Baker chases USC football dream, but with heavy heart

June 6, 2010 

More than 75,000 fans will cram into Williams-Brice Stadium on Sept. 2 for the University of South Carolina's first home football game against Southern Mississippi.

None of them will be closer to the action than Thomas Heyward Academy graduate Jacob Baker.

As a member of the Gamecocks' scout team, Baker will be on the sidelines, waiting for an opportunity to one day take the field.

Coach Steve Spurrier probably won't call his number that day. In fact, Baker might not play all season. And there's not likely to be a $1 million signing bonus or NFL career at the end of this rainbow.

That's OK with him.

Baker isn't doing this for fame or fortune. He's doing it for himself, realizing his lifelong dream of being a member of USC's football team. He's also doing it for his older brother Justin, who died last year at the age of 25.

This is exactly what Justin wanted -- Jacob is officially a Gamecock.

A life cut short

Justin Baker didn't have your typical childhood. He faced two open-heart surgeries and struggled with Kawasaki disease, a rare disease in children that inflames blood vessels. Doctors restricted him from football and basketball in high school, but baseball was always allowed. Justin Baker also excelled academically -- he was Thomas Heyward's valedictorian in 2002.

He attended South Carolina, where he frequently worked out and played sports with friends. After graduation, he came back to Ridgeland for a career in banking. Some days after work, he relieved stress by playing softball with friends. On one of those days -- Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009 -- Justin's heart stopped.

"He slid into second base head-first about two innings before he collapsed," Jacob remembers. "They say that might have jigged something loose. But nobody really knows."

Justin was rushed to Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. He died there three days later.

And Jacob was left without his brother, best friend and biggest fan.

High school all-star

The Baker boys grew up diehard Gamecock fans. Football wasn't a possibility for Justin, but Jacob always dreamed of sprinting into a packed Williams-Brice Stadium under the echoing roar of "2001."

Football was his lifelong passion, and he was good at it.

Jacob's career as a running back at Thomas Heyward was stellar. As a senior, he was selected to play in SCISAA's Shrine Bowl and was named the private-school league's 2007 Class 2-A Player of the Year. He holds the school's record in all-purpose yards and ranks in the top five in rushing yards, according to athletics director Philip Rhodes.

"I saw him out there as a JV player, and while we've had some very good running backs, I knew he could be the best one we've had in a long time," Rhodes said. "He kept getting better every year, and his senior year was as good as I could have expected."

Rhodes describes Jacob as "a great Christian kid -- the kind you want to see succeed."

But not even Jacob's father thought he was good enough to jump from SCISAA football to the Southeastern Conference.

"He had several offers where he could have kept playing in college," Jimmy Baker said. "But we didn't think he'd play Division I football."

Jacob wasn't sure he could, either.

Making the cut

Jacob turned down a football scholarship from Newberry and enrolled at USC. The first year, he focused on his grades and didn't try to play football. His GPA was over 3.0, he'd made friends and life seemed good.

Still, something was missing.

"I decided in May of my freshman year I was going to at least try," Jacob said. "So I came home for the summer and started working out at Thomas Heyward."

He wasn't sure what to expect -- he didn't ask any coaches about his chances of making the team, but he received advice from former walk-ons.

So he returned to Ridgeland last summer to harden himself. He knew making the team wouldn't be easy. And he was right.

More than 40 people took the field on a hot Saturday morning that August. They were tested and drilled for hours, running sprints, clearing hurdles, tackling dummies and more.

Jacob made the team, along with six others.

"I was a little bit shocked honestly; I didn't really think it was going to happen," he said.

Jacob also had little time to celebrate -- he started practice that day.

The scout team

Jacob was assigned to the scout team -- a thankless job that, in essence, casts a lot of off-the-depth-chart players as living, breathing tackling dummies. They go through all the two-a-days, 100-degree afternoon workouts and nasty conditioning drills, but they rarely play or travel with the team.

Nonetheless, there are opportunities to learn and impress. Scout-team members study the opponent's plays and mimic them during practice, hoping to prepare their teammates for that week's game. If they catch a coach's eye, a promotion is possible.

"(I)t's not really as bad as people make it out to be," he said. "Because you're helping your teammates and you're getting to play at Carolina."

Many walk-ons aren't dedicated to the program, USC director of football strength and conditioning Craig Fitzgerald said. They stick around for the fall, collect a few sweatshirts and don't take part in the summer and winter training exercises.

"But not Jacob," he said. "He does everything we ask him to do. Even though he's not getting any financial aid, he sees it as his duty to do everything everyone else is doing."

At first, Jacob's acclimation to big-time football was difficult. But he was piecing it together -- taking in the workouts, adapting to playing against players more talented than his high school competitions, finding his way with the coaches.

USC opened the 2009 season with two road games, but the Gamecocks would host Florida Atlantic in Week 3. Baker could hardly wait to burst through the black tunnel of Williams-Brice Stadium. It was a journey he had prepared for his entire life.

However, it was a journey no one was sure he would make, for two hours away in a Charleston hospital, his brother's life was fading away.

'My brother would want me here'

Justin had collapsed on the softball field two days earlier. Jacob drove to MUSC to be with him and was there Saturday morning before the Gamecocks' 7 p.m. contest in Columbia.

Jacob knew he wouldn't take the field that night, but he thought his brother would want him there for the season-opener.

Jacob was the last person Fitzgerald expected to see in the locker room that night.

"I walked up to him and I asked him how his brother was doing," Fitzgerald said. "I figured he must be doing pretty well for him to be there. But he looked me in the eye and said, 'It's not going so well, Coach.' "

"But he looked me in the eye and said, 'My brother would want me here,' " Fitzgerald added. "And I looked away because I choked up."

A few players hugged him in the locker room. A few encouraged him to return and be with his brother.

But he stuck around and took the field.

"I had my brother on my mind the whole night," he said.

The Gamecocks won, 38-16, and after the game, Jacob drove back to Charleston to be by his brother's side.

Justin died the next day.

The best of friendsJacob had always admired his older brother, a USC graduate and high school baseball player. Justin had always cheered for Jacob, who was playing the sports Justin's weak heart kept him from experiencing. He also encouraged him to walk on at USC.

"I've known them since they were babies," Rhodes said. "They were always doing things together. But when he lost his brother, he lost a piece of himself."

The death took a crushing toll.

"In the short run, it was devastating," Jacob said. "I'd only been on the team a month, and I didn't know if I'd be coming back in the fall. If it wasn't for football, I probably wouldn't have."

Josh Newton, a kicker at USC and one of Jacob's best friends, got a phone call from Jacob as he drove to MUSC the night Justin collapsed.

"He was very emotional about it that night, and he was really shaken up for a long time," Newton said. "But he's a determined guy and one of the hardest workers I know."

Justin was so proud his brother made the team at Carolina. And Jacob couldn't quit on himself. He couldn't quit on his brother.

"It really soaked in what I'd done when I ran out for the Clemson game (later that season,)" Baker said. "That's when I realized how neat it was."

'He made his brother proud, too'

Jacob is spending this summer in Ridgeland again, working out, fishing, playing golf and getting ready for the season. He'll be on the USC scout team again in the fall.

"I'm going to try and work my way up and sweep my way into something," he said. "Maybe I'll get in on special teams or something. ... I'm going to try to make the coaches notice me."

Fitzgerald's evaluation from spring practice was overwhelmingly positive.

"He's a perfect walk-on. Jacob is a quiet, hard-working man of high character," the evaluation read. "He just keeps working to be a competitive college player."

National prognosticators say USC has a chance to win the SEC East, and they're ranked among the nation's top 25 by multiple preseason magazines.

Whatever happens with the Gamecocks this season, Jimmy Baker will witness much of it. He simply doesn't miss Carolina home games.

The Carolina alum, a vice president at Palmetto Electric in Bluffton, has faced quite an emotional year.

"I can't tell you how proud it makes me feel he's following in our footsteps," Jimmy Baker said. "And it came along at a good time with the grief and depression we felt losing our son. It served as sort of a distraction."

He is proud of how Jacob has endured the long nights and the early mornings without the guarantee of playing time. He's also proud of his son's grades.

"He made a 4.0 this semester, but I bet he won't tell you that," he said. "He's had over a 3.0 every semester at Carolina. He's made us proud in every part of his life."

Then, for a second, Baker paused to reflect.

"He's made his brother proud, too."

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