Oct. 18, 2000
A NEW LOOK--SAME ATTITUDE
By Chas Jordan
Cut Sampson's hair and he loses his strength. Take away Batman's trusty sidekick, Robin, and one without the other leaves the crime-fighting duo of comic strip legend unable to preserve justice in Gotham City. Luckily for Virginia tight end, Billy Baber, mythology and make-believe do not apply on the football field. Throughout the season, Baber has tested the Sampson myth by sporting a completely shaven head. The half-goatee that covers his chin combines with his eyebrows as the only hair from his neck up. Unlike Sampson, however, the new streamlined, look does not affect Baber's strength or productivity, and the senior from Crozet, Va., remains one of the conferences' top tight ends.
Yet, Baber entered the 2000 season not only without his hair, but also without friend, three-year teammate and mentor Casey Crawford. For the past three seasons, the two have shared time at tight end, and though Crawford generally served as the primary starter, injuries often sidelined the '98 first-team All-ACC selection, forcing Baber to assume the starting role. In fact, Baber has played in every game of his career at Virginia, starting 16 contests in his first three seasons as a Cavalier. Now, as UVa's designated starting tight end for the 2000 campaign, the two-time honorable mention All-ACC performer enters this year the same as each of the previous three seasons.
"I do not prepare any differently now that I am the starter than when I was splitting time with Casey Crawford," said Baber. "I started 10 games last year, so I'm used to starting. I am used to playing that role so it is not really any different. It is about the same, because Casey and I played every other series, and now I have Chris Luzar, who can fill in just like I did last year."
During his freshman season in 1997, Baber was thrust into an expanded and more integral role at tight end after Crawford broke his leg in the forth game of the season. That year, he became the only true freshman to make the starting lineup, play in every game, and earn a varsity letter for the season. The following year, he once again found himself in a starting role, joining the first string for four of the season's first five games while Crawford battled injury. Last year, Baber started all but two games as Crawford once again suffered through setbacks and nagging maladies. He finished '99 fourth among ACC tight ends in receptions and tied for first in touchdown catches with four.
According to Baber, his ability to contribute admirably and ultimately find great success at the tight end position remains largely due in part to the support and guidance he received from Crawford. Even when unable to play, Crawford would spend extra time helping his younger prot?g? to understand the intricacies of the tight end position. Forced to play a significant role from the earliest stages of his collegiate career, Baber relied heavily on the leadership of his older, more experienced teammate and fellow tight end to help him adjust to the demands of Division I football.
I learned a lot from Casey. When I was a freshman, he took me under his wing when he got hurt and I had to play" recalled Baber. "He always came to all the games, and he always tried to help me through things. He would come to the games to look at the coverages and tell me coverages I could not see, which would really help me a lot. So I miss Casey. I heard he's doing well in Charlotte [as a tight end with the NFL's Carolina Panthers] and I wish him the best."
Although Baber posted career bests in total receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns last season, catching the football is not his only responsibility on the football field. Actually, hauling in receptions hardly even represents Baber's primary duty when he takes the football field and lines up for the snap. The Cavalier offense relies heavily on the tight end position to serve as a key blocker up front. In addition, the tight end must act as a link between the offensive line and the wide receivers, helping both to identify different coverage reads as well as various blocking schemes. Yet, as Baber entered this season ranked tied for first among the ACC's returning tight ends in touchdown receptions and second in total receptions, the offensive statistics continue to serve as the measuring stick most fans use to determine the success of a tight end. Big first down catches and touchdown grabs are what capture attention from both the media and fans, and maintaining the proper pesrspective even when the primary aspects of the tight end position continue to remain underappreciated serves as a challenge for Baber.
"People see us open on the field, but they don't understand the reads. They tell me I should be catching he ball [more], and when you have to hear that stuff like that, it is really hard," said Baber. "We know what we have to do as tight ends, and Coach Danny Wilmer keeps us in check. We know we have to block first and catch second, so as long as we know that, everything is going to be ok."
While most people may not understand the true role of a tight end, one set of very special fans has watched him play football his entire life and know exactly how Baber feels. Far from fair-weather followers, these big-time supporters of number 87 are his parents, Goldie and Pattie Baber, and the two make it to every game, both home and away.
Remaining near to home and continuing his close relationship with his parents is important to the senior tight end, who grew up just outside Charlottesville. Having his parents come to every game and being only a short drive away from a good home-cooked meal serves as a unique situation he values greatly.
"I have a great relationship with my mom and dad, so I love being able to go home and eat dinner with them every once in a while," said Baber. "I don't have to wait to see my parents after the game, I can see them during the week. I have a lot of fans who come to the games and support me, so it helps me get up for games."
Throughout his childhood, Baber's family had season tickets to the University of Virginia football games, and during his pee-wee, middle school, and high school playing days, the local standout often looked up to the great Cavalier players of the time. Following his senior year at Western Albemarle, Baber faced the tough challenge of choosing among several schools as the place where he would continue his football career at the next level. Fortunately for Virginia, the thought of carving his own niche as one of the great players to wear the orange and blue proved attractive for Baber.
"I was a fan [growing up]. My favorite guy was Keith Mattioli for a while, and Herman Moore was pretty cool too," said Baber. "I looked at other schools, but I pretty much knew I was coming here. There were a lot of schools I was considering, but my mom was real influential in my decision, and she knew that [UVa] was one of the best academic places with a good football tradition."
For Baber, his four-year career at the University of Virginia has proven both challenging and successful at the same time. Asked to perform a large portion of the tight end duties much earlier than expected as a true freshman, he rose to the occasion and performed admirably. He attributes much of his early success to guidance and mentoring of former teammate Casey Crawford, and now, for the first time in his college career, Baber must play this season without Crawford joining on the sidelines. In every unfamiliar situation, the four-year letter winner maintains the same approach and constantly upholds a positive attitude. Through it all, and even without his hair, Billy Baber continues to display the strength of character and on-field success that set him apart as one of the conferences most effective tight ends.