ORONO, Maine — Sherrod Baltimore is easy to pick out among the 87 players on the University of Maine football team.
He’s the smallish guy (5-foot-10, 175 pounds) sporting the dreadlocks who’s always smiling, laughing and talking up a storm.
“He’s got a childlike demeanor and joy of playing the game and appreciates and loves the game very much,” said Black Bears head coach Jack Cosgrove.
Understanding the senior cornerback’s turbulent life as a youngster, one might wonder how he ever got to UMaine — or succeeded there.
Baltimore’s journey was facilitated by key people who helped him, his positive outlook in the face of poverty, and using his athletic ability to escape the mean streets of Washington, D.C.
“I come from the struggle. I come from the streets. I come from dirt,” Baltimore said matter-of-factly. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity [to attend UMaine].”
On Saturday, Baltimore and his UMaine teammates will battle Boston College of the Atlantic Coast Conference in a 1 p.m. game at Alumni Field in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
“He’s one of those guys we found who had some challenges in his life, and we felt a change of scenery, a structured environment like this, would be very good for him,” Cosgrove said. “To his credit, he’s responded to it.”
Baltimore is the only senior in a UMaine secondary lacking in game experience. Having acquired the skills necessary to be an effective player, he hopes to ease the transition of the young cornerbacks and safeties.
“Sherrod has really taken the secondary under his wing, and that’s where we’re the youngest,” said defensive coordinator Joe Harasymiak. “They really follow his lead.”
Baltimore is happy to impart the lessons he has learned in four years with the program.
“I hold them to high expectations,” he said.
“I think I’m a natural leader. I feel like God blessed me with that role,” he said.
He credits former teammates Jerron MacMillian, Trevor Coston and Kendall James, among others, with teaching him how to excel.
Baltimore’s fun-loving personality also may help the Black Bears against Boston College.
“They see him having some fun and relaxing and playing, I think that helps the younger guys settle in,” Harasymiak said.
The mean streets
Baltimore doesn’t enjoy recounting his childhood. He said most of his teammates and coaches are not aware of his background.
He grew up in a family with no father. His mother, Sharisse Baltimore, raised him and four younger siblings while living on welfare.
“We just kept getting evicted. I lived in about 10 different homes,” Sherrod Baltimore said. “My mother couldn’t hold a job, she couldn’t pay the bills.”
Baltimore’s saving grace was his love of sports. He enjoyed playing football and basketball, which helped keep him focused in neighborhoods where drugs and crime were prevalent.
At age 12, he was in the street late one night when he was pistol-whipped and robbed. His top two front teeth were knocked out.
“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Baltimore said. “When you in the ’hood, [stuff] happens.”
A way out
The same night, one of Baltimore’s uncles, Lenox Baltimore, received a desperate call from Sharisse Baltimore about the mugging. At that moment, he decided to take his nephew under his wing.
“I knew he was a good kid, and he always kept his head in the books,” Lenox Baltimore said. “He never got into any trouble whatsoever. He was a good kid in a bad situation, and I just did what I could to help him out.”
Sherrod Baltimore’s uncle knew all too well the situation his nephew faced. Before going to college and moving to Virginia, he had lived with his mother along with Baltimore and his family.
Baltimore began spending more time with uncle and his wife. They developed a close bond as Lenox Baltimore exposed his nephew to activities such as amusement parks, fishing, golf and cooking on the grill.
“I wanted to show him that life is worth living when you can actually do some fun things,” he said.
Sherrod Baltimore eventually moved in with another family so that he was able to attend Friendly High School in Fort Washington, Maryland. There he showcased his athletic skills in football and basketball.
He also met two other influential people, Patriots football coach Peter Quaweay and basketball coach Rob Garner, who guided him, along with the support of another uncle, William Baltimore.
Sherrod Baltimore was an all-state performer in football and was an all-county pick as a point guard on the basketball team. His joy was tempered by the knowledge his mother had since moved to New Jersey and was living in homeless shelters.
Cosgrove made a recruiting visit to see Baltimore play in what he called “the best high school basketball game I’ve ever seen.”
‘It’s just lovely up here’
Baltimore received numerous football scholarship offers, including from most of UMaine’s Colonial Athletic Association counterparts.
A winter recruiting trip to Orono made his decision an easy one.
“The visit changed my life,” said Baltimore, who shocked his uncle Lenox Baltimore by announcing he had committed to UMaine during the visit.
Sherrod Baltimore’s uncle, hoping his nephew might choose a school closer to home, was shocked, but his nephew knew UMaine felt right.
“It’s just lovely up here, there’s nothing to worry about,” he said, pointing to the alarming murder rate in Washington, D.C.
“I come from the streets, but when I seen this, people who love you, who embrace you, I knew,” he added.
Making college count
Baltimore began playing as a redshirt freshman in 2012. Cosgrove said it took some time for Baltimore to make the adjustment to life on a rural college campus.
“Like every young person, there’s lessons that are learned that shape your future,” Cosgrove said. “He’s made some choices that are far better than the ones he was initially making, who he was associating with.”
Baltimore, never the biggest or fastest player, earned a starting spot at corner by virtue of his hard work and his willingness to learn.
“He’s a very solid technician who studies his opponent and plays a disciplined style of football,” Cosgrove said. “I really think he’s come as far as anybody ever has in this program.”
Baltimore, who made 27 tackles and had six pass break-ups last season, enjoys the challenge of playing cornerback.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s technique, that’s all corner is. The cornerback’s got a lot of responsibility.”
Last spring, Baltimore graduated with a degree in communications. He hopes to run his own business someday.
“I’m proud of him. I just can’t believe how positive he remains, even though he’s been through so much,” Lenox Baltimore said.
Now a graduate student, Sherrod Baltimore eyes a shot at playing pro football. His motivation is to help his mother and his siblings, who have returned to Washington, D.C.
“I want to make sure she’s good so she gets everything she needs,” Baltimore said. “I want to give her the world so my brothers and sisters don’t have to go through what I went through.”