Nov. 8, 2008
By Matt Winter
Out of Wilson High School in Tacoma, Wash., Mike Baldassin was not the biggest of recruits -- literally and figuratively. Despite earning team MVP and All-City football honors, only smaller schools and junior colleges recruited him due to his small stature. He originally signed to play football at the University of Puget Sound, but it was a spot in the East-West All-Star game at the end of the summer that would change his football future forever.
Baldassin, who also was an All-State third baseman on the baseball diamond, bulked up to 195 pounds by the game's start, and a strong performance impressed several Pac-10 schools, including Washington. It wasn't long before Baldassin had signed with the Huskies and showed up to play in 1973 for head coach Jim Owens.
Baldassin arrived on the UW campus and made an immediate impact. His freshman season in 1973 was just the second year that freshmen were allowed to play with the varsity team, and Baldassin took advantage of it, earning a varsity letter with his play on special teams. He learned early on that he would have to take advantage of other things to make up for his lack of size.
"I knew I wasn't going to beat people up physically, so I knew I had to get really good with technique," said Baldassin. "I listened to the coaches heavily. I learned how to use leverage and angles, as well as speed and quickness to my advantage."
Something else life-changing happened to Baldassin that year. From the first day of practice, he befriended fellow freshman linebacker Mike Rohrbach. Despite competing directly for playing time, the two Mikes bonded closely through their strong Christian faith. It was Rohrbach who first introduced Baldassin to a group called the Fellowship of Christian Athletes -- an organization that brought together Christian athletes from all over the country.
"I just learned what it meant to be a Christian and how to be a Christian athlete," Baldassin says of the Fellowship. "Everyone thinks of Christians as milquetoast guys, but these guys were tough, and I wanted to be like them."
Baldassin brought that pride with him to the football field in 1974, Coach Owens' last year. The sophomore linebacker again earned a letter from continued success on special teams, and eventually earned the starting job for the season-ending 24-17 Apple Cup victory.
"When you're finally in a big-time game, you learn really quickly how big that rivalry is from the older players and coaches," Baldassin explains. "It was the Super Bowl for us -- and Jim Owens' last game. We wanted to play well for him."
Junior year brought big change for Baldassin and the rest of the Huskies as new head coach Don James brought a new mentality to Montlake.
"We learned really quickly that the intensity level got picked up 100 percent," Baldassin remembers. "The bar was raised so high. Excellence was demanded and they accepted no less."
Baldassin was the everyday starter at middle linebacker as a junior in 1975 and in charge of calling the signals on defense. He remembers what it took to learn complex defensive game plans week after week.
"When I'd go to classes, I'd spend the hour studying the schemes," he explains. "The middle linebacker has to know everything with the opposing offense, so I'd spend class writing and rewriting all of the schemes because I didn't want to have any mental mistakes."
That year, Baldassin led the team with 138 tackles as the Dawgs finished with a 6-5 record and a 28-27 win over Washington State in the Apple Cup. Heading into his senior year in 1976, Baldassin was met with the honor of being elected co-captain and the responsibility of directing a defense with hardly any varsity experience.
"A lot of those guys ended up being great football players. They were young guys, but they were hungry guys," Baldassin explains of a defense that included future Husky greats Michael Jackson and Nesby Glasgow. "I wanted to show them what Husky defense was. I believed that Husky defense was mean and tough -- us outhitting the other team. I wanted to show the guys that the other team knew they were going to get whacked by us."
Baldassin led by voice and example in 1976, using his leadership to help establish the first organized, on-field prayer after a game. Following week two's game against Colorado, Baldassin and Rohrbach met with a couple of the Buffalo players they knew through the Fellowship and had a prayer in the end zone, starting a post-game tradition that still exists today.
Baldassin finished his senior season with a national-best 200 tackles, a mark that still ranks fourth all-time in school history. The Huskies finished 1976 with a 5-6 record, a disappointing mark that was silver-lined with victories over Minnesota (led by QB Tony Dungy) and Washington State (Baldassin's third straight Apple Cup victory). In addition to co-captain, Baldassin was honored with the Huskies Most Improved Player and Guy Flaherty Most Inspirational Player Award. His 386 career tackles still ranks sixth all-time in Husky history.
Baldassin went undrafted but was signed to the free-agent contract by San Francisco 49ers, where he played from 1977-79 and served as special teams captain for the first two years.
He then became a police officer in Oakland and Seattle, and while in Oakland was awarded the Medal of Valor (the department's highest award). After law-enforcement, he became a teacher and coach at Bellarmine Prep High School, where he served as head football coach from 1996-2002. In those seven years, he won three league championships, earned four state playoff appearances, and compiled multiple Coach of the Year honors.
Now retired, Baldassin lives with his wife of 28 years, Mary, a former All- American rower at the UW. They have four kids -- daughters Jessica, Corrine, and Kaylee, as well as his son Beau.
"I learned about perseverance more than anything," Baldassin says of his time as a Husky. "When you play college football there's nothing but adversity. You have to go to class, practice, and you're beat up. It's hard you have to show up and bring it every day. You have to persevere everyday."