing was for other people setting up for life outside. Also to help my community, my community where I grew up, to help those kids and let them know there's a way out; you can do it because I've done it.

I said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. I was playing football trying to make it to the NFL. I ended up tearing my meniscus in my knee. I was 26 and thinking, ‘I really I want to go learn rugby. I want to play rugby. I want to learn it’. It was always put in my ear “hey, man, rugby is going to be an Olympic sport in 2016”. So I'll pull the plug now to go learn this so I can give myself a shot to try and make the Olympic squad. 

“Hey, man, make a play, bro”. So when I hear about the Olympics, holy smokes! People that's in the Olympics are on top of billboards, they’re on milk, they are on Wheaties boxes. The Olympics are crazy! I went up and into the rugby house at Tiger Academy. It was actually a two-bedroom apartment with six guys in it so I was sleeping on the couch. They sat me down at a table and they're like, “are you ready to breathe, eat, sleep rugby?” Literally that's all we did. It was different.

Now I'm running from the repo guy. I have run into my doubts. There were times where I'm like, ‘I'm not coming back, I'm done, I'm not getting the shot I need, I'm not getting a chance I need’. So I said I didn't want to go back to the academy because I haven't gotten my chance and I'm done. I just need to work and I need to get a job because bills are piling up. I'm not even able to afford my truck that I had at the time.

Mike Friday was the saviour. He came over and just gave everybody an opportunity. He had a big trial and the rest is kind of history. He gave me my first chance that I ever needed.

You need to go watch Dan Norton. I remember talking to a South African guy who lived in Ohio at the time he said, “you need to go watch Dan Norton”. He used to tell me before I went to watch that I need to learn how to kick like Dan does. So then I go check this dude. I'm like, Oh, snap this dude over here. Boom! 

Be careful what you wish for. I love to see everyone else's culture and stuff like that. I love that camaraderie. I feel like the rugby community isn't big. But it's so tight-knit. And I like that. I'm a big family person. I'm big on family. I'm big on love. I'm big on doing things like that. I love being with my family. I'm a family dude. I have three boys! I have so much fun when I’m with them. I like fishing and doing things. My wife wanted all boys, and now she can't handle them! Be careful what you wish for.

You're too old to be a rugby player. One of the big things overcoming was just the doubt of it not happening because I was told I was too old so many times. Or “you are a crossover athlete, you don't know rugby”. That was a big challenge. You can play rugby well until your mid-30s and so that was one of the things I had overcome was the doubt of it not happening. 

My career is going to end. The other thing was I broke my leg. When it first happened, I looked down at my ankles going one way, my leg is going another. I didn't know if I'd ever be the same. ‘I'm not gonna be the same Perry Baker, I'm not going to be the same Speedstick’.

I plan on retiring after the Olympic Games. I want to get into coaching. And with that being said, I would love to coach the national team. I'm starting my own league which is called RugbyFlag X.

I like food! When I go to London I have to go to Borough Market. I get these meat sticks! And this dude makes this macaroni and cheese with chicken and that is so freakin fire! That right there is a combo. You watch him make it and load it up. Lights out! I love the biltong in the butcher's market in Cape Town.

I love music. I pretty much listen to everything music-wise. The boys are trying to get me into the drill music. I’m not on the drill music yet!

Go be a doctor, be a lawyer, be a firefighter, be an engineer, be an electrician. I told my kids I don't want them to play sports as a career. There’s so much that comes with it. The beating of the body, the aches all the time. If the kids choose to do it, I’m all for it. But being in it, I’m just telling them I don't want them to.

The only thing I regret is when I broke my jaw. But that's about it. I take everything as a win. Everything I went through, every lesson learned, I take it all as a win because it helps mould you into the person I am today. I can pass it on to my kids. Everything I do I realise it's never for myself, ever. It's never been about me. That's what life is about. It's never about self. If you put everything on yourself, it doesn't work. I love that my 18-month-old son is old enough to see me on television. I love that they have YouTube cos he can one day go back and search for stuff.

Take part in all of the on-field and off-field action in LA with the HSBC SVNS Predictor Game. Make team and player predictions throughout each weekend, gain points based on their performance and compete against rugby sevens fans from across the world on the global leaderboard.