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Jason Baker can still punt, maybe better than ever. The footballs were in his car this weekend, and he pulled them out and practiced when he wasn't supervising his annual Pro Football Mini Camp at Wayne High School.
Whether he'll ever be paid to punt again remains to be seen.
Baker has set an undisclosed date to reach a deal to return to the NFL this year, or he'll officially call it a career. Two NFL teams have talked with the Fort Wayne native's agent this spring.
“I'd like to play,” Baker said. “It sounds crazy, but what I do on the field is every bit as good as what I did five or six years ago. Once a door would open, there's no reason I couldn't play for a few more years. If it doesn't happen, I don't have anything to complain about.”
Baker is the rare pro athlete who understands some things are out of his control. His long, successful tenure with the Carolina Panthers ended two years ago in large part because he'd earned a level of salary the Panther didn't want to pay. Younger, less-expensive punters have landed jobs Baker would have been perfect to handle.
As Baker reminded me Sunday, few players retire of their own volition from the NFL. The NFL retires them.
If his self-imposed date to return to the NFL passes without a new deal, you won't catch Baker whining in self-pity. You will find him moving on with his usual positive attitude.
“When I played here (at Wayne High), I think the best I ever had in football was second-team all-conference,” Baker said. “I've had 12 years' experience in professional football. There are other things I want to do, other things I find interesting. I don't control the opportunities. I just control whether I'm ready for them. If the good Lord says it's over, it's over, he'll have something else for me and I'll get on the next train.”
Baker, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., with his wife and 1-year-old daughter, will carry one asset with him whether he returns to the NFL or moves on: positive influence.
Baker's Pro Football Mini Camp has always been different by design. The middle-school age camp is free, but Baker requires the 300 or so campers to participate in some sort of service-oriented or service-centered activity on the first Saturday of the two-day camp. This Saturday, they received a glimpse into law enforcement and fire fighting.
But Baker's focus isn't entirely on the middle schoolers. He stages a football clinic for coaches on Friday night and has an award (The 'Ike' At Your Service Award, named after long-time Snider coach Russ Isaacs) to honoring the commitment and service of local coaches. Leo's Jared Sauder and Holy Cross' Seth Bennett were honored this year.
One of Baker's favorite organizations, the Positive Coaching Alliance – spearheaded locally by Canterbury athletic director Ken Harkenrider – will be expanding its influence in large part because of the exposure of the Pro Football Mini Camp.
Fort Wayne Community Schools will require its 421 coaches to undergo yearly training locally from Positive Coaching Alliance. Local athletic directors Adam Swinford and Bob Shank helped push for the program. Baker said he was especially pleased to see a school system respond to the idea of better training for coaches in ways to deal not only with athletes, but with parents and officials.
“It's cool because it's an example of a seed we planted a long time ago growing into a tree,” Baker said. “When you have guys like (Snider) coach (Kurt) Tippmann and (Bishop Dwenger) coach (Chris) Svarczkopf talking about how great that resource is, I think the administrators have to listen to that.”
Baker's career as an NFL punter could be over when his self-imposed deadline arrives, but it's clear he's just getting started on having a positive influence on those around him.