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Former Panthers punter Jason Baker develops character disguised as football

Jason Baker played 11 seasons in the NFL, the last seven for Carolina, and he holds every career Panthers punting record. Kickers are supposed to be quirky. It’s in the job description. Baker never was. He was friendly and smart and good at his job.
Jason Baker played 11 seasons in the NFL, the last seven for Carolina, and he holds every career Panthers punting record. Kickers are supposed to be quirky. It’s in the job description. Baker never was. He was friendly and smart and good at his job. Getty Images

If my kids were younger, I’d send them to at least three of the camps I’ve written about. The NFL’s Steve Smith Sr. and the NBA’s Kemba Walker and Antawn Jamison regularly share the field or the court with their campers, and the longer they play the more kidlike they appear to become. The campers, of course, love it.

Until Thursday, however, I’d never head of a camp such as Jason Baker’s. His is the fourth camp to which I’d send them. It also would be the first.

“It’s a character development program disguised as a football camp,” Baker says.

You remember Baker. He played 11 seasons in the NFL, the last seven for Carolina, and he holds every career Panthers punting record. Kickers are supposed to be quirky. It’s in the job description. Baker never was. He was friendly and smart and good at his job.

Baker, 37, still lives in the Charlotte area with his wife and two young children.

“Charlotte is a tough place to leave,” he says.

He spends time in his hometown, Fort Wayne, Ind., where he holds his Pro Football Mini Camp.

Some context: Baker is part of A Call to Men, The Next Generation of Manhood, a two-day conference at the Sheraton Airport Charlotte Hotel. The conference, which ends Friday, has attracted more than 260 people in fields that range from education to violence prevention to government.

Baker spoke at a session titled “Working with athletes: Developing young men of character.”

About his football camp: The disguise is good. The campers, who are in middle school, work with college and high school coaches. They also get free stuff.

“They’re geared up,” says Baker.

Football gear is obligatory no matter what kind of camp you sponsor.

Campers don’t pay. They invest. They’re required to invest time in a public service project. One year they spent time with police and firefighters. They saw a robot defuse a bomb. Kids are mesmerized by technology, by their phones. A robot is considerably more sophisticated than any cellphone.

Some of the campers come in with an idea of who the police are. They might leave with a different idea. Some might want to become police officers, Baker says.

Campers have raised money for food, put together packages and decided who’d receive them. They’ve worked with the 22nd Fighter Wing, a unit of the Indiana National Guard. They’ve worked with wheelchair athletes as part of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. There’s a plan to introduce them to the judiciary, with a mock courtroom.

“We like to expose them to people who give up their lives to serve others,” Baker says.

He started the camp in 2009, and annually works with up to 300 kids and 200 to 300 coaches.

Outside of a father, who exerts a greater influence on a young athlete than a coach?

College coaches offer them methods to motivate and teach. The goal is to be a positive influence in the lives of the athletes they lead.

Those of us who were involved in athletics growing up, which is most of us, were taught that sports teaches values. You look at sports at every level and wonder if it’s true. When I leave certain fields and arenas I feel as if should scrape the bottom of my shoes before I go home.

To spend time at the conference, and with Baker, is to embrace those values.

My kids are too old for his camp. But maybe I could go.

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