(CNN)Perry Baker is more accustomed to running away from defenders. But last summer the reigning men’s rugby sevens Player of the Year was fantasizing about chasing down perps.
“I just felt that was so badass and cool — taking people down, kicking in doors and people pulling together,” the USA Eagles speedster says of his summer internship with the NYPD SWAT team.
“I just get excited. I want to be a part of that, trying to find people who did wrong.
“I went to the police academy in New York and did a ride-along with one of their officers. Then I went to a SWAT unit to see how that was set up, what vehicles they have and which ones they’d use for certain task.”
The man known as “Speedstick” is lightning on a rugby pitch. On this season’s sevens circuit he has already scored 17 tries and broken away from defenders 22 times.
Yet breaking into rugby was no cakewalk. Baker first wanted to crack the NFL but after signing with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011, he was released when they discovered a knee injury.
Baker went on to play in the Arena Football League, among other jobs. He conducted urinalysis for a courthouse, he dabbled in pest control and he would moonlight as a security guard for a sorority at Ohio University while perfecting his rugby at the Tiger Academy, a high performance center aimed at identifying and developing rugby talent.
In 2014 he signed a US sevens contract that made him weep with joy. Now, at 31, he has a lot of catching-up to do if he’s to achieve the greatness he craves and spread the gospel of rugby across America.
Which is why it is surprising to hear that, while most other players would focus on rest or rugby during the offseason, Baker was hunting for action with law enforcement agents.
In the witness stand — aged eight
In the summer the Golden Eagles, a trust set-up to support and sometimes fund US rugby players, helped net Baker a temp gig with a New Hampshire law firm.
This led to Baker taking ride-alongs in a cop car and then checking out the NYPD’s SWAT and homicide departments. So why the focus on law enforcement?
Baker answers instantly: “When I was younger, this kid I was friends with, Dimitric Moore, was murdered and that case was never solved. The last time he was seen [alive] he was at my house.
“I was eight years old and I had to go to court, I had to go in the witness stand … And I thought, ‘Man I want to catch whoever did this. I want to catch bad guys.’ At the time I thought I needed to be a police officer to do that.”
Moore’s story is a tragic one. After his body was found in the trunk of mother Ora Lee’s car, in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, she became the chief suspect in the case. This was in April of 1995.
After she was acquitted of manslaughter by a jury in June 1996, the case was reopened. But it was closed again in October 1997 after a second review of the case and a segment on the NBC show “Unsolved Mysteries” failed to unearth fresh information.
It remains unsolved to this day.
Baker explains that during the case he developed a deep respect for law enforcement, founded on the back of relationships with the officers in his neighborhood.
When an eight-year-old Baker was subpoenaed to speak in court, an officer he called “Detective Mike” calmly explained the process to the family. Baker’s grandmother forged a friendship with the detective.
‘I can help kids; help my family’
However, having spent time with sheriffs and officers during his time working at a courthouse in later life, Baker saw the strain of living like a cop.
Baker learned that to solve murders, he would have to be a homicide detective. But he does not want to be a beat cop. So the compromise in the summer was shadowing the SWAT team.
He explains: “When I saw the cops who have to worry about people not liking them I said, ‘Man, that’s brutal. I don’t want to be like that, I just want to be there to help.’
“If I’m solving a crime or a murder, the family are going to love you for that because you brought some closure to their situation, you know?
“I don’t want to be a cop — I don’t want that target on my back. Everyone thinks all cops are bad in today’s society, how it is here (in the States), and that’s not the case at all.”
His use of the word “closure” is notable. Is getting a sense of closure, so long after Dimitric’s death, why he yearns to solve mysteries?
After all, who wouldn’t hire a PI with a Tokyo 2020 Olympic medal around his neck?
“That’s kinda what they were telling me at the police academy in New York!” Baker says with a laugh. “A lot of new cops have ex-military backgrounds. And they were like: ‘Hey man you kind of have a chance too, with your sports background!'”