Italy’s Habakkuk Baldonado blossoming in the Steel City

Back in February of 2018, Habakkuk Baldonado made history becoming the first Italian player to join NCAA Div. I football as a freshman with the University of Pittsburgh Panthers.

Now, three years later, he’s on a path to make history again as one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s most dominant defenders.

Despite missing one of the Panthers’ four games this season, the 6’5″,260 pound edge rusher leads the team with three and a half sacks and five tackles for a loss, wreaking havoc in opposing backfields. The long-armed defensive end has also shown the ability to play the run, notching 12 total tackles in his three games played. The breakout success hasn’t come instantly for the Italian. Now in his fourth year in the Pitt program, Baldonano has battled his fair share of adversity to finally be in this position.

After an initial redshirt season in 2018, the native of Rome flashed his potential racking up four sacks and 30 total tackles in 2019. The early success left fans and coaches with high expectations for the unpolished defender the following season. Unfortunately, a lower-body injury limited the redshirt sophomore to only playing in four games and barely making an impact.

Baldonado’s position coach Charlie Partridge sees maturity as the reason for Baldonado’s 2021 comeback season:

“I’m really proud of how (Baldonado) has recovered physically,” Partridge said. ” He’s doing a great job taking care of his body. He’s approaching the game like a veteran should.”

It seems as if the adversity has only made the Italian stronger. Years of patience and hard work have paid off in a big way as the once untried and homesick freshman has taken his game to new heights this season. Baldonado on the tough times adjusting to division one college football early in his career:

“I didn’t know what was gonna happen. The plan that my mom and I had was that  I would go for six months and see what happens. So I just dove right in and went one hundred percent. I left everything that I had behind and fully immersed myself in this new experience.”

Habakkuk Baldonado at practice Photo: Pitt Athletics

Yet, with newfound success comes newfound responsibility. Sharing techniques, attitude, and advice through vocal leadership is a further challenge the fourth-year player has risen to this season. Baldonado shows empathy when discussing younger players in the Pitt program:

“When I see myself in them, I remember how it felt when I first got here, not knowing, not speaking a lot and leaning toward the older guys”. He said, “I try to lead the defensive linemen the right way, teaching the younger guys the standard and upholding it.”

Before joining the Panthers, Baldonado first played football with the Lazio Marines in his hometown of Rome. Soon thereafter, the lanky Italian made his way to Florida’s high school football scene, joining Clearwater Academy International as an exchange student. In his lone season of high school football, the slim exchange student felt right at home over 7,000 kilometers away, putting up a staggering 30 sacks in only seven games. Baldonado’s size and skills earned him scholarships offered from blue-chip programs like Michigan State, Nebraska, Syracuse, and his eventual home Pittsburgh.

Graphic: Igor Lazarevic

Fans of college football may need to start learning the unfamiliar name Habakkuk Baldonado or at least his nickname “Haba” as his continued dominance could warrant some hardware come award season. The once raw prospect appears to be blossoming into a fine-tuned future All-American for the Panthers. Expect the Italian to continue his hot streak as the 3-1 Pittsburgh Panthers look to compete for the ACC title this fall.

Alex is a former professional American football player who is now studying in London. His goal writing for AFI is to stay involved with the game that has given him so much. Alex enjoys covering leagues and players and sharing different football