One of the players attending the New York Giants’ rookie camp this weekend in East Rutherford is Pitt edge rusher Habakkuk Baldonado, who was born and raised in Rome, Italy.
Baldonado’s odyssey from Europe to the U.S. and to the NFL is an interesting one, starting with how he got involved with American football in the first place.
“My mom bought Sky Sports so we had all the packages. On regular TV they didn’t show it but on Sky they had ESPN and they used to show some college and NFL games,” he explained in an interview with Sky Sports.
“Scrolling through the channels one time I saw this sport, went to Google it, and found highlight tapes on YouTube of Ray Lewis, Richard Sherman and it just looked interesting.
“I was in a phase of my life when I was deciding what sport I was going to do because I’d just got out of swimming which my mom forced us to do for the majority of our childhood. I tried it, which didn’t last long when I was 13 but I picked it back up when I was 16 and now I’m here.”
It just so happened that Baldonado had the desired physical frame (6’4″, 251) to play the game. He began playing in the youth leagues in Europe and soon found himself stateside, playing high school ball in Clearwater, Florida.
“I was playing for the U19 Italian National Team and we had this Championship in Europe in spring 2017, we played Serbia and one of the coaches that was coaching us had contacts with the head coach at Clearwater in Florida where I ended up going,” he said.
“He saw me playing fairly well and said he thought I had a shot to try to go to the US to play football. I dropped everything that spring, got my visa and went over in June.”
At Clearwater, Baldonado racked up big numbers (83 tackles and 30.5 sacks) in one season and passed on offers from several big-time college programs (Michigan State, Coastal Carolina, Nebraska, Illinois, and Syracuse) in favor of Pitt.
At Pitt, Baldonado registered 99 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, two pass breakups, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery over a 40-game career.
He accepted an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this past February but his performance was below expectations. He knew it, too.
In last week’s NFL draft, Baldonado went undrafted. The Giants decided to take a flyer on him and signed him as a free agent after the draft. In this week’s CFL draft, he was selected in the second round by the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Baldonado can be seen as an ascending player. He’s fairly new to football and is still learning.
“I’m light years away from where I was when I started,” he said. “The average player in the US has been playing since they were four to six years old. I’ve only been playing for seven or eight years so I’m really fresh to the sport.”
So, what will the Giants be getting in him?
“My football IQ is really high, I love to learn, that’s what a lot of players are not so that’s where we’re different,” he said. “I’m very versatile, I played a lot of sports growing up so I have a lot of skills other people don’t have and can play a lot of different positions. A versatile really smart play that has all the athletic tools as well.”
The Giants have two talented edge rushers in Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari and also have Jihad Ward, Tomon Fox, Elerson Smith and Oshane Ximines on the roster, so Baldonado will have a long ladder to climb this summer at training camp.