Division III QB Joey Baum: The True Student-Athlete Who Gives Back
Baum also spends a lot of his time studying. There are no athletic scholarships at this Division III school in Cleveland's University Circle, just dedicated students at a very challenging university trying to win games. Case's reputation as one of the finer research and technology universities in the nation is richly deserved, and Baum has achieved in the classroom to the point that he applied for a Rhodes Scholarship.
Every other Monday, though, Baum spends time in the poorer neighborhoods of Cleveland, distributing food and clothing to the homeless. Baum goes to the streets in a program he developed and started at Case, trying to form relationships with the neediest of the needy.
Baum represents one segment of life in the world of college football. While bigger, faster, more famous players play education-free in front of huge crowds at mammoth stadiums in the big-money, agent-ridden world of major college football, Baum and his teammates labor at a school where stadium capacity is 2,400 and the highlight of the season is the annual "Academic Bowl" against Carnegie Mellon.
"It's for the kids who really love the game," Case coach Greg Debeljak said. "There are no athletic scholarships; everything is need-based and merit-based. In that respect, you get the kid that really wants to be here -- because they would not be putting in this time if they didn't really love the game. That's a pleasure to coach.
"And I think Division III football, it doesn't get as much coverage as high school football. You're not in it because it gives you all this great recognition. You're in it because you love to play and you have a special bond with your teammates. It isn't about getting ready for the pros and all the agent stuff you hear about.
"It's really football in its purest form."
Attendance at Case Field (note the absence of any title sponsor) for the last three home games tallied 1,347, 1,938 and 1,623. The stadium would fit inside Ohio State's practice facility, but the emphasis is clear. On last weekend's trip to Chicago, Debeljak took eight physics exams with him so his players could take a test they were missing. The coach was the proctor.
"If things go wrong," Debeljak said, "I'm accountable."
Case Institute of Technology was founded in 1826, and in 1967 merged with Western Reserve University. The team's media guide says the school has almost 10,000 students, graduate and undergraduate. Its faculty totals more than 2,600. Its endowment is $1.4 billion, and there are 100 designated academic and research centers, all of which receive $400 million in external research awards annually. The school's web page describes a few of these projects, among them: studying the body's tendon structure "from the atoms up," how epilepsy affects cognitive development in children and the Case Imaging Compound providing "direct views of live nerves' inner workings in the brain."
Its alumni include Bears chairman Michael McKaskey, congressional representatives Stephanie Tubbs-Jones and Dennis Kucinich, Nobel prize-winning scientist Paul Berg and Nobel Prize-winning economist Edward Prescott. Its football conference -- the University Athletic Association -- has four teams (Case, Carnegie Mellon, Washington and Chicago).
"If you force these kids to make a choice," Debeljak said, "they're going to choose academics every single time. As they should."
Baum embraces his reality. He grew up in the tiny rural community of Dalton, Ohio, on the cusp of the state's Amish country. He drove an hour to high school to attend Walsh Jesuit outside Akron. There he was able to integrate a desire for service ingrained by his parents with football and education.
Walsh had a program called Labre, which focused on taking food and clothes to homeless in Akron every Monday. Baum was a regular participant, and even took a trip between his junior and senior years to help the poor of San Salvador in El Salvador. He called the trip a "life-changing event."
"As a 16-year-old kid, you're kind of wide-eyed when you see that," he said. "You read about it and hear about it, but when you see those conditions firsthand, the fact that problems could be that severe for people ... "
When he arrived at Case, he brought Labre with him. Or tried to.
"It was a long process of trying to get through the administration stuff and setting everything up and getting a good grounding so we knew what we were doing," he said.
He and a female friend, Kelly Rogers, persevered, and just more than a month ago made their first venture to the streets of Cleveland. He calls the approach "relationship-based" because it is dependent on forming relationships with the people served. A group of Case students tries to visit 20 or 25 homeless, stopping randomly and striking up conversations, spending 10 or 15 minutes with each homeless person. With repeated visits, friendships develop, and those who believe they have nothing find something.
"You just kind of go," Baum said. "You have conversations. It's a very unique approach to a service experience. Rather than go to a soup kitchen where you see different people all the time, it's the same group of people. It's kind of cool to develop that relationship."
Baum spent the summer as an intern for the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. He works as a Big Brother for a student in Cleveland's inner city. And he is a captain of the football team. He combines majors in political science and international studies with a minor in economics.
"He's a great example to others because we talk to kids all the time about you just can't be a little unit among yourselves," Debeljak said. "Our athletes are different from the usual Case student. They're kind of the minority here. Where in high school they were the big deals. Now it's the academic people who are the big deals.
"So they (athletes) kind of cling together. Boy, if you do that you're missing out on a lot. There's a lot of great people, there's a lot of professors ... just things they would miss out if they'd just be hanging out with each other. I think that's where Joey sets a good example. He's out there with everybody, including people off campus."
Service grounds him, Baum said, and helps him keep perspective, and he wants his life's work to be involved in service to others.
"Looking at how we can use social policy to impact and solve some of these problems that we see," he said. "Any way I can make that a part of my career, where it's not just something I might do on the side when I can. I feel like that's such an integral part of who I am that I need to make it part of my daily life."
He applied for the Rhodes Scholarship in part because Oxford offers a Masters degree in comparative social policy. He conceded chances are not great, but thought it "the opportunity of a lifetime."
"In a lot of ways he's not the typical Case kid because he is so social and so involved in so many different things other than just his academics," Debeljak said. "The stereotype of the Case kid is the kid behind a computer 12 hours a day. He's so well rounded, and that comes from his family and the Jesuits at Walsh. That's just the way it is. He's been ingrained in that culture and he's brought it with him here. That's what's been refreshing, to have a kid who is focused on his academics but also is concerned about social issues. Politics, he's really big into that, but also just generally helping others."
Not that Baum doesn't hear it from his teammates. Engineering students remind him all the time that their workload is heavier than that of political science students. "He catches a lot of grief from engineering kids," Debeljak said.
That doesn't stop Baum from describing a typical day as class, practice and studying until four in the morning for an upcoming test. "You definitely can't get a big head here," he said. "Football is part of our lives, and it's a huge part. But it's not the whole part."
Baum spent three years as a backup to Dan Whalen, a Case legend (yes, it has legends) who holds almost all of the school's records but who was not selected in the NFL Draft despite a fair amount of pre-draft buzz. Baum took over as a senior, shrugging off any pressure of following a legend because it was what he had worked for for three years. He's now started eight games and won seven -- though the loss was the most recent game, Saturday at the University of Chicago, which ended a 38-game winning streak.
In those eight games, Baum has completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 2,028 yards with 19 touchdowns and seven interception. He guides an offense that has averaged more than 30 points per game. While Whalen was an athlete who could turn a bad play into a good one with his legs, Baum is more of a pure dropback passer.
"He makes very good decisions," Debeljak said. "Very quick decisions. He's a very efficient quarterback. Dan could improvise. Joey knows he has to throw it on time, and do the right thing or he has no chance. Because as I kid him all the time, he's probably only faster than one kid on defense, and that's the nose guard."
Players in Division III are not as big or fast as those at major schools -- Baum's offensive line averages 252 pounds. But the approach is the same, and what the Academic Bowl lacks in BCS interest it makes up for in IQ points and post-graduate success. Case kids still spend time watching film, in meetings and studying game plans. Baum said a typical week can include as many as 75 to 100 plays, including pass options depending on coverage.
"A lot of the same plays we run we'll see in Division I college games," Baum said. "It's similar concepts. Obviously it's a different level. But it's the the same concepts, the same plays. It's still a chess game out there."
Baum stresses relationships in his life, from his parents to his teachers to his friends to his teammates. He enjoys winning, enjoys being part of the team. He could have gone to a larger school, but might not have been able to play football. He chose Case in part because he could play, and in part because of the education -- and he brought something to Case that did not exist before with his work with the needy.
"I couldn't be happier," he said. "It's just been an unbelievable experience."