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November 5, 2009

COOL KAT - Former Tech defensive tackle Jim Baron began his professional football career with the AFL's Nashville Kats and ultimately became one of that league's all-time greats

By: Jimmy Robertson

Jim Baron

If you put together a list of former Virginia Tech football players who have fared well in professional football over the past decade, you’d probably miss a certain defensive tackle who helped anchor Tech’s defensive line during the memorable 1995 season.

Jim Baron never actually played a down in the NFL, but his professional football resumé looks quite impressive nonetheless. That’s because Baron ultimately landed in the Arena Football League after his playing days at Tech ended, and for more than 10 years, he dominated in that league.

Arena football slightly differs from the NFL version. To name a few ways, the indoor field is smaller, the goal posts are narrower, the sidelines consist of high-density foam rubber barriers, punting is illegal, players aren’t allowed to run out of bounds and players play both ways. Arena football founder Jim Foster sought to create a fast-paced brand of football in the late 1980s and succeeded.

Baron landed in the AFL after a brief stint with the Detroit Lions. He spent part of the fall of 1996 in the Lions camp, and after being released, he found himself being approached by officials from the Nashville Kats of the AFL. He signed with them and played for them in 1997, embarking on what turned out to be a fantastic career.

“They [AFL teams] scout players out,” Baron said. “It’s almost like recruiting. They know where to find players. I had been with the Lions and I had done some World League stuff [in Europe]. Most of the AFL teams have players who have been released off NFL squads.

“For me, it was an opportunity to play football. That’s what I wanted to do, so I signed with Nashville.”

Baron played with Nashville in 1997, but the following year, he jumped at an NFL opportunity, signing with the Chicago Bears, who placed him on their practice squad. He ended up re-joining Nashville and never got another NFL offer.

He bounced back and forth from Nashville to Chicago of the AFL. He spent five seasons with Nashville before signing with the Chicago Rush in 2002 after the team in Nashville folded and moved to Georgia. He stayed in Chicago for three seasons before the Rush traded him back to Nashville in the 2004 AFL Expansion Draft. After three seasons in Nashville, he became a free agent and signed with Chicago for a second stint with the Rush, playing the 2008 season there before the league decided to cancel the 2009 season because of economic difficulties.

Jim Baron was one of the key figures on Tech's 1995 Sugar Bowl team and capped his career by returning a fumble for a touchdown in that game.

How good of a player was Baron in the AFL? He won two defensive player of the year honors and he earned first-team All-Arena honors on five occasions. He played in two AFL championship games, though Nashville lost both of them. In the 2000 championship game, Nashville lost to Orlando 41-38 on a field goal at the buzzer. Baron tried his best in that game, catching a 28-yard touchdown pass – again, players play both ways – while also recording two sacks and a tackle for a loss.

In 12 seasons in the AFL, Baron recorded 122 tackles and 48.5 sacks. He also caught 42 passes, including 15 for touchdowns. For his efforts, he earned a spot on the AFL’s 15th anniversary team. He was also voted No. 6 all time among the league’s 50 greatest players.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “I’ve played in a couple of championship games and won a couple of MVPs. I was voted No. 6 all time and No. 1 among linemen. I’m really proud of that.”

The future of the AFL remains murky at best these days. Given that, the 2008 season may have been Baron’s last as a professional athlete.

“I’m getting up there in years, so I’m probably done,” he said. “I don’t know if my body can handle getting ready for another season.”

If he doesn’t play, he hopes to continue his association with the league. He helped establish an AFL players’ union and currently serves as the president, helping players secure health insurance benefits and other benefits from the league. He’d like to continue in that role.

Regardless, he plans on pursuing other interests in his current hometown of Nashville. He has taken care of his money – good players in the league banked six figures a year – and invested wisely.

“I’ve got some investment properties,” Baron said. “I’ve got a home for the aged. So I’ll stay active with those things. The Arena League gave me a lot of opportunities. It’s really set me in a good position.”

Baron also plans on continuing his work within the community. He received league-wide recognition for his work in the community, winning the 2001 Hero Award, which honors a player for his off-field contributions to the local neighborhoods. He has donated $10,000 to the YMCA Urban Services Program and he often paid for tickets and transportation for Nashville or Chicago youth to come to home games.

He still keeps up with the Hokies these days and remains in contact, keeping in touch with Tech’s coaches and also with his former teammates, many of whom graduated or departed following the 1995 season in which the Hokies came back from an 0-2 hole, won nine straight games and then destroyed Texas 28-10 in the Sugar Bowl. His career ended with a flourish when Cornell Brown sacked Texas quarterback James Brown in the fourth quarter and forced him to fumble. Baron picked up the loose ball and rumbled 20 yards for a touchdown.

“I remember the whole season,” he said. “To start out 0-2 and have the character and perseverance to stick it out … that was just a special group of players. I appreciate all those moments even more now. When you’re in the moment, you don’t appreciate them, but once you’ve been away for a while, you realize how special they were.”

“Special” is the best way to describe his life up to this point. Baron attended three junior colleges before arriving at Tech and overcame a humble upbringing to make the most of his college days and professional career.

“I’ve had the time of my life,” Baron said. “I had the opportunity to play football and I made a great living doing it. I’ve played on some great teams and have a lot of great memories. I have no regrets at all.”