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College football star Habakkuk Baldonado, born and raised in Italy, is ready for the NFL

If you’re a pro football fan who is also Italian or loves all things Italy, there’s a player you will want to be rooting for over the next several months… and hopefully many years after that.

His name is Habakkuk Baldonado, and he’s currently wrapping up his career at the University of Pittsburgh and beginning preparations for the 2023 NFL Draft, which will be held April 27-29 in Kansas City. 

It’s safe to say Baldonado will carry one of the most unique backstories of every player entering that draft, and it’s a story tailor-made for this publication. If you’ve never heard of “Habba,” before this, buckle up.

Baldonado was born in Rome to an Italian mother, Paola Franceshelli, who relished world travel, and a father, Edgar Baldonado, who Paola met in the Caribbean. Habakkuk was a big, athletic kid who tried lots of sports in Italy—swimming, martial arts and, of course, football. As in their football. Aka, soccer. But with an adventurous spirit and a willingness to throw his body around, 13-year-old Baldonado sought out a different sport—American football. He found a team near Rome, the Lazio Marines (they now go by the Ducks), and convinced his father to drive him to practice. His father died in a motorcycle accident soon after, however, and that made the sport too inconvenient for him to continue for a few years. Baldonado picked it back around the age of 16, and quickly starred on the field even as he played against full-grown adults in FIDAF, which we covered here last month.

Baldonado, who had played wide receiver and defensive line but was starting to focus on just being a defensive end, was soon invited to play for Italy’s junior national team. One thing led to another and, “While I was playing for the American Football National Team in Italy, the coach was like, ‘Would you like to play high school football in Florida?,” says Baldonado, speaking from the Pitt football facility as his team prepares for the Sun Bowl (2 pm ET on December 30, televised on CBS). “‘Sure, that would be awesome,’ I told him. And I just booked a flight for six months. Deep down in my heart, I knew I would like to play college football in America. But no one was talking about that. I was just going for the experience.

“Well, six months became one year which has become six years.”

The coach who suggested Florida had a son at Clearwater Academy International in Clearwater, FL, a relatively small school and program that only started playing seven-man football in 2012 and only expanded to a full 11-man-playing program in 2016. Baldonado enrolled as a senior for the 2017 season and despite an injury scare, racked up 83 tackles and 30.5 sacks in his lone season. “He was an interesting, cool young man,” Clearwater coach Jesse Chinchar told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year. “He cared about education. He cared about things off the field. Honestly, we had no idea where it was going to go in the beginning. We never had a Power Five player before.”

For the non-college football fans reading, “Power Five” refers to the five biggest NCAA Division 1 conferences—ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC. It wasn’t at all clear Baldonado was destined for one either, given his late arrival on the recruiting scene and unconventional path. But his stats and size eventually garnered interest from small D1 program Coastal Carolina, and then big-time Oregon started sniffing around, and by the time commitment deadlines were coming around in February of Baldonado’s senior year, lots of schools were interested.

As you might imagine, the reflective Baldonado put a lot of thought into where he would attend college, and, as he says it, his heritage played a major role. “I liked the position coaches who recruited me, as well as Coach Narduzzi,” recalls Baldonado, referencing the Panthers’ Italian-American head coach. “There was also a really good engineering school I wanted to study in, even though I ended up changing my major to Economics.

“I knew I had to go to a college in a city because I had grown up in a city—I couldn’t have been at one of these big schools in the middle of nowhere. And then the city’s Italian heritage definitely played a part. They took me to the Strip, and I liked that,” Baldonado adds of the historic neighborhood in Pittsburgh that is known for its Italian eateries. 

Reaching Baldonado’s mind through his heart and stomach was smart, for Pitt. For one thing, he’s always been huge relative to his peers and is listed today at 6’ 5”, 260. That’s a lot of calories. For another, dude loves his food. “The food is a little hard to explain—I miss it so much,” he says. “One of the first things I do when I go back home is go to this pizza place right next to my house. I just love going to different restaurants there.” 

After spending some time back home before college started, Baldonado settled into campus as a freshman in 2018 and, save for trying to get home at least once a year, he’s been in Pittsburgh ever since. He was redshirted as a true freshman before starting his playing career in earnest in 2019, when the 6’ 5”, 260-pounder played in all 13 games off the bench and notched 30 tackles and four sacks.  

Baldonado also adjusted pretty well, all things considered. “We study three languages in Italy, and English was one of mine, so I knew the grammar pretty well,” he recalls. “But actually speaking to people, learning the colloquialisms, was hard at first.”

Trips home to see his mother and younger brother, Jonathan, have always been welcome for a young man who’d never been to the U.S. before enrolling at Clearwater. “My favorite thing to do is see my family,” the 23 year old says without hesitation. “I also love to walk around the center of Rome. As much as I lived in Rome for 17 years, I truly appreciate it. Every time I go back I try to see a different part—museums, churches, parks. Just a lot of exploring.”

Baldonado suffered through some injuries during the COVID-marred 2020 season before bouncing back with a monster junior season (starting every game and tallying a total of 42 tackles and nine sacks for an 11-3 Pitt team that played in the Peach Bowl) that put him squarely on the radar of NFL teams who like nothing more than guys who can sack the quarterback.

Rather than turn pro, however, Baldonado picked up his undergraduate degree, began work on a Finance MBA in Pitt’s Katz Business School and came back for this, his redshirt senior season. While it hasn’t gone quite as well as last year, for Habba or the Panthers (the team went 8-4 in the regular season while Baldonado has fought off nagging injuries while notching 25 tackles and two sacks in nine games), the big Italian is still a name draftniks know—or will learn soon.

After the Sun Bowl, for which Baldanado will be a “game-time decision” based on how he’s doing physically, he will play in the 2023 East-West Shrine Bowl on February 2 and then fully focus on draft preparation. Part of Baldanado’s prep, in fact, is working with Matteo Capodaglio, a renowned dietician who works closely with the Italian UFC star, Marvin Vettori

As of mid-December, nflmockdraftdatabase.com shows Baldonado projected as high as No. 34 overall but, on average, projected as a 5th rounder. ESPN Insider says Baldonado lacks “elite range, (but is) an effective tackler who chases with effort, especially from the back side (and) overpowers tight ends and running backs when he rushes the passer.”

We are definitely not NFL Draft experts here, but how can we, well aware of how rare an Italian NFL player would be—or anyone who learns Habakkuk Baldonado’s story—not root for him to make it?

Ben Osborne

Ben Osborne has been writing, editing and producing content professionally for more than 25 years. A former Editor-in-Chief at SLAM and Bleacher Report and Head of Content at Just Women’s Sports, Osborne has also worked at the Washington Post and FOX Sports.