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Rookie Roots: Story of Saints draft pick Zack Baun
'A lot of people can do it once in a while; he did it all the time. It didn’t matter what sport he was playing, either. He was lights out.'
By John DeShazier Jun 09, 2020
Photographs By Todd Rosenberg

He's going to turn the corner like a behind-schedule UPS driver and sack a quarterback, and it'll be a reminder.

Or maybe drop into coverage and deftly move into position with a lightness that defies 238 pounds to intercept or deflect a pass, and it'll be a reminder.

Or, unable to reach the quarterback, spring off the turf like he was propelled off a mini trampoline and bat a pass, and it'll be a reminder.

It'll be a reminder that New Orleans Saints linebacker Zack Baun , the first of the Saints' two third-round picks (No. 74 overall, from Wisconsin) in the 2020 NFL Draft, currently holds the school record in the 200-meter dash at Brown Deer (Wis.) High. There, his 21.53-second blaze in 2015 – at 215 pounds – bested the previous mark that was set by Justin Austin, a then 145-pounder who later went on to compete at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.

And it'll be a reminder that, in his youth, Baun developed the necessary footwork to be a dancer (ballet), soccer goalie and tennis player.

And it'll be a reminder that he isn't just Brown Deer's all-time leader in the 200-meter dash, but that he also owns the school record in the high jump, at 6 feet 8. (P.S. He led the basketball team to wins in the state championship game as a junior and senior, and remains an impressive dunker.)

"When you think about where he is now, it just all makes sense," said Genell Baun, Zack's mother. "And I think the moral of the story is that it's not just one event, it's not just the draft that gets them to where they are. It's just so many steps and so many people along the way, so much support along the way."

Zack's steps have been about as diverse as can be imagined.

Early on, he danced.

"He and one other boy were the only boys in the dance academy," Genell said. "I think that before any other sport, I had him in dance."

Then, it was soccer.

"He did youth football, but soccer was really his love," she said. "He was very good at it and everybody enjoyed watching him play. When he was playing soccer, he was a goalie and he wrote a thank-you note at the end of one of the seasons to each of the kids on the team, and acknowledged whatever personal contribution that they had made to the team. Because a lot of the time the focus was on him and this ability that he had in soccer. And so, he wanted to make sure that every other kid – whether or not they got to play all the time – was acknowledged for what they brought to the team."

From there, it was tennis. And when Genell, who worked full-time, needed help, other parents would step up and help with rides.

"It really took a community and a village to support him," she said. "The Boys and Girls Club was a huge part of it. After school growing up, he spent time in the gym there at the Boys and Girls Club (in West Bend, Wis.)."

Zack also was a summer camp counselor, at Camp Anokijig.

"We were at an autism support event in Sheboygan, and one of the moms was saying how her son had gone to Camp Anokijig and he had had the best experience ever," Genell said. "And as the parent of a child with a disability, that's not generally the experience that your child has at a summer camp. It's usually very frustrating and nerve-wracking.

"And she was talking more and more about this camp counselor and at the end of the conversation, I was just putting two and two together and came to realize it was Zack she was talking about."

And, naturally, he picked up the bass.

Wait. What? The bass?

"Everybody talks about him playing the bass," Genell said. "That was not by his choice. It was by default because of his long fingers and his height. But, again, everything he did, he just really worked hard at. He did private lessons to improve and always make sure that he was the best he could be. He was first chair in bass. And he did all these things while playing sports."

He didn't just play them; he excelled at them. From the moment he arrived at Brown Deer – entering his junior year, having moved into that school district from West Bend – Zack Baun jumped off the page.

Actually, first, he seemed to be jumping out of the gym.

"He was in the field house playing basketball," said Rob Green, Baun's football coach at Brown Deer, when recalling the first day he saw Baun. "It was summer. I was near a weight-room workout and we were moving into our conditioning phase, our speed phase, and I walked into the field house and there was a bunch of kids in there and they were playing basketball.

"And all of a sudden, I saw a young man just explode off the floor and dunk the basketball. It was explosive, and I was like, 'Oh.' The basketball coach was with me and said, 'That's Zack Baun. He's supposed to be moving into the district and he's joining us.' And I was like, 'What a great addition.' We got to know each other and eventually, he agreed to come to (football) camp."

Zack Baun does the vertical jump at the 2020 NFL Combine.
Zack Baun does the vertical jump at the 2020 NFL Combine.

It took a bit of convincing, though. Baun, Green said, wasn't just an average basketball player.

"He was one of the top 50 basketball players in the state after his sophomore year," Green said. "And I could see why. He was 6-3 and 187 pounds, and he had calves that are about the same size as they are now. And he could just do whatever he wanted to do.

"I introduced myself and told him who I was and what kind of football we play. And he wasn't real warm to it, he wanted to concentrate on basketball and was looking forward to playing here at Brown Deer. And I said, 'I think football can help you with you with your basketball game, and I know you can help us.'

"It was probably a little five-week, getting to know each other and talking to each other. His class of teammates and friends were a really strong group, and they got to know him. And I think as much as the coaching staff talking to him, his friends kind of said, 'Hey, come join us. I think we could have a good time.'"

Understatement. Baun, and Brown Deer, had much more than a good time.

In two seasons at Brown Deer, Baun led the team to the state playoffs each year and accounted for 94 touchdowns – 28 rushing and seven passing as a junior, and 39 rushing and 20 passing as a senior.

"He gets to camp and at West Bend East, he played wide receiver or tight end in their system," Green said. "So that's where he lined up, that's where he was comfortable. And our quarterback at the time, who was the heir apparent to become starting quarterback, hit him on a quick slant and Zack grabbed the ball out of the air and he juked one or two players, and was in the end zone.

"It was about a 40-yard play, and he was in there pretty quick. My brother was the offensive coordinator at the time, and we looked at each other and we were like, 'Holy cow. What have we got here?' And what flipped us was, he turned around in the end zone and threw the ball back to the quarterback, about 45 yards on a rope. That's where we kind of realized, 'Uh, oh. This is something special.' We were like, he's got to play some quarterback.

"We came to fall camp and we had a sit-down with the quarterback that was the apparent. He was also a very good outside linebacker for us. And so, he was comfortable with that move, that we were going to open it up with Zack. He said whatever it takes for us to be successful. And when we sat down with Zack, he said, 'Coach, I'll play any position you want me to play. I'll give it a shot.' And the rest is history. He did some pretty spectacular things in two years.

"After about the second or third game, when he was consistently doing these unbelievable highlights within the game, was when we realized that not only does he have that explosive power and speed, he also can do it consistently. A lot of people can do it once in a while; he did it all the time. It didn't matter what sport he was playing, either. He was lights out."

His talent didn't immediately pop at Wisconsin. In fact, Baun didn't play much until his final two seasons, and didn't break out until his last year. But when he got the chance, he became an All-American: 12.5 sacks, an interception return for a touchdown, two forced fumbles, two passes defensed and 75 tackles in his final season.

"I felt like he was a really good athlete when we watched him on tape," Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. "You can really see some of that explosiveness. You can see some of that bend when he's rushing the passer.

"Certainly, the thing with him is just the thought of being able to play some off-the-ball linebacker and playing inside – he's kind of a Sam linebacker, Mike linebacker combination. And so the learning curve for him is going to be some of the off-the-ball stuff. But we really felt like he was smart, and we really felt like he was a good athlete."

The production helped entice the Saints to make a move. New Orleans traded up in the draft, from No. 88 overall to No. 74, to fill a need position. The Saints didn't own a second-round pick; in order to move up, they swapped places with Cleveland in the third round and surrendered to the Browns their third-round pick in 2021.

"We saw someone that we felt was going to be drafted in the top 20 picks of the second round," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "We felt like this was a player that would be hard for us to get because we didn't have a second-round pick. Fortunately, he came within range and we were able to make a trade.

"He had a lot of production in college as a rush end. He's a guy that we think can play at the Mike position and the Sam position. I do like his pressure traits, but we see him as someone that can play in a stack position if need be or certainly be a guy that can give us some versatility as a rusher."

Versatility, Zack Baun has, and seemingly always has had. And the Saints are counting on him to perform a feat – or three – that provides a reminder of what he was, and remains.

"One of the big things that Zack talks about is opportunities," Genell Baun said. "And I think that probably comes from being a child of a single parent.

"He recognizes the value of having those opportunities and the sacrifices that were made for him to have those opportunities. And making sure that you take advantage of every opportunity that there is to make yourself a better person, and then do what you can to give back."

With the 74th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the New Orleans Saints traded up to select LB Zack Baun out of Wisconsin.

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