It is a question he hears all the time. But when Lucky James Baar of Chicago is asked about his unusual first name, the answer is simple.
“Yes, my first name is Lucky. Lucky James Baar,’’ the soft-spoken Baar said. “My mom said when I was born that she was lucky to have me. So my parents named me Lucky.’’
The Baar’s aren’t the only “lucky” ones.
A 6-foot-2 258-pound defensive end, Baar enters his junior year at McKendree University as the reigning Great Lakes Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year — the first one in McKendree history — and a Preseason NCAA Division II All-American as named by Lindy’s Football Preview Magazine.
Those honors are a result of a record-smashing sophomore season, where Baar set school and GLVC records for tackles for loss (26 1/2) and quarterback sacks with 18.
Baar also was chosen as McKendree’s first-ever, first-team Associated Press Little All-American — an honor comprised of players from NCAA Division II, III and NAIA schools.
In 2015 the goals are even higher for Baar and his Bearcats teammates, who hope to contend for the GLVC title under third-year coach Mike Babcock.
McKendree finished 5-6 in 2014, but won its final five games to finish 5-3 in the GLVC.
“My father told me my goals should be to better than I did last year. It will be difficult to do, but I will try my best to achieve more than I did a year ago. At this point I can’t go backwards, I have to keep going forward Anything less than what I did last year will be a letdown.’’ Baar said. “If you are talking about team, in a sense of a group of players working together for one common goal, than yes, we are the best team I’ve been on here at McKendree.’’
McKendree opens its season Saturday, when it hosts College of Faith at Leemon Field at 6 p.m.
Picked to finish fourth in the GLVC, the Bearcats open league play on Sept. 26 at William Jewell College.
A first-team all-city selection during his senior year at (Chicago) Morgan Park High School four years ago, Baar had scholarship offers from different schools. But when than McKendree offensive coordinator Trent Poelker made a visit to Chicago, it left a lasting impression on the Mustangs’ star defensive end.
“It all happened out of the blue actually. I was sitting in class one day and Trent (Poelker) came in and they pulled me out of class,” Baar said. “He looked at me and said, ‘You’re coming to McKendree.’ At first I’m like, ‘what’s McKendree and who are you?’
“After he said that to me — and it was the first thing he said to me — we sat down and talked things out. Some other things didn’t work out and I just decided that this was probably the best route for me to go.’’
Three years later, Lebanon and McKendree have become another home for Baar.
“I love McKendree. It’s a lot different than the hustle and bustle of Chicago, but it’s a great place,’’ Baar said “I’ve met a lot of people who I will probably know for the rest of my life. I’m getting the chance to play football and get a quality education and eventually my degree. It is really a great opportunity for me.;’
Majoring in computer science, with minors in both engineering and math, Baar also excels in the classroom. And so when he was told he would be redshirted his freshman year, Baar handled it well.
In fact, Baar quickly learned it was the best decision for his future as a football player.
“It really wasn’t difficult for me to sit out my first year. After the first few practices I felt like I needed the extra work. It was a year where I could work hard in the weight room and just focus on me and who I am,’’ Baar said. “It gave me a chance to get my feet on the ground and figure out what I needed to do in order to take that next step.’’
When Babcock and the Bearcats new coaching staff came in for the 2013 season, Baar was ready to show what he could do.
Babcock was impressed.
“Lucky’s not your prototypical NFL defensive end, but the way he works is just amazing,’’ Babcock said. “He busts his butt in everything he does ... on the practice field, in the classroom where he’s a computer science major. He’s in here all day, every day doing what he can to make himself and this football team better.’’
Baar was a factor on the Bearcats’ line as a freshman year wracking up three sacks.
He played well early last year, but he said the turning point for both himself and the team came against conference champion Indianapolis. The Bearcats were flattened in that game by a 52-7 margin.
“If there was one game that really changed my mindset it was last year at Indianapolis,’’ Baar said. “We came in thinking that we were pretty good and that we had things pretty well down pat and they showed us that we still had a lot of work to do.’’
“After that game, it just really changed my mindset on what I needed to do and what we as a defensive unit needed to do to take that next step. I just needed to play faster and stay focused. I really can’t tell you what exactly happened, but after that game I just felt the switch go on.’’
And so did the Bearcats, who reeled off five wins in a row, averaging well over 40 points per game in the process.
“I wish I had 11 Lucky Baars,’’ Babcock said. “He knows what he wants and he wants to be the best. But he’s not a player who talks a lot. He’s not a person who boasts about himself. He just goes about his business, works hard on every play.
“Whether he’s successful or not, he’ll come at you the same way on the very next play.’’
Like most college players who dominate at their positions, Baar dreams of playing pro football one day.
Being from Chicago, Baar is a diehard Chicago Bears fan and played in games at Soldier Field while at Morgan Park.
“Softest grass I’ve ever played on and they cut it short,’’ Baar said of Soldier Field. “To have a chance to play pro football ... what it would mean to the people around me, my family.... well, it would be amazing.’’
As for now, Baar is concentrating on helping McKendree win a GLVC title and qualify for the NCAA Division II playoffs.
There ‘s just a different feeling around this football team this year. There is just a lot more excitement in the locker room, there is more excitement on the practice field. We’re just really ready to play. We just want to go out and win.’’ Baar said. We’ve got a lot talent all over the football field. What we did last year isn’t a good indication of what we can do. This team, this year, we’re going to catch a lot of people off guard.
“We’ve been more focused than we’ve been before, we’ve worked harder as a group to have a chance to win the Great Lakes Valley Conference championship.
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2661.
Lucky Baar Career at McKendree
Great Lakes Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year (first for McKendree)
1st-team Associated Press (AP) Little All-American (comprised of players from NCAA Division II, III and NAIA) (first for McKendree)
1st-team NCAA Division II All-American for the Beyond Sports Network
Three-time GLVC Defensive Player of the Week
Set McKendree season records for tackles for loss (26 ½) and quarterback sacks (18) – also set GLVC records in the same season stats
Was third on team with 65 tackles
Had four multi-sack efforts in McKendree’s last five games (all Bearcat wins)
Ranks third on McKendree’s all-time list for quarterback sacks (has 21, needs 2 to move into second)
Ranks 10th on McKendree’s all-time list for tackles for loss (has 32 ½, needs four to move into the top five)