The "Where You At?" series continues with a look at former Michigan running back and Portage Northern phenom Kelly Baraka.
In college football, where 18 year-old kids are told they are destined for NFL millions before ever setting foot in a college classroom, there are bound to be some major "what-ifs". Every college football team has at least one. What if Randy Moss had not been kicked out of both Notre Dame and Florida State before ending up at Marshall? What if Jason Gwaltney could ever get his act together at West Virginia? What if Willie Williams could stay out of jail long enough to stick at Miami or Louisville? The list goes on.
For Michigan fans, Kelly Baraka is the [insert here] portion of that what if question. The Portage Northern standout was Tom Lemming's 16th ranked overall player for the recruiting class of 2001, a versatile speedster who could make an immediate impact at running back, wide receiver, defensive back, and returner. Baraka was a recruit who had reached mythical status, the sort of can't miss prospect that gets an offer from every major program in the country. In his first game of his junior season at Portage, he ran for 149 yards on 18 carries, caught 3 passes for 65 yards, made 9 tackles on defense, and returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown...in the first half. He also ran a 10.3 100 yard dash, beating future Spartan superstar (and Lions bust) Charles Rogers for the state title.
Baraka headlined a Michigan recruiting class that featured six top-100 players, including Marlin Jackson, Ernest Shazor, and Pierre Woods (as well as Pat Massey and David Underwood...oh well). However, he was arrested twice for marijuana possession before the start of his freshman campaign, and was suspended for the season by Lloyd Carr. Still, before the 2002 season, Baraka was supposed to bring lightning speed to a Michigan backfield that hadn't seen a speedster of his caliber since Tyrone Wheatley. Instead, Baraka was dismissed from the team for "undisclosed reasons" in April of 2002.
Without a Division 1-A team calling, and with the stigma of two drug arrests on his record, Baraka spent a season and a half at Joliet Junior College, a member of the NJCAA, before injuries and lost passion for the game dropped him completely off the football map.
Baraka resurfaced in 2006, showing up at a tryout for the Grand Rapids Rampage of the Arena Football League. He recorded the fastest 40-yard dash time at the tryout (4.57 seconds), but failed to latch on with the team.
One would think that failing to stick in the Arena League would signal the end of Kelly Baraka's tumultuous football career. However, Baraka was determined to continue playing the game he had a renewed passion for. For the past two seasons, Baraka has played for the Kalamazoo Xplosion, a member of the Continental Indoor Football League. The CIFL is a professional 7-on-7 indoor league, based in the Great Lakes area, that boasts high scoring games and an opportunity to move on to higher leagues.
Baraka has not put up mind-blowing numbers at Kalamazoo, but he sounds like he has landed on his feet. In a March 2008 interview with ESPN Radio's Kalamazoo affiliate, he expressed gratitude for the opportunity to play professional football, as well as remorse for his past mistakes. He still holds out hope of making the NFL, but most importantly, he sounds like he has his life together, and has learned from his checkered past. I'd highly recommend listening to the entirety of the interview, which can be found here.
Whether you think Kelly Baraka is a moron who wasted his talent, or a young kid who made one too many mistakes, I hope you don't hold any ill will against him. When high school kids are handed so much, some are bound to make poor choices, and ultimately what Baraka did hurt himself more than it ever hurt the Michigan program (Chris Perry and Mike Hart did a pretty good job of covering the years Baraka would have starred for the Wolverines). It is great to see that he still loves the game of football and is making the most of the opportunities that are still available to him.
Baraka could star at RB, WR or DB (ESPN)
Tom Lemming's revised top 100 for 2001 (ESPN)
Baraka dismissed by Carr, won't return (Michigan Daily)
Kelly Baraka Junior College Statistics (NJCAA)
Former U-M Blue-Chipper at Rampage Tryout (rampagefootball.com)
High school phenom gets another chance at professional football (Kalamazoo Xplosion)
Player Profile: Kelly Baraka (CIFL)
About the CIFL (CIFL)
Podcast: ESPN 1660 Sports Report (Podango)