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July 23, 2008

Baker learned from bench time
By MICHAEL LEWIS
Staff Writer

NEW SMYRNA BEACH — After hearing so many horror stories about the hazing NFL rookies must endure, Dallas Baker was prepared for the worst last summer.

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ seventh-round draft pick wouldn’t have been surprised if he was taped to a goalpost, made to run naked through the practice fields, or any other degrading exercise devious-minded veterans had in mind.

But surprise, surprise, Baker said it wasn’t that bad.

“Nah, it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle; it was actually less than I thought it’d be,” Baker said Tuesday. “Now, when I first started at (the University of) Florida, that hazing was worse than it was in the NFL. Those guys were tough in Gainesville.”

Now that Baker has survived life as a rookie, his next task is tougher: make it onto the active roster. The former New Smyrna Beach High School star wide receiver spent all of last season on the Pittsburgh practice squad, which meant he got to work with the team all week, but never suited up for games.

Now, with competition for a spot on the 53-man roster sure to be intense, Baker is gearing up for Steelers’ training camp, which begins Sunday in Latrobe, Pa.

With a little time to spare before the dreaded two-a-days begin in 100-degree heat, Baker was at the New Smyrna Beach Athletic Complex on Tuesday, talking to about 50 kids at the Parks and Recreation Dept. football camp.

“No matter what everyone else says, you always have to stay positive,” Baker told the wide-eyed youngsters. “There are always going to be people in your life who are telling you you can’t do something; they told that to me. But you have to believe in yourself.”

Baker, 25, seemed relaxed as he talked about the thrill of making the NFL last season, one year after he helped lead the Gators to the BCS national championship in 2007.

“I’m excited to get back to camp, because I want to show I can help them win,” Baker said. “Last year was my first year, and I didn’t get to do much. It was a little weird not playing, and I don’t want to do that again.”

In a revealing moment, the soft-spoken Baker blamed himself for Pittsburgh not activating him last fall.

“I was really away from my family and friends, and I didn’t handle it very well mentally,” Baker said. “I let some things get to me and I lost my concentration a few times in camp, and when you’re a seventh-round pick, you don’t have any margin for error.”

Baker appears to have come a long way in the offseason. After the Steelers’ workouts and

mini-camps this spring, both quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin raved about the 6-foot-3 wideout’s improvements.

“What a difference a year makes,” Tomlin told the Pittsburgh media in June. “He’s confident. He has an understanding of what we ask him to do.”

With a strong training camp, Baker should have a chance to be Pittsburgh’s fifth active receiver every week, behind Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed and Nate Washington.

After the kids at camp Tuesday went through about three hours of drills, Baker was happy to entertain any and all questions from the kids.

The queries ranged from “Do you think Brett Favre should come back?” to “Have you ever played football in the snow?”

“Oh yeah, I’ve played in the snow,” Baker said. “It snows every day in Pittsburgh.”

Baker said when he comes back to town he’s asked by kids and parents alike for advice, but is a little hesitant to sound omniscient.

“I think it’s easy for me to say something, but it really has to come from the parents, or people who are around the kid every day,” Baker said. “I’m just a football player.”

For Baker, though, Tuesday was a chance to help out his community in a small way, and for the pee-wee players to see a kid who struggled to succeed finally make it to the top.

“Dallas never gave up, and he always believed in himself, and that’s something you have to show kids,” said Reggie Beverly, one of the camp’s directors. “He came back here on his own time to show these kids what can happen if you work hard and do things right.”

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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