CLEARWATER, Fla. — Incoming Pitt freshman defensive end Habakkuk Baldonado might have been born to be a football player.
But wasn’t born where you’ll usually find many of them, at least of the American football variety.
Baldonado was born in Rome, Italy, a rarity itself when considering that only one Italian — Oakland Raiders kicker Giovanni Tavecchio — has played in the NFL. A kicker, well that’s probably what one would expect from a soccer-mad country. But a 6-foot-5, 230-pound defensive end, that’s pretty unusual.
So were most of the steps that took Baldonado from Rome to Oakland.
“It’s a fun story, because American football is not that popular in Italy, right?” Baldonado said in a one-on-one interview with Pittsburgh Sports Now at his billet family’s home in Clearwater, Florida.
When the impassively athletic Baldonado first got interested in sports, American football wasn’t anywhere on his radar.
“I started to do swimming,” Baldonado said. “I swam for seven or eight years. I did soccer. I didn’t like it. I did MMA. Then after a little bit, when I was about 14, I just discovered football. I started watching movies about it, college games, NFL games, I just got interested in it.”
Fourteen is awfully old to just be discovering the existence of a sport for an athlete that ends up playing Division I, for football or anything, but football and Baldonado were a perfect match.
“I had the size to play football and I love physical sports. That’s why I did MMA,” he said. “I searched for a team in Italy. That team ended up being my team — the Lazio Marines. I just fell in love with the sport.”
In Italy, football is played as part of club teams, sort of like American AAU basketball. They play their games after school and on the weekend. Baldonado started at the under-16 level, moved up to the under-19 level at age 16 and then the following year, played for the Marines’ first division club, which competes in the Italian Football League, the highest level of football in Italy. He also played for the Italian National Team. Baldonado was in love with the game.
“I love the physicality of the game,” he said. “I love my position — defensive end — I love to rush. I love to sack the quarterback. It’s really fun for me and it’s always a challenge because you’re going against someone bigger, faster, or something. So you’re always pushing yourself to get better. I liked the sport that much and I wanted to try to the go to the next level.”
The next level would be college football, and though there are some European squads in Germany and the United Kingdom, Baldonado already had his sights set a bit higher.
“To the United States,” he said. “My mom was already down to make me go to study in Europe somewhere else at university. I just ended up studying in the United States, not in Europe.”
Where he ended up was 5,205 miles away in Clearwater, Florida. In many parts of Florida, the high school football scene is dominated by giant academies like IMG Academy in Bradenton or Montverde Academy near Orlando. Other places, it’s big Catholic schools such as Cardinal Mooney near Sarasota or Cardinal Gibbons in Fort Lauderdale.
But Baldonado didn’t go to any of those powerhouses, instead attending tiny Clearwater Academy International, a school with an enrollment of just 240, with grades K through 12 in the same, small building, bounded by playground on one side and a busy boulevard on the other.
There’s no football field — the team plays in a public park a few miles away. In fact, the team wasn’t even a team until recently, just adding 11-on-11 football in 2016. The school attracts many students from a variety of backgrounds that don’t necessarily speak the same language. Baldonado landed in America in August and was playing football in his first few days.
“That’s been hard,” Baldonado. “It’s an international school. We had a lot of international kids and from last year’s team, they had back just six guys. So it was a brand-new team. We had to come all together. … It’s been fun. For a lot of teenagers, it would be hard for them, leaving family, leaving friends. But since I love travel, I think it’s just like an adventure — a challenge.”
As the season went on, Baldonado started to get some recruiting interest, first from Division II and FCS schools, then from Coastal Carolina in early December. Later in the year came Connecticut, then in January Central Florida, Cincinnati, Illinois and Nebraska.
That was the point when it became clear to Baldonado that he was going to be playing at a higher level than even he had dreamed.
“When I came here, I didn’t really expect to have all of these offers,” he said. “I was ready for some offers from some FCS schools. Play Division I football, not as big as FBS. That was good for me. I started receiving D-II offers, then FCS, then the first FBS school to offer was Coastal Carolina. Small school, but still and FBS program. After that, in January, everything blew up. Big schools coming into my school. So, it just happened step by step and it was beautiful just realizing my dream.”
Part of that blow up came on Jan. 16, when Pitt linebackers coach Rob Harley visited Baldonado at his school. But really, for Pitt, the recruiting process started a day earlier, in a late-night text message from student recruiting assistant Lino Lupinetti.
“He texted me, it’s like 9:30 at night,” recalled recruiting graduate assistant Karlo Zovko “‘Hey, I just came across this DM. I think you need to see this kid.’ At first I was like, ‘OK, well I’m going to sleep right now. First thing in the morning, at 6:30, I will watch this kid.’
“The next morning, I get in and Lino said, ‘Did you watch the kid yet?’ I said, ‘Let me pull him up right now.’ I pulled him up and after the first or second play, I was sold. This kid bends off the edge. He’s a speed rusher. You can never have enough of those on a football team. I immediately texted Partridge.”
By Partridge, Zovko means Pitt defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, who would make the call as to whether or not Pitt would be recruiting Baldonado. But Partridge was in New Jersey, recruiting someone else.
“I’ll remember this day for a long time,” Partridge said. “I was in New Jersey with Tim Salem. I get a text from Karlo, who doesn’t text me very often. A lot of texts, I’ll just put my phone in my pocket. Karlo texted me ‘call me right away.’ So I called him and he said there was something heating up. He told me the school, he told me the kid’s name, told me how to get to the film.
“I watched the film on my phone and was immediately very impressed. I looked the kid’s Twitter up, saw (Oregon defensive coordinator) Jim Leavitt there taking a picture with him. I started to scan down, realize that everyone is starting to come in on this young man.
“In the interest of double checking myself, I hand the phone to Tim Salem and said, ‘Take a look at him, I’m not going to tell you anything (about who else was recruiting him). Tim had the same feelings I did after looking at the film. I called back to the recruiting office, tell them my evaluation. They then called Rob Harley, who was in the area. Harley changed his plans and 45 minutes later was at the school.”
Harley was in Tampa, just across the Courtney Campbell Causeway. He spent the time crossing the long, low bridge figuring out how to walk into a school he’d never been to and talk with a recruit that he wasn’t even sure spoke English.
“I don’t go unless the position coach likes him that much,” Harley said. “That’s all I need to know. I get the call from our recruiting department. Charlie’s seen him, likes him. I watch him right before I go. I like him.
“They were playing eight-man football two years ago, so I had never been there. Then you learn how many people have been in there and I was like school No. 55 to drive in and see him. It’s building a relationship in 20 minutes.”
Somehow, Harley was immediately able to connect with Baldonado, despite their vast cultural differences. The fact that Baldonado speaks fluent English probably helped.
“To be honest, during the whole recruiting period, I was taking 2-3 appointments a day with coaches from all the schools, Baldonado said. “Coaches were showing up without calling or anything and he was one of those. So, he just shows up at my school, and at that point, I didn’t know a lot of things about Pitt. I just knew that it was a Division I school. But I really liked Coach Harley. When he came there, we had a pretty good conversation during that time.”
Ten days later, Baldonado made an official visit to Pitt, and he committed to play for the Panthers on the morning of signing day, Feb. 7. As he announced his decision via live stream, there were some very interested parties watching in a small office in Pitt’s South Side football facility.
“We have a great group of guys in our recruiting office,” Zovko said. “We have a student assistant, Lino, and two interns, Andrew Hunter and Alex Christo. Those guys just grind all day long really searching for guys. We get hundreds of lists sent to us. They’re just perusing through these lists all the time, trying to find the next guy and I think they do a very a good job of doing that.
“They put in a lot of hours and the other guys were just as integral as everybody else. It really was a team effort. From Lino, then I passed him to Partridge. Partridge watched him with Salem. Then it went to Harley, to get him to the area. Harley got him an offer, got him to come take an official (visit) and then the entire staff closed. It was definitely a team effort. That’s really something you see a lot with Pitt here. It’s really a lot about timing.”
For Baldonado, his decision to come to Pitt was as much about the school and the city as it was about football.
“I started getting information about the school, and to be honest, all my offers were from pretty good colleges — big schools with great football programs,” Baldonado said. “So at the end, the thing that made me choose was the place. I’m a city guy, so I liked a lot about Pittsburgh. I come from Rome. It’s a big city, so I didn’t really want to end up in a college town where there’s nothing else to do.
“They had a lot of things that can make my life easier. They have an international airport. That makes it easy for my mom to come over, for me to go there. I really love all the coaches and a great thing was their engineering program, because I want to study engineering. I know that it’s one of the best in the country.”
Partridge said the fact that Baldonado wants to be an engineer showed one of the traits that made Pitt so sure he’ll be able to transfer his skills to the ACC after just one season of American high school football.
“The first things is raw athletic ability: size, frame, he’s got wide shoulders, he’s got wide enough hips where he can grow and put on size and muscle mass,” Partridge said. “So you’re looking at his skeletal structure, one. Two, his athletic ability on film, which is well on display when you look at his film. Three, is his intelligence. When you talk to this young man, he wants to be a mechanical engineer and he has the aptitude to do it. When you start to talk to him about football, he knows way more than you’d expect and can really retain the information. Things that I thought he may struggle, when we were talking football, I started at ground zero, and he was higher than that.”
“In high schools, there’s some kids in America that have played for 15 years that don’t have some of the knowledge (he has),” added head coach Pat Narduzzi. “This kid is really smart. We’ve recruited international guys from Canada before. I’ve recruited and coached probably three or four of them. A couple are probably still playing in the Canadian Football League. So you’ve seen some of the the international football players. This guy’s just a little bit different. Just his football knowledge, it’s like he’s been playing for a long time. He understands the game.
“The competition will be a lot better when he gets here compared to what he was playing in high school, but I think it will all translate.”
It’s believed that Baldonado will be the first Italian-born player to step on the field as a Division I scholarship player from Day 1. Tavecchio walked on at Cal. Baldonado is also CAI’s first Division I player, so he’s already broken plenty of new ground.
“For me, it’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve put Italy on the map. I put my school on the map, so I’m the first of a lot of things. … All of the Italian kids are living the dream from my viewpoint, though me. It’s a really great thing. I still talk with them, all the time. When I go back, I organize dinners. They were like another family, I would say. They all follow football here, so they know how it is. They were happy that I reached my dream.”
In some sense, Baldonado’s dreams are ever-evolving. He’s already achieved more than he thought he could, just by receiving a scholarship to Pitt. Now, he’s just putting the next step in front of him.
“I just go ahead and see what happens,” he said. “I put a goal here — in front of me — and when I reach it, I just get another one. Just higher and higher, to try to be as good as I can. The main goal would be to play football as long as I can, but to do that, you’ve got to do little steps along the way.
“I will play college football. That’s crazy. I would have never expected it.”