Habakkuk Baldonado talks about his path from Rome to the NFL Draft and eating pineapple on pizza

Pittsburgh edge rusher Habakkuk Baldonado speaks exclusively to Sky Sports about his journey from Rome, Italy to the NFL ahead of the 2023 Draft; watch all three days of the Draft live on Sky Sports from Thursday April 27-Saturday April 29

Habakkuk Baldonado continues his journey at the NFL Draft
Habakkuk Baldonado continues his journey at the NFL Draft

Pineapple on pizza. The perpetual quarrel. And in the case of Rome’s Habakkuk Baldonado, perhaps something of a repellent compromise facing relatives who may wish to visit the NFL prospect.

Baldonado grew up worshipping Francesco Totti, before wanting to be Ray Lewis. He grew up conditioned to vilify pineapple on pizza, before living among American reconstructions of his native Italy’s famed dish. Where his career path might have changed, pizza preferences have stood their ground.

“My brother (Jonathan) just refuses to eat pizza here because he was mad it wasn’t like back home, I’m not as picky as him,” Baldonado tells Sky Sports. “I eat everything apart from a couple of things like chicken or pineapple on pizza.”

The Pitt edge rusher relocated from Rome to Florida in 2017 armed with enthralling potential as a towering European latecomer to football, accompanied by a subtle Italian twang and greeted by common inquisition as to the difference between cuisine from his new and old home. A laugh tells the story with regard to the latter.

“Italy is just Italy, you know?” he says. “Everybody knows Italian food is top of the top around the world.

“Here in the US they have a huge Italian population that migrated so they have a lot of dishes that became Italian American, they have dishes we don’t have back in Italy like Chicken Alfredo, you name it, pizza with pineapple, they ask me how that tastes and I still refuse to eat some of that stuff.”

Chicken on pizza is also off-limits, he explains.

Baldonado is projected as a late-round pick at the Draft
Baldonado is projected as a late-round pick at the Draft

Live NFL Draft

Baldonado was born in the north side of Rome before moving to the south side at the age of eight, his home a mere 10 minutes from the Colosseum and its touristy buzz. Now he is the tourist, of sorts.

“The craziest thing of growing up in Rome was I would always drive by the Colosseum but I never went in for some reason and the first time I actually went in was after I moved to the US and I went back,” he laughed.

His discovery of football came at around the age of 13 when he stumbled across a sport on TV that until that point he had no idea existed. They were running faster, jumping higher and hitting harder than anything he had seen before, they were passing and catching and strategising. He wanted in.

“My mum bought Sky Sports so we had all the packages, on regular TV they didn’t show it but on Sky they had ESPN and they used to show some college and NFL games,” he explained. “Rolling through the channels one time I saw this sport, went to google it and found highlight tapes on YouTube of Ray Lewis, Richard Sherman and it just looked interesting.

“I was in a phase of my life when I was deciding what sport I was going to do because I’d just got out of swimming which my mum forced us to do for the majority of our childhood. I tried it, which didn’t last long when I was 13 but I picked it back up when I was 16 and now I’m here.”

Baldonado went on to join the Lazio Marines – who would later partner with Grizzlies Roma to become the Ducks – with whom he competed in Italy’s major league at the age of 17. A move to America wasn’t far behind.

“I was playing for the U19 Italian National Team and we had this Championship in Europe in spring 2017, we played Serbia and one of the coaches that was coaching us had contacts with the head coach at Clearwater in Florida where I ended up going,” he recalled. “He saw me playing fairly well and said he thought I had a shot to try to go to the US to play football. I dropped everything that spring, got my visa and went over in June.”

Pittsburgh's Baldonado in action against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the 2022 season
Pittsburgh’s Baldonado in action against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the 2022 season

Live NFL Draft

An adventure overseas was befitting of the Baldonado family, Habakkuk’s mother Paola having spent much of her youth globe-trotting from the age of 18. She lived in France, she lived in Scotland, she visited Asia, she explored South America, she would even meet the father of her children in the Caribbean. When Baldonado and his brother were old enough she sought to expose them to the same experiences, taking them on trips to Colombia, the UK, Switzerland and beyond.

“She’s my motivation, she always pushed me to be better than I what I was,” he explains. “She would always tell me, whenever I would complain about my situation or whatever, “Hai voluto la bicicletta, ora pedala!” which translates to ‘you wanted your bike, now you’ve got to pedal’. She’s a big part of why I do everything.”

With border-crossing and island-hopping came a multi-lingual parent, who would ensure her sons learned English and Spanish alongside Italian from the age of five. She would also save certain languages for herself.

“What she used to do when we were kids, because she knows more languages than me, is she would curse in different languages, the thing is we would just learn curse words in other languages!” laughs Baldonado.

What’s more, she encouraged her sons to play instruments – Habakkuk would play the drums and his brother the guitar – as well as introducing them to martial arts and swimming. Baldonado credits her and his late father Edgar for their efforts to maximise all walks of life.

When Clearwater Academy, football and America came calling, nobody was more keen than mum.

“She was like ‘if this is what you want to do, get a ticket and go!’,” he continued. “She always pushed us to leave and discover and take our own path. For instance, my brother just moved to live in Australia because he felt like it.”

His path was different. It challenged the norm. His father had always intended for as much, naming his son after ‘Habakkuk’, one of the 12 prophets in the old testament.

“The story is interesting because he’s the only one who really questions God and asks why bad things happen to good people,” Baldonado explains. “Even though it’s a short book it’s an interesting one. I guess he wanted me to grow up, question stuff and be different to everybody else. That’s what I had to become.”

America, too, would be different. Busier, louder, amplified. Bigger cars, less wine, more work-driven.

“When I stepped off the plane I was blown away by how big everything was,” he said. “There were huge trucks that we don’t have in Italy because they pollute too much so they’re illegal. I see these huge trucks, big speakers and huge highways. I went to eat at a Hooters for the first time actually, they had these huge plates with tonnes of food, I was like ‘did I shrink or something?’.

Live NFL Draft

April 29, 2023, 5:00pm

“I ended up landing in Florida, beautiful people, beautiful weather, I love the beach so living in Florida was a plus for me. The culture was different, everything was faster and bigger, people always thinking about the hustle, about the money and making a way, which I don’t think is the best because sometimes you need a break as well but this is the way they like it!”

Upon joining Clearwater, Baldonado registered 83 tackles and 30.5 sacks in one season before passing on offers from the likes of Michigan State, Coastal Carolina, Nebraska, Illinois and Syracuse to commit to the University of Pittsburgh. Over the next four seasons, he would amass 99 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, two pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 40 games, head coach Pat Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Randy Bates harnessing natural size and athleticism with a view to carving out an NFL-calibre pass rusher.

Baldonado looks to make a sack
Baldonado looks to make a sack

Pittsburgh quickly felt like home thanks to the efforts of the programme and the city to ease their new European friend into life stateside. A home from home, but nothing quite like home.

“I miss everything! (about Italy),” he laughs. “The food, the culture, my lifestyle, my family, my friends. Even the most simple thing, just walking around the park or going to an art museum, which they have here in the US too but it’s different.

“In Italy, we have the “Dolce far niente”, ‘the sweetness of doing nothing’, here I got so much into this that when I’m just sitting at home on the couch sometimes I feel guilty because I’m not doing something, which is different. I love to just go back home and relax, maybe drink just one good cup of wine. I stopped drinking alcohol when I came over to the US, so I might drink one cup when I go back to Italy. The food especially, the food is the huge difference.”

Baldonado was welcomed with open arms by Pittsburgh’s sizeable Italian community concentrated within the city’s Strip District, and befriended those with whom he could continue to speak in his native tongue from time to time. Oh, and with whom he could eat foot that even remotely reminded him of home.

“I know some restaurant owners, I go there and eat and chat with them,” he said. “There’s a super funny place called La Prima, I know the owner which is Italian and there’s a bunch of old Italian men that sit around the table and start playing cards and every now and again I go and start playing cards with them.

“In Italy, people are super divided like north and south, it might be Rome vs Naples or Sicily vs Milan, but once everybody migrates the differences fade away with the sense of your love for your nation. The Italians here are way tighter than how they are in Italy because they have to face a different environment and have to stick together to be stronger.”

Baldonado featured just once in his true freshman year before logging 30 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in 13 games in 2019, his development stuttering the next season as he was limited to just four appearances due to injury and Covid.

His response was a breakout year in 2021 as he managed 41 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, a team-high nine sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 14 games as a starter at defensive end.

“It was definitely a highlight of my career, I think I’ve been playing pretty solid since I started playing. 2021 was definitely special. We had a great team, I was able to put it all together: my pass rush, run-stopping, I was getting after the quarterback, getting sacks, TFLs and I was healthy, that was the major thing. 2022 I was happy with, the numbers weren’t the same but I was hurt so I couldn’t push as hard but I was still dominating on the field and that’s why I think people in the NFL have been noticing.”

He affords himself a chuckle as he tries to compare the Baldonado that first landed in Pittsburgh to the one that is about to depart for the NFL. The polishing job continues and the sense of catch-up still acknowledged, but it is for the ceiling that he enters as one of the more intriguing prospects on Draft boards.

“I’m light years away from where I was when I started,” he explains. “The average player in the US has been playing since they were four to six years old, I’ve only been playing for seven or eight years so I’m really fresh to the sport.

“Every year I just work as hard as I can to even out the gap, to become better every day. I think it’s really noticeable if you compare my tape from high school to last year I look like a different player. That’s what I love to do, to work hard and improve myself in every aspect and become the best player I can be and beat all my competition. That’s how I got here.”

The first-step burst flashes at the snap, his refined chop-and-dip move helps him skip around tackles, his lateral quickness allows him to slip inside with ease, his power and lengthy strides enable him to set the edge. There is still a rawness, and yet evidence of a gifted student.

“What I try to explain to every team is the person I am and the player I am, at this point everybody is running fast, jumping high,” he says. “What made me different is my intelligence and love for hard work, I get better a lot every year, I come back as a different player to the year before.

“My football IQ is really high, I love to learn, that’s what a lot of players are not so that’s where we’re different. I’m very versatile, I played a lot of sports growing up so I have a lot of skills other people don’t have and can play a lot of different positions. A versatile really smart play that has all the athletic tools as well.”

Baldonado takes part in his Pro Day in Pittsburgh
Baldonado takes part in his Pro Day in Pittsburgh

He will sit and study Chandler Jones and take note of his menu of pass rush moves, as well as watching the Bosa brothers and Trey Flowers. He prides himself on his hand technique and the ability to carry out multiple roles, be it putting his hand in the dirt as a 4-3 defensive end or standing as a 3-4 outside linebacker, be it dropping into coverage or playing as a 3-tech.

Baldonado enters the NFL both intent on furthering his education and earning himself a long career in the league, as well as defying his unorthodox route as one of the latest European flag-bearers committed to the growth of the sport in this corner of the world.

“I feel like I want to become part of it, I want to be one of the main protagonists that pushes football in Europe and make it grow as much as possible,” he said. “When I started and when I fell in love with this sport it wasn’t really that big but I’ve seen it grow a lot. From listening to all the people I knew it was bigger in the 70s and 80s when they had NFL fever with NFL Europe, I just want to try and bring it back to those days and make it even bigger. I showed it’s possible to go from Europe to play here in the States so I’m going to push as many kids as possible to do this and change their life possibly, I want to bring back the sport and give back as much as I can.”

Hai voluto la bicicletta, ora pedala! He sure is pedalling.

Related Posts

Celebrity dog trainer Tom Davis shares the scouting report on Steel and Silver, the dogs owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes

You can’t stop these “super” dogs — you can only hope to contain them. Dog trainer to the stars Tom Davis gave The Post the scouting report this week on the pooches of Kansas City’s first couple, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his wife Brittany …

Read more

Patrick Mahomes “Attacks” Travis Kelce for Encroaching on His Territory, Teammate Shames Him with Epic Response (Details Inside)

The two teammates have been at war Patrick Mahomes has taken aim at  Kansas City Chiefs  teammate  Travis Kelce  after the tight end popped up in what  Mahomes  sees as his territory. Game 2 of the Western Conference Final between the  Dallas Stars  and …

Read more

Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid Defend Harrison Butker: Showcasing Strong Team Unity on the Field

Speaking with reporters for the first time since kicker Harrison Butker’s remarks in a commencement address sparked national headlines, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Coach Andy Reid made the case that if the comments had a divisive …

Read more

Travis Kelce holds hands with Taylor Swift as she dazzles in a shimmery dress and helps raise $80K at a Vegas charity gala

Tɾаᴠιs Kеlcе а𝚗Ԁ Һιs fаmσus ɡιɾlfɾιе𝚗Ԁ Tаylσɾ Swιft е𝚗jσyеԀ а ɡlаmσɾσus wееƙе𝚗Ԁ ι𝚗 Lаs Vеɡаs wҺеɾе tҺеy ҺеlԀ Һа𝚗Ԁs аt tҺе 15 а𝚗Ԁ tҺе MаҺσmιеs Fσu𝚗Ԁаtισ𝚗 bе𝚗еfιt ι𝚗sιԀе MGM Rеsσɾts σ𝚗 Su𝚗Ԁаy а𝚗Ԁ ҺеlρеԀ ɾаιsеԀ fu𝚗Ԁs fσɾ 𝚗ееԀy cҺιlԀɾе𝚗. TҺе 34-yеаɾ-σlԀ Kа𝚗sаs Cιty …

Read more

Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs star, responds to critics who call him a “dad bod,” saying, “People still haven’t realized I don’t have abs”

Mahomes made a hilarious comment about the work he does on his figure PATRICK Mahomes is struggling to stomach some of the negativity from NFL fans. The Kansas City Chiefs star, 28, has a strong claim to being the best football star on the planet. 2 Patrick …

Read more

Next Friday, May 31st, the Chiefs will visit the White House to celebrate their Super Bowl victory!

The Kansas City Chiefs announced that President Joe Biden will welcome the Super Bowl champions back to the White House in Washington, D.C., on Friday, May 31. In February, the Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers in overtime 25-22 in Super Bowl LVIII. …

Read more

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *