In one of the remarkable Olympic sports rises this four-year cycle, the U.S. men’s rugby sevens team didn’t just break into the top five in the world. They are ranked No. 1 in the World Series standings with two tournaments left this season, poised to clinch a Tokyo 2020 berth in London this weekend.
Rugby of course has a history beyond its Olympic revival. Sevens debuted in Rio, some 92 years after the more traditional 15-a-side rugby last appeared at the Games in Paris in 1924.
Rugby was born in the eponymous England town in 1823. Rugby sevens in Scotland later that century. The World Series, a season of global tournaments, debuted in 1999. New Zealand’s All Blacks won 12 of those first 15 annual titles. Then Fiji’s men captured gold in Rio.
The U.S.’ best finish in the first 15 World Series was 10th.
When Englishman Mike Friday was hired as head coach in October 2014, the Americans appeared long shots to qualify for the 12-team Rio Olympic tournament. They were coming off a 13th-place season. It looked like Canada, ranked sixth in the world, would likely grab the lone automatic North American Olympic berth.
The U.S. immediately moved into the top 10 under Friday, supplanted Canada and did get to Brazil.
But the red, white and blue exited the Olympics in heartbreaking fashion. Captain Madison Hughes missed a late two-point conversion attempt from out wide against Fiji in the group finale. Had he made it, the Americans still would have lost to the Fijians, but they would have been in position to sneak into the quarterfinals by one in tiebreaking point differential. Instead, they finished ninth.
Perry Baker was helpless in those defining moments, on the sideline for that last minute against Fiji while still adjusting to his new full-time sport.
Baker was previously, briefly, a Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver. They agreed to terms in July 2011, but Baker was let go after it was discovered in a physical that he had been playing on a torn meniscus. He dabbled in rugby as a teen and after college, too, but didn’t take to it until meeting U.S. director Alex Magleby. It didn’t take long for Magleby to issue this ultimatum: Quit football to join the national team.
Baker accepted, and migrated to the program officially in 2014 at age 27. Fellow football convert and best friend Carlin Isles garnered the lion’s share of the team’s pre-Olympic press, and rightfully so as its leading try scorer in 2014-15.
But Baker, lean for rugby at 6 feet, 1 inch and a listed 180 pounds, boasted a 4.32-second 40-yard dash time of his own and was on the rise. In his second tournament, Baker scored a game-winning try in an upset of Fiji.
By the Olympic season, Baker was the U.S. leader in tries. Then Baker was named the World Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018, becoming the first man to earn the honor twice and completing a rise from sharing a two-bedroom apartment with so many guys that he sometimes slept in his truck. He scaled the rugby world while the U.S. was stuck in fifth and sixth place in the World Series standings, plateaued after the initial leap under Friday.
The U.S. tops the table this season through eight of 10 legs, but Baker can’t pick a turning point for the ascension. His favorite moment actually came last season, when the U.S. won a World Series leg for the second time in history, at home in Las Vegas (and without the injured captain Hughes). Baker had the viral score of that event, an end-to-end sprint in a 19-7 semifinal victory over Fiji.
“That try is going to go down as one of the best of all time,” NBC Olympics analyst Brian Hightower said.
But Baker points earlier in that match, when he ran down fleet-footed Alasio Naduva and prevented a Fijian try. He shared a World Rugby video of the play, which registered Baker’s top-end speed at 23 miles per hour.
Numbers say the low-water mark for the U.S. under Friday came at the start of that 2017-18 season. Baker, after spending part of his summer with the NYPD SWAT team, was kneed in the side of the head in the opening moments of the first match. He was forced to sit the rest of that first tournament following concussion protocol. The U.S. went winless in four matches, its first 0-fer in the World Series in Friday’s four seasons.
Baker also missed the last two tournaments of 2017-18 with a shoulder injury, essentially suiting up for just 60 percent of the season.
He still finished in the top 10 in the World Series in points and the top five in tries. He also proved his worth to fellow players, match officials and commentators who nominated him for World Player of the Year a second straight season. A six-person panel, including selectors from world powers Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and England, ultimately chose Baker for the award.
Baker remembers competitors from New Zealand and South Africa congratulating him at the next World Series stop to open the 2018-19 season. It made him reflect on the last five years.
“Coming from those types of guys from those teams, it was a step back for me, like, wow, I guess I do have more respect than I thought,” said Baker, the third-most-accomplished wide receiver in his family after older brother Dallas (2006 NCAA champion at Florida) and uncle Wes Chandler (four-time Pro Bowler). “You look at my body size. To this day, everyone says you don’t look like a rugby player. Then me being a crossover athlete — I won’t be able to play the game. Things like that. I’m too small. The usual stuff. America doesn’t have a real rugby team. We won’t be good. Just getting to the Eagles [the U.S. team nickname] was really hard. I went through two coaches before Mike Friday came in, and I never got a chance.”
Baker encountered another obstacle at this season’s third World Series stop in New Zealand in January: Tana Fotofili. Baker, carrying the ball, collided violently with the Tongan captain with 44 seconds left of what would be a comfortable 29-7 U.S. win. He curled up on the pitch and was tended to for two minutes before being escorted off.
“I kind of blacked out for a few seconds,” Baker said after watching the replay dozens of times. “All I know is my jaw was in pain.”
He suffered a double broken jaw, but Baker said there was no concussion. Screws and a rubber bracket were drilled into his mouth, which was essentially sealed shut by thick rubber bands. He would be fed by straw the next two weeks. When he first tried to swallow solids, frustration fell over him trying to chew mashed potatoes.
After another two weeks, Baker forced down tiny pieces of chicken, soggied after about 50 chews.
“What would you would feed a baby with two teeth, that’s how I was eating,” he said.
Baker returns to competition Saturday for the start of the World Series stop in London. The U.S. fared well without him and Danny Barrett, its two players who made the all-World Series Dream Team in 2017. Barrett missed the last three tournaments with an injury.
The Americans enter famed Twickenham Stadium leading the World Series standings by a slim three points over Fiji but are 38 points clear of fifth place. The top four after the following stop in Paris clinch Olympic spots. The U.S. would all but seal its Tokyo 2020 berth by advancing out of pool play Saturday.
Baker will trot out eager for contact in his first match action since that broken jaw.
“I’ve talked to his high school football coach several times. If you talk to him, he’ll tell you that Perry was always reluctant to tackle. He didn’t like it. He didn’t want to be in the contact area,” Hightower said.
Baker’s first rugby tackle in a club event years ago was a football-style dive at the legs, an equivalent of an illegal cheap shot in his new sport. He didn’t know any better.
“That really is one of his biggest areas of growth,” Hightower continued. “He’s not going to be the crunching, dominant, drive-you-backwards, highlight-reel hitter, but he’s going to make his tackles now.”
The Americans began the season with a goal of top four and automatic Olympic qualification. Now, Perry says it’s “a burning desire” to be world champions for the first time in the sport’s history.
“There would have been times in the past where they were a little cocky, a bit brazen,” Hightower said. “Now you can just tell the way the players carry themselves. They’re not as boisterous. They quietly go about their job. There’s confidence there when they step on the field. They believe they can win every match they start. That’s a big difference between now and a few years back.”
NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.
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