At the age of nine, Joe Baker received a gift that would end up changing the course of his life. While other boys his age were opening action figures and other toys that morning, Baker found a rugby ball under the Christmas tree.
When his father Curt handed him the ball, he looked at his son and said, “You are going to be an Eagle someday,” a term referring to the United States men’s national rugby team.
“That ball basically became my life,” Joe said. “Other than being at school or doing my homework, that ball would never leave my side."
Baker’s father has been with him every step of his rugby journey, from giving him his first rugby ball that Christmas morning to being an All-American on the Penn State rugby team.
Through it all, he continues to inspire his son to make it to the top of the rugby world.
“My dad instilled the most influential goal of my life in me at a young age,” Joe said. “Most kids my age wanted to be a firefighter or police officer. I wanted to play on the US national rugby team.”
Curt Baker was a multi-sport athlete before he became a rugby player.
He ran cross country in high school and played lacrosse at USC during his early college years.
While attending USC, he started playing rugby on the club team.
He went on to continue playing rugby for many more years, but eventually work forced him to step down from playing the sport he loved.
“Rugby was dad’s game,” Joe said.
“He would talk about it all the time. If rugby was on TV, that was the biggest day of the year in our house.”
With the gift of a rugby ball also came his father’s knowledge of the sport.
“Joe wanted to know how to play the game,” his father said. “I could only do so much, however. It’s like teaching someone baseball. You can teach them how to throw and hit, but until you get out there in a game, you don’t know much.”
So the search for a local rugby team began.
Curt tried to find a youth program in the West Chester area for his son to play in, but his efforts were unsuccessful.
Instead of giving up, Baker’s father created his own.
One day in November of that year, Joe and his father drove around the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District putting homemade flyers in the mailboxes of students listing a time where people could come sign up at the high school.
Their goal was to field two teams of 15 — one for high school and one for middle school. What happened next was totally unexpected.
“My dad had only printed off 60 signup packets for that night,” Joe said.
“We had over 120 high school boys sign up and about 90 middle school boys.”
Pulling into the school on the night of the signups, Baker and his mother had a hard time finding a parking spot.
“The room was overflowing with people,” Curt said. “They were sitting in the aisles and standing in the back. It was an absolute shock.”
What resulted was the creation of one of the largest rugby programs on the East Coast today.
Two years later, a girl’s team was added, and soon after that, the rugby team was recognized as a varsity sport at Unionville — which Joe’s father now coaches.
Curt’s efforts finally allowed his son to get the experience he needed on the rugby pitch.
Joe’s abilities were noticed almost instantly, and he attended an invite-only rugby camp in Indiana between his sophomore and junior years of high school.
Then one day the following February, Baker was called down to the high school office.
“I will never forget that day,” said Baker, whose eyes began to gloss over. “My dad was standing there holding a letter. I had made the US national team.”
From there, Baker went on to make the national team for the next two years, and he competed in the IRB Junior World Rugby Championships in Nairobi, Kenya.
All along, Baker’s father was extremely supportive of his son.
“He sees the field very well,” Curt said.
“He is a true student of the game. He involves the whole team. Getting the whole team involved is what makes Joe a better individual player.”
Joe, now a senior at Penn State, continues to set high goals for himself and his enitre rugby team.
“We are making it no secret that we want to win a national championship,” he said.
“After college I would like to make a run at the 2015 Rugby World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.”
Only seven people will be starting at the Olympic Games for the United States in five years, so Joe said he has his work cut out for him.
“It will all come down to if I am healthy, and if I still have the passion and drive to go after it,” he said.
“If that is the case, I will. The decision has already been made.”
All the while, his father will be there watching him.
Just as he was that one Christmas morning.
“I have always said, ‘If you love this game, you can do incredible things,’ ” Curt said.
“Joe certainly loves the game and has blown me out of the water.”