Ervin Baldwin is trying to get back to the NFL, but he has a long way to go.
If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it's because the 6-foot-2, 260-pound defensive end was one of the Bears' five seventh-round draft picks in 2008. Six players drafted before him by the Bears that year were still on the team last season -- offensive lineman Chris Williams, running back Matt Forte, wide receiver Earl Bennett, safety Craig Steltz, cornerback Zack Bowman and tight end Kellen Davis.
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Baldwin spent parts of three seasons on the Bears' practice squad but never played in a game. He did, however, get into three games with the Indianapolis Colts in 2009, the year they lost to the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV.
But now Baldwin plays Arena League Football for the Chicago Rush, who open their 2012 season at 7 p.m. Saturday night at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont. Coach Bob McMillen is looking to improve upon last season's 13-5 regular-season record and, hopefully, earn a chance to play for the ArenaBowl title after falling a game short last season.
What's in it for Baldwin?
It isn't the money.
In the earlier days of Arena Football, when McMillen was a 13-year veteran of the indoor game and playing well enough to be voted one of the league's top 20 players of all time, most players made between $40,000 and $50,000. But that business model was unsustainable and resulted in a one-year shutdown in 2009. The new model may be better for business, but most players now make $400 a game, although three franchise players are paid $1,000 per game.
"I'm definitely not here for the pay," Baldwin said, smiling. "I still love the game. If I didn't, I wouldn't be here."
If Baldwin displays the same ability to get to the quarterback that he did coming out of Michigan State in 2008, he has a shot to get back to the NFL, where every team is looking for pass rushers. He had 13 ½ sacks in his senior season with the Spartans. As a Bears rookie, Baldwin was on the 53-man roster for seven games but never got on the field, buried on the depth chart behind Alex Brown, Adewale Ogunleye, Israel Idonije and Mark Anderson.
"I don't feel like I got a real opportunity with the Bears with all the guys they had in front of me," Baldwin said. "But I'm still young and still very energetic. I know I still have the skills to play. I'm only 25."
That's too soon to be finished with football -- at least for Baldwin, who was essentially out of the game last season. The Bears didn't re-sign him after he spent most of the 2010 season on their practice squad, and the work stoppage last summer prevented him from hooking up with any team over the summer. By the time the labor dispute was resolved, teams rushed to get training camp started, and marginal players like Baldwin were lost in the shuffle.
He signed with the Virginia Destroyers of the United Football League but a hamstring injury ended that venture almost before it began. So Baldwin rehabbed until he was healthy and then trained for another shot. If he wants to play at the top level, he knows what he needs to show.
"That I'm healthy, that I still have that (quick) first step, that I'm still explosive and that I can get to the quarterback," he said. "Just show that I can play D-end or linebacker, even special teams, basically just show everything I can do."
Although the Arena League's indoor, 50-yard fields make it a game that's heavily dominated by throwing, quarterbacks get rid of the ball much quicker than in the NFL, making sacks difficult to come by.
"In this league you have to get to the quarterback really fast," Baldwin said. "It's a whole different game from outdoor football. I'm still getting used to the game, but I'm hoping to be back in the NFL.
"Hopefully I go straight from here into a (NFL) training camp. That's the plan."