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The Most Interesting Man in the Draft: Habakkuk Baldonado’s Path to the NFL Began by Chance



Habakkuk Baldonado has told his story so many times now that it almost feels tedious.

It’s a story worth being told, a journey that transcends what it means to fall in love with the game of football, but it’s also not what defines Baldonado as a football player either. Still, he’s able to succinctly sum it up by now.

“I hope most people know now I’m from Rome, Italy; I’m not even American,” Baldonado said Wednesday at the NFL Combine. “I came here when I was 17, went to high school in Florida, just played one season, got a bunch of offers, went to Pitt for five years and now I’m here.”

Now we’re here. When you look at the 6-foot-4, 251-pound Baldonado, an MMA aficionado who has sparred with Sean Strickland (the No. 7 middleweight fighter in the UFC) and one day hopes to bring American football camps back to native Italy, it’s easy to forget that he’s still relatively new to football.

But he’s not raw. In fact, don’t call him raw. He’s worked too hard, proved too many people wrong every step of the way, to be called raw now. His pass-rushing chops are advanced for a player with his level of experience — and even for many who have played much longer — and that’s partially due to the fact that he’s so well-rounded in his athletic endeavors.

“I believe that football is a sport that requires a lot of different skills,” Baldonado said. “So, I can take skillsets from each one of the sports that I play, such as soccer with the footwork or mixed martial arts with the handwork since I’m a pass rusher. I believe my background with a lot of different sports helped me grow faster since I haven’t been playing as long as most of these guys.”

Baldonado may not have been playing for as long as most of the defensive linemen — or really, anyone — in the 2023 NFL Draft, but he’s made the most of every opportunity that’s come his way since arriving in the United States.

He flashed potential in the early days of his Pitt career, arriving as a long, lanky Italian from Clearwater Academy International in Florida, but he wasn’t able to put all the pieces together as injuries stalled his time actually spent on the field.

It finally clicked in 2021. He was healthy, hungry and more ready to work under defensive line coach Charlie Partridge than ever. And it showed. He was a force on the defensive line, racking up 11.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks, basically living in opposing backfields.

When the 2022 NFL Draft came calling, he said no. He had unfinished business in Pittsburgh and chose to run it back for one last ride. It’s safe to say it didn’t go according to plan, dealing with injuries and inconsistency on the field, but you never would have guessed that Baldonado was having a tough season. He remained himself.

“The thing that will help you most is to stay grounded, take it day by day and get better at something every day,” Baldonado said. “So, don’t be overwhelmed that maybe you’re behind some players and try to get better 20% in one day. That’s not gonna happen, just find one thing to become great at today and keep stacking the days. At the end of the year, you’re gonna have 365 days you got better.”

When the going got tough for Baldonado — and Pitt as a whole — in the midst of a 4-4 start to the 2022 season, he could’ve opted out. He could’ve mailed it, sulked in the locker room and given up on the season. Instead, his voice remained the loudest in the locker room, holding the defensive line room accountable each and every day.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Habakkuk Baldonado (87) October 8, 2022 David Hague/PSN

The production wasn’t there on the field, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. There were a lot of very, very close misses.

He made sure he didn’t miss as he flew out to Las Vegas for the Shrine Bowl in late January, working under Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots coaching staff, with (and against) some of the top draft-eligible college football players in the nation in order to catch the eye of NFL scouts.

It was a new experience for him, getting to see how an NFL coaching staff holds its players accountable and learning from perhaps the greatest coach in NFL history. It was also hands-on. If he made a mistake, it didn’t go unnoticed. But he liked that, it helped him get better. And there were a lot of positives that came out of Sin City.

He earned the highest PFF pass-rush grade (91.7) at the Shrine Bowl, posting a stellar 50% win rate on his 26 reps, and it was exactly the kind of showing he expected.

“I can do it all,” Baldonado said. “I just wanted to showcase what I was able to do, and I think the coaches were happy about what I did. Some of them were surprised, I wasn’t surprised because it’s what I’ve been doing for the last five years.”

It would be unfair to say Baldonado’s experience in Las Vegas was strictly business though, no matter how well he rushed opposing quarterbacks throughout the week. But you can’t pass up an invite to the UFC Performance Institute after all.

Baldonado, an avid UFC fan, was able to take a trip out to the performance center before he flew back down to Florida for training. And when Strickland asked him to throw on some gloves and hop in the ring to spar while he was there, Baldonado knew it probably wasn’t what he should be doing. But again, how do you say no?

At one point in time, Baldonado was a rising fighter himself. He swam for a while, and he played the national game of Italy: soccer. He didn’t like it though. It wasn’t for him. He liked the physicality of mixed martial arts, and he liked the team-oriented aspect of soccer. But neither truly called to him.

It wasn’t until he randomly stumbled across a college football game on television that he discovered a sport that might actually combine his love of physicality, scratching that itch of innate violence, with the desire to be a part of something bigger than himself.

He doesn’t remember who was playing that fateful day as a 14-year-old growing up on the streets of Rome, just that it was a couple of college teams. He liked the college games better anyway once he really started to watch.

He joined a local AAU-equivalent club team, the Lazio Marines, soon after he discovered football on TV. He started in U-16, worked his way up to U-19 as a 16-year-old and rose to the Italian Football League before he left for the United States. All while he watched ‘Here Comes the Boom’ compilations on YouTube, imagining himself in place of players like Ray Lewis or Richard Sherman.

“The whole sport — there’s just nothing like it,” Baldonado said. “The physicality, the teamwork, the daily grind and the mental part. Even in sports like MMA, I love the physicality, the violence in it, but at the end of the day, it’s not a team sport. It’s just you.”

The level of competition in the United States is, obviously, much higher than it is in Italy. It’s not as fast, as physical or as mentally straining, but it’s growing. And if he’s able to help it, it will continue to grow. He wants to start camps back in Italy not only to grow the game but to show that it doesn’t matter where you started, as long as you actually start, you can achieve your dreams.

It doesn’t stop at impacting his life on the field either — football changed Baldonado’s life on and off the field. Whenever he’s back in Rome and able to spend some time with the kids at Lazio, he makes sure to reinforce that he’s available at all times, no matter the occasion. It comes with the territory now.

“I’ve got all my people from Italy and more just wishing me good luck,” Baldonado said. “My phone is blowing up. So, I’m really excited. I’ve got a whole country on my back, and I’m gonna show what Italians can do.”

The NFL Combine provided Baldonado a chance to show not just his countrymen but every NFL team that he’s worth a selection in the 2023 NFL Draft.

NFL Combine Measurements 

Height: 6040 (6-foot-4)

Weight: 251 pounds

Arms: 33 inches

Hands: 10 1/2 inches

40-yard dash: 4.78 seconds

10-yard split: 1.67 seconds

Vertical: 35 inches

Broad: 10 feet

3 Cone: 7.11 seconds

Shuttle: 4.44 seconds

Baldonado tested well, showing adequate speed and above-average explosiveness for NFL teams. The entire process, the week in Vegas for the Shrine Bowl and the week in Indy for the Combine, has led to connections with multiple NFL teams.

He’s met with the Tennessee Titans and New York Jets multiple times, and he went through numerous informal interviews during the week in Indy. He flashed his potential as an explosive edge rusher. And he did it all in a ‘down’ season.

He recorded 25 tackles (nine solo), five tackles for loss, two sacks and two pass breakups last season. And Pat Narduzzi felt like while Baldonado’s stats didn’t flash, NFL scouts saw exactly the kind of impact he’d be able to make at the next level.

“Haba has been outstanding, and again, sometimes for all these All-Americans, let’s just look at numbers, but I’ve talked to a lot of scouts that walked through here, and they see the almost,” Narduzzi said in November. “That’s what they want to see.”

In what amounts to about three seasons at Pitt, Baldonado recorded 99 tackles (48 solo), 21.5 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, a forced fumble and two recoveries and two pass breakups. He was an All-ACC performer in 2021, one of the best edge defenders in the conference.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Habakkuk Baldonado (87) September 1, 2022 David Hague PSN

He credits a lot of that to Partridge — obviously his choice for the best defensive line coach in college football — and a defensive system that succeeds regardless of a ‘star’ count. Baldonado was a three-star recruit, as were fellow 2023 NFL Draft prospects Calijah Kancey and Brandon Hill. It’s about the guys who were hungry, who just needed a chance to show they had what it takes.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Pitt’s defensive scheme values overwhelming aggression either.

“We might not be the biggest unit in the country, but we’re the best unit in the country in terms of a work mindset,” Baldonado said. “We show up every day to work, to grind, to get better. We have guys that are hungry to be better, that most of the time are under the radar because you’re from Italy or you’re too small. We play with a chip on our shoulder, and we make it to a high level.”

It’s a system that leads college football in sacks over the last few seasons, regardless of the turnover along the defensive line, and those past stars have remained in Baldonado’s ear. He’s heard from Rashad Weaver and Patrick Jones in the draft build-up, but it doesn’t stop there. A former teammate like Kenny Pickett has reached out, too.

Baldonado isn’t successful because he’s had awesome teammates at Pitt. Although it certainly hasn’t hurt either. He’s worked hard, harder than anyone is able to quantify, and he’s believed in himself every step of the long, winding journey he’s taken since first finding college football on the TV.

He’s been destined for greatness since he was born. It comes with his naming.

“My dad had this bible gifted to him from his brother,” Baldonado said. “So, he would read the Bible all the time, and he loved the book of Habakkuk. He was one of the 12 minor prophets from the Old Testament and he liked that name because he was the only prophet in the Old Testament questioning God.

“He wasn’t only talking about how God is great, how he’s loving, how he created everything. He wanted to have a conversation with God and ask him why do bad things happen to good people. So, I guess he wanted me to be the guy that questions everything and become great.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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