From Brooklyn To Bama
NEW YORK — If one were to pinpoint the location in the U.S. most unlike Tuscaloosa, Ala., in its attitude toward college football, Brooklyn, N.Y., might be the place. The closest school that fields a Football Bowl Subdivision team, Rutgers, is known less for its on-field prowess than for its administrative dysfunction and financial strife. Trying to find a season preview magazine here during the summer is nearly as difficult as attempting to locate an Ohio State sweatshirt inside a Michigan campus bookstore. Many of the borough's residents would rather spend Saturdays sampling artisanal foods than watching a Big Ten game at noon.
Given this atmosphere of college football apathy, it may seem unlikely that Brooklyn could produce a player who has a reasonable chance of starting in a national title game in the near future. Yet the sport's reigning champion, Alabama, mined the borough for someone who could solidify its offensive line.
On a frigid Thursday morning in early January, less than a week after confetti rained down on the Crimson Tide in celebration of their 45–40 triumph over Clemson in Glendale, Ariz., Charles Baldwin strode into a classroom at ASA College populated by his coach, Chris Boden, and a reporter. The 6' 6", 305-pounder sat down at a desk in a motion akin to a normal-sized human trying to squat on one of those kiddie chairs at Toys "R" Us. The sleeves of a white polo shirt featuring an Alabama "A" clung to his massive biceps. His long, thick legs settled comfortably in front of his chair. And in a booming voice, Baldwin detailed the events that led him from Windsor, Conn., to a locale more commonly associated with coffee shops than tailgating.
Soon Baldwin, the No. 3 junior college recruit in the country, according to Scout.com, will compete for a spot on Alabama's two-deep. But his path to big-time college football was not as smooth as he would have liked.
Baldwin had no meaningful football experience prior to his freshman year at Windsor High. The schedule of a local youth league conflicted with his Sunday religious obligations, which included serving as a musician at his church—Spirit-filled Deliverance Outreach Ministries—led by his parents, Dennis and Cheryl Baldwin. When he began taking up the sport, Charles says he did not consider the possibility of it leading to bigger things. He described football as "something just to do" and encapsulated his ninth-grade persona as "kind of a knucklehead." Baldwin recalls being kicked off the team for "little stuff," such as missing practice.
The head football coach at Windsor, Robert Fleeting, remembers an instance in which another coach asked Baldwin to leave the weight room, but says that overall he was "just like any other 14-year-old." Baldwin says he began to take football more seriously during his sophomore season, and Fleeting recalls him eventually taking a more proactive approach to his fitness.
"He was trying to get rid of the fat that was on him, trying to be a better football player," Fleeting says. " … We were just telling him, 'Just worry about the small things and the big things will take care of themselves.'"
Some of them did. Baldwin was selected to the Class L all-state team in 2013, and he says Connecticut and UMass began recruiting him prior to his senior campaign. But he soon realized FBS football wasn't an option—at least not right away. When he registered with the NCAA Eligibility Center as a senior, Baldwin says, reality sunk in. "I didn't get there GPA-wise or SAT-wise, so I knew junior college would be what I had to do." Baldwin pointed to laziness as the main culprit for his insufficient marks, and his mom recalls him settling for grades. "He wasn't one that really, I don't know, showed [a lot of] interest in academics," she says.
Baldwin described his feelings about having to put off major college football as "pretty devastating," in part because as a senior he had drawn recognition as one of the state's premier offensive linemen. "I was just telling myself, 'If only I would have took time to do that homework,'" Baldwin says. The next step was to choose a junior college. He was looking for a place that had a track record of grooming high-level players. ASA fit the bill. During last season alone, one of the school's former running backs, Joe Williams, rushed for nearly 500 yards at Utah, and one of its former defensive linemen, Cory "C.J." Johnson, earned second-team All-SEC honors at Kentucky.
In Baldwin's telling, the sales pitch from Boden—who was promoted from ASA's offensive coordinator to head coach a little more than a year ago—was simple. "Coach Boden, he's a straightforward guy, so he told me right off the bat: As long as I came here, went to every class, did my work, bought into the program, studied the playbook, I'd be successful. So, that's what I tried to do."
Courtesy of ASA Athletics/Scout.com
ASA does not fit anyone's definition of a college football paradise. If Alabama represents the gold standard for facilities, infrastructure and community support, ASA resides on the polar opposite end of the spectrum. Its main building is located on a nondescript street corner. The entrance to a subway station sits only a few steps away. If not for the large, purple structure bearing the ASA logo that hovers over the door, it would be difficult to notice that an accredited institution of higher learning exists here. A pedestrian passing through the intersection is nearly as likely to notice the Pio Bagel shop across the way, the Skyline Gourmet deli to the right or the 99-cent discount store to the left.
In an age when hydrotherapy rooms are embellished with waterfalls, player lounges are decorated with Nepalese rugs and training complexes are equipped with mini-golf courses, ASA players live a Spartan existence by comparison. Guys travel about 20-25 minutes for practices and games. The campus lacks a cafeteria or dining hall. Some walkthroughs are completed at a nearby public park. For players like Baldwin, ASA, at its core, is a means to an end. "This is an in-and-out process, this is a stepping stone to the next school," Boden says. "You don't necessarily want to be comfortable at a junior college."
Baldwin entered ASA with the physical tools to become a top-flight offensive lineman, but it was up to him to leverage his potential into scholarship offers from the types of programs he would have preferred to play for straight out of high school. He got stronger, became more flexible, watched film of tackles like former Texas A&M star Jake Matthews and worked with ASA's offensive line coach, Will Valencia, to refine his technique. "It was more working on the smaller things," Valencia says. "It was working on making sure that when he took his pass sets, that he's taking proper pass sets. It was making sure he was aware of what was going on as far as what the play call is based upon what the front is."
Miami was the first program to express interest in Baldwin at ASA, he says, as the Hurricanes had been pursuing another ASA offensive lineman, Jahair Jones (who redshirted with the Hurricanes in 2015). The turning point in his recruitment came when Boden sent out film of Baldwin following his freshman season. Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Georgia and Michigan State were among the schools that offered him scholarships. Offensive line coach Mario Cristobal took the lead recruiting Baldwin for Alabama, and his message, per Baldwin, was pristinely clear. "Right off the bat, [what] I just liked about Cristobal is he didn't sugarcoat anything. He told me straight up that he loved my film, but in order for me to be successful in their program, I have to come in and work hard."
Baldwin was sold. He verbally committed to the Crimson Tide on an unofficial visit to Tuscaloosa in June. His recruitment wasn't over yet, however; other programs, including Oklahoma, continued to pursue him even after he made his verbal pledge.
Still, following an official visit to Tuscaloosa in November, Baldwin elected against backing away from his initial decision because, he says, "I wanted to stay true to my commitment." Baldwin signed with Alabama in the middle of December, formalizing his place in the Tide's 2016 recruiting class.
Alabama has dipped into the juco ranks for recruits before, but this is believed to be the first time that it has added a scholarship player from a Connecticut high school. And Baldwin represents a huge recruiting victory even by the Crimson Tide's lofty standards. He is a five-star prospect, and Scout.com's evaluation of him notes the following: "Baldwin brings the complete package to the position. Most offensive tackles arrive at their college program much better in pass protection or as a run blocker. ... He can excel in both areas. He has the length, size, athleticism and tenacity to be a special player."
Fleeting used one word to describe Baldwin's playing style: nasty. Meanwhile, Valencia praised Baldwin's motor. "He just keeps going and he finishes his blocks."
Baldwin, who played both tackle positions at ASA, is the lynchpin of an offensive line haul that—despite missing out on the nation's top-ranked tackle recruit, Ole Miss-bound Greg Little—stands out as the "strong suit" of the Tide's 2016 class, according to BamaMag.com reporter John Garcia Jr. And Baldwin is not seen as a developmental project. The expectation is he will have a chance to immediately compete for the starting right tackle spot given the departure of another former juco prospect, Dominick Jackson.
If Baldwin wins the position, it will mark the next checkpoint on a roundabout path to gridiron glory. Going the juco route was far from ideal, but he says he came away from the experience with a perspective that may have eluded him had he taken the traditional road to Alabama's campus. Hours before completing his last exams at ASA, Baldwin thought about what he learned from his time there.
"It taught me basically that everything in life has a process that you have to go through," he says. "Whether you get there faster than others is not really [important]—the key is just about what you do to get there."