HONG KONG (AP) — The United States may have fallen agonizingly short in their bid to win the Hong Kong Sevens but there was some consolation for the Eagles when Perry Baker finished as the tournament's leading tryscorer.
The younger brother of 2009 Super Bowl winner Dallas Baker and the nephew of former NFL player and coach Wes Chandler, Baker was the star performer at the biggest tournament in Sevens Rugby, wowing the crowds with his electrifying speed and showmanship.
He scored nine tries in the three-day event, including at least one in each of the six matches he played in to help the Eagles reach the semifinals, their best result in an event dating back to 1976.
Each time Baker touched the ball, the crowd would whoop and holler in expectation and he responded with some breathtaking displays, not only with his pace but also with some NBA-style overhead passes that are rarely seen in rugby, and his animated try celebrations.
"I'm just trying to have fun," he told The Associated Press on Sunday. "And this is a lot of fun.
"I love the game of rugby now and I love all the amazing places we go to. I never dreamt of visiting places like Hong Kong, or Cape Town, or Dubai."
Like a lot of the US Sevens players, Baker was a latecomer to rugby, having played American Football for most his life. He played college football at West Virginia and was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles as a wide receiver in 2011 but injured his knee and never played in the NFL.
He switched to rugby in his home state of Florida and took up the sport full time in 2013 and made his debut for the US national Sevens team a year later.
He was on the US team that went to the Rio Olympics last year and hopes his success will inspire other Americans to take up the sport.
"If I can do, then I feel I've done my job," he said. "It's a great feeling when people message me and ask 'how can I get involved in rugby?' I just love everything about this game and it feels great to be a rugby player."
Baker has become a legitimate star on the Rugby World Sevens circuit, scoring 109 tries in his fledgling career and being selected in last season's Dream Team, and while he looks like a natural, he has had to work harder than most to reach the top.
He already possessed the athletic attributes to make it in Sevens Rugby but had to learn all the rules and tactics to play at the highest level.
The U.S. team head coach Mike Friday, a former England captain, said Perry was a raw talent when he first came to rugby but has now evolved into a genuine world-class rugby player.
"He is a speedster, and yes he is a flying machine but he's a lot more than that," Friday told the AP. "He's done a lot of work behind closed doors, which nobody has seen and it has paid off and he's no longer a crossover player - he's a real rugby player.
"I think that's the biggest compliment people can say about Perry. People who have been in the game a long time, from legacy nations like New Zealand, Australia, England, all look at Perry Baker and now and say he's a proper rugby player. He's a superstar now on the Sevens circuit and he fully deserves it."