Oct. 30, 2001
Washington State senior tight end Mark Baldwin is a long way from home.
It's not the one-stoplight, small-town atmosphere that he misses about Brandon, Mississippi, population 11,077. This is, after all, Pullman. He feels very much at home in the rolling hills of the Palouse.
He does miss his family, parents James and Monica, and three siblings, Jeff, Chris, and Jannette, but the camaraderie of the Cougar football team is a suitable substitution for now.
What Baldwin really misses about the South is the food.
"One of the biggest things I miss is the food down South," Baldwin said. "Completely different food down there. The soul food-type stuff."
The 6-6, 245-pound senior longs for the greens he grubbed on back home, and just can't seem to find in the Cougar Fitness Buffet.
But food isn't the only thing that Baldwin is hungry for. After his first season at Washington State, where the Cougars lost four heartbreaking games, including three in overtime, the former soccer goalkeeper wants a bowl ring. That is what he came to Pullman expecting after playing for historically-successful Hinds Junior College in Mississippi, a school that has produced 24 NFL draft picks.
Just seven games into the season, WSU has already qualified for bowl consideration, a feat that he attributes to the lessons of a losing season.
"What we are doing this year, I had it envisioned last year, to tell you the truth," Baldwin said. "Certain plays didn't go our way. I think that we built a lot off of last year with the experience and everyone coming back. We had a bitter taste in our mouth about what could have been last year."
Baldwin, who has a prototype tight end body, also was thinking he would make a few more catches when he made that long drive from his small hometown just outside Jackson, the capitol of Mississippi, to Pullman.
"I came here expecting to catch more balls than I have, but they kind of put me in a different role," Baldwin said. "I just kind of adapted to the role that they put me in. It's nice to get a catch though every once in a while."
Baldwin's new job has some similarities to the one that his father recently retired from. James Baldwin was a special agent for U.S. Customs, and Mark's tasks on the gridiron also often fall under the radar. As far as tight ends go, he's more Christian Fauria than Kellen Winslow. But when Cougar quarterbacks throw his direction, the Georgia-born communication major takes advantage.
Never was that more apparent than in Washington State's pivotal game against fellow Pac-10 unbeaten Stanford October 13. After the Cardinal drove down the field on their first drive of the game and punched in a score, the Cougars responded with a solid series of their own.
The eight-play drive was capped by a nine-yard strike from Jason Gesser to Baldwin. It was Baldwin's first touchdown as a Cougar after paving the way for so many of his teammates to reach endzone.
"We went over the play earlier in the week. It was a tight end delay is what it was," Baldwin said. "Coach Price was on my case because I was going too fast and not giving it time. I was kind of sitting back in a pass block for a good two count. I saw that I had two guys in front of me, which was not how we planned it, so I just cut across the field and Jason (Gesser) threw the ball right on the money."
The play helped WSU defeat Stanford 45-39 and remain at the top of the Pac-10 standings. Just as importantly, it gave him bragging rights in his apartment. Roommates Drew Dunning and Collin Henderson have yet to "take one to the house" so far this season, although Dunning is one of the nation's leading scorers as a kicker and Henderson has thrown a pair of touchdown passes. Still, when words fly in Baldwin-Henderson-Dunning home, the senior tight end looks skyward, points, and utters one word: "scoreboard."
"We definitely have a rivalry going. I pretty much own the guy (Henderson)," Baldwin said. "That's kind of a bitter subject for him. I never would have thought that coming into the season. I actually think Collin can take me in golf, but that's about it."
Halfway through the Pac-10 schedule, Baldwin and the Cougars have owned everybody. This week's game against Oregon and the Nov. 3 contest against UCLA are huge games for Washington State. The laid-back Southerner is taking it all in stride, however.
"We are going to handle this the way we have handled the rest of the season, and that is we are going to focus on us as a team instead of who the opponent is," Baldwin said. "It's just a different color jersey every week. It doesn't matter who the opponent is. It only matters how we perform."