REGGIE HAYES: Ex-NFL punter Jason Baker pushes himself and others to step outside comfort zone

Jason Baker stops for a photo while on a mission trip in the Himalayas. (Courtesy photo)
Jason Baker at the podium during the NFL Draft. (Courtesy photo)
Jason Baker sits with Carolina Panthers fans during the NFL Draft. (Courtesy photo)

Jason Baker sat in a hut in the Himalayas and drank his first cup of coffee. Not his first cup of the day. His first cup ever.

As a gifted athlete who rose to the top as an NFL punter, Baker followed a strict diet and always avoided coffee. But on this day, as part of a short-term mission trip, he was offered the drink as a guest. It would have been, at the very least, rude to refuse.

“The people with me were kind of laughing under their breath, and then at the end, they said, ‘So, how was it?’ ” Baker said. “I said, ‘I really want to tell you it was miserable, but it was actually pretty good.’ ”

That anecdote captures, in a light-hearted way, Baker’s willingness to step outside his comfort zone. His steps are bigger than a cup of coffee, of course.

Baker, a Fort Wayne native, recently returned to his home in Charlotte, N.C., after a 12-day trip that included remote areas near Katmandu in Nepal as part of Mountain Child, a non-profit organization seeking to help children in the Himalayas. The group works to address children’s health, the education and environment as well as combating child labor and human trafficking.

For Baker, it was his second trip to Nepal and the latest example of his post-NFL emphasis on mission and philanthropic work. That focus is apparent each year as he leads his Pro Football Minicamp in Fort Wayne, a camp for middle school players that always starts with a service-oriented event. The 2018 camp runs Saturday and Sunday at Wayne High School. Registration is available at the Pro Football Minicamp site.

“One of our goals has always been to address the way our youth approach their relationship with the community,” Baker said. “How can I be of service to my community rather than just consuming my community?”

Putting words into action

NFL careers are relatively short. Baker, a Wayne High School and University of Iowa alum, played 11 NFL seasons. A real issue is what NFL players do with their lives after they retire from playing. Baker’s emphasis on reaching out to others captures where his heart lies.

His trip to Nepal came after he went to Dallas to announce a draft pick for his former team, the Carolina Panthers, at the NFL Draft. The scope of the trip is difficult to capture in one interview.

The experience is like no other.

“Katmandu is one of the most polluted and congested major cities,” Baker said. “It’s horrendous on a lot of levels, but also amazing on a lot of levels.”

As part of the Mountain Child group, Baker and others boarded helicopters with “boots and backpacks” and were dropped off in remote areas in the mountain. They spent five to seven days traveling from village to village, meeting with people and families and getting a feel for their lives. It’s a drastic environment change.

“There’s no way to appreciate it if you haven’t seen it or been there,” Baker said.

Being there makes a person realize how removed their everyday lives are from other places in the world, Baker said.

“These people, from a material perspective, have literally nothing,” Baker said.

The intent of the Mountain Child group is to improve conditions and to especially help address the human trafficking issues. Short-term groups, such as the one Baker was part of, come alongside to gain insight more than anything.

“Nothing we were doing was going to change those people’s lives in the moment,” Baker said. “But it completely changes the minds of the people who go there. What do you do with that? You realize the suburbs of Charlotte are not necessarily the realities of the world.”

Baker speaks highly of his admiration for the full-time missionaries who devote their lives to making a difference in that part of the world.

“They’re all in forever, and it’s an unbelievable thing,” he said. “They go there and develop an understanding of what the Hindu culture is like, they see what the challenges and history is, what the socioeconomic factors are. It’s a land-locked area and pinched between China and India. There are a lot of sensitive issues there.”

It’s an incredible part of the world to see, Baker said.

“If you think you’ve seen a mountain and you haven’t to the Himalayas, you haven’t seen a mountain,” Baker said.

Changing perspectives

Baker’s Pro Football Minicamp for sixth, seventh and eighth-grade students enters its 10th year this weekend, and as usual, the camp is free as long as athletes participate in a servant leadership project.

This year, the campers will meet with the representatives of the FBI, discussing cyber-bullying, and with Fort Wayne police and fire department reps. Among the activities will be visiting breaching rooms and negotiating obstacle courses.

“These people wake up every day serving our community, so spending time with them helps these kids see the different stuff they do,” Baker said. “I think it’s a really healthy engagement with adult professionals that are largely misunderstood by this age group. And the kids should have a bunch of fun.”

Since his retirement from football, Baker has worked on a number of projects and recently started his own consulting practice. He is continually looking to engage locally, semi-locally and globally to expand his view beyond his own backyard. He and his wife, Carol Lindsey, have two young children.

While he’s still trying to adjust his body clock to Eastern Daylight Time after his trip, he came back with his perspective broadened again.

“The biggest misconception about a short-term mission trip is people go into it thinking they can move the needle somehow in six or 10 or 12 days,” Baker said. “It doesn’t work like that. You don’t even understand the cultural barriers, let alone how to navigate them.

“It’s valuable for your own needle to get slammed. Now, what do you do with that?”

If you’re like Baker, you keep stepping outside your comfort zone to be part of the bigger picture in life.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

COMMENTS