Chris Baker had plenty of incentive.
After tearing the quadriceps muscle in his right leg Dec. 7 while trying to dunk a basketball during indoor workouts, the same day he was activated to the Washington Redskins' roster, the big nose tackle weighed more than 350 pounds this spring.
The Redskins told him: Get to 331 pounds by the start of training camp, and every pound over would carry a fine. No slam dunk to make the team, Baker had no choice.
He found a trainer, but not just any trainer. This was 280-pound "body builder at heart" Carl McKinnon at L.A. Fitness in Leesburg, who got him to 330 pounds in a month.
"He gave me his very best, man," McKinnon said. "I told him, 'What makes an athlete great?' I said it's not what you do in the season, it's what you do in your offseason. I knew he was going to have the best camp."
Baker has enjoyed a breakout camp, which came at an opportune time after Chris Neild tore the ACL in his left knee and was lost for the season. Now Baker is Barry Cofield's backup and should see plenty of snaps, as long as he remains healthy.
But McKinnon isn't worried about the 24-year-old reinjuring his quadriceps or anything else. That's because of what Baker called a "grueling" training regimen that was far from it on his muscles and joints. In addition to building leg strength through various methods, Baker did exercises every other day in the pool.
"It was just different because you're so used to pounding your knees and stuff on the grass and on turf that being able to do the same movements in the water and take off all the impact, it was helpful for me," Baker said.
Fellow defensive lineman Jarvis Jenkins introduced Baker to McKinnon after working with the trainer to recover from his torn ACL last summer. Jenkins isn't worried about his knee thanks to water workouts in the pool.
"I guess it kind of conditions your legs more because water is putting resistance on your legs," Jenkins said. "By doing that resistance training, you're not actually running on the field, so it's not putting strain on your knees like really running."
Baker dropped 30 pounds and improved his squat from 200 pounds to 450. Of course, there were hiccups along the way, such as gaining four pounds over a weekend and temporarily topping 331.
Or like when rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III joined Baker and McKinnon for a workout in the pool the week before he finalized his contract.
"He's fast in water and out of the water. We were trying to keep up with him, but he lapped us all," Baker said. "It was a hard workout, man. I wound up throwing up at the end of the day. That's just a part of hard work and letting everything hang out."
It was worth it because Baker expected to be in a tough battle just to make the Redskins. Neild appeared in all 16 games last season as a rookie, and Cofield was the established starter.
"He would never quit; he did every rep. He was serious. I drilled into him it was his career at stake here. He had to go into that camp and just make a difference," McKinnon said. "He got lighter on his feet, his speed improved. He really absorbed me like a sponge."
The results are noticeable. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said Baker has a lot of the little attributes shared by great nose tackles such as Vince Wilfork of the New England Patriots. At 325-330 pounds, he's athletic and powerful now.
"I think he's finally grown up," Haslett said. I still think he has a ways to go in learning the scheme and techniques. But he has those traits. Whether he can bring it out all the time, we'll see. But he's made great strides from last year."
Baker credited McKinnon for much of that. The trainer emphasized fundamental strength training as well as a diet high in protein and low in "starchy carbohydrates" and fat. Baker eats lots of bananas for potassium as well as egg whites, turkey bacon, oatmeal, chicken, and tuna fish.
"If I eat bad, I just have the type of body that I hold weight," he said. "I've been working hard to keep the weight off, so it's been working out for me."
Baker has more energy, less body fat and more agility. After Haslett said the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos cut Baker in previous years because of his weight, he has it under control and is where the Redskins want him to be.
"I'd like a nose tackle to be 500 pounds if he can move, but you can't move when you're 500 pounds," coach Mike Shanahan said. "You love a nose tackle to be 350 pounds that doesn't have a lot of body [fat], that can move and play football. But we thought he'd be better in that 330 range, and he's looked pretty good."
Given Neild's injury, and the presence of only one other defensive tackle on the roster in undrafted rookie Delvin Johnson, Baker's showcase time is now.
"He has to take advantage of it," Cofield said. " You obviously never hope for anyone to get hurt, but when that happens, you've got to take advantage of that opportunity. We're all pulling for Neild to bounce back and come back strong next year, but this is a great opportunity for Bake, and I'm happy for him."
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