- Associated Press - Saturday, June 27, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Jim Baker rises every day before the sun.

He leaves his wife sleeping in bed, goes to the kitchen and pours a cup of coffee. Mug in hand, he walks into his darkened living room, sits on the couch and raises his eyes to the framed photo on the wall. Every day.

“Good morning, Sam,” Baker says, cutting through the silence of an otherwise still morning. “I love you, Sam.”

Jim Baker’s morning ritual is one of the few connections he has left to his boy.

He has the grandsons, Alex and Sam, who were 3 and 5 when their dad died nine years ago. He has the photo hanging on the living room wall. And he has that football, perhaps the most valuable football in the world, and not just in dollars and cents.

“Yeah, it’s just a football,” said Baker, 68, of West Mifflin. “But the tie to my son is something that can’t ever be replaced. That ball … that ball has an attachment. For me to give that up would be like giving up everything. I feel that Franco understands that.”

Yes, that Franco.

And yes, that ball. Franco Harris made it famous, but Jim Baker and his abbreviated relationship with his son made it invaluable.

Sam Baker was born Dec. 19, 1972. Four days later, mom and baby boy were released from the hospital and a proud Jim Baker brought them home.

Then, he left. Baker had tickets to the 1972 AFC divisional playoff game between the Steelers and Oakland Raiders. Missing it was not an option.

It was a mostly dull game, Baker recalled. Neither team scored in the first half. When the Raiders took a late 7-6 lead, fans inside Three Rivers Stadium figured it was over.

Then a miracle occurred.

With less than a minute left, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw scrambled out of the pocket and heaved a desperation pass downfield. The ball ricocheted off bodies and perhaps a helmet (though the referees didn’t see it) and somehow landed in the sure hands of rookie running back Franco Harris, who sprinted down the sideline for a most improbable game-winning score.

The stadium erupted. Baker and his nephew rushed onto the field with jubilant fans.

“The whole time, I’ve got my eye on that ball,” Baker said 42 years later. “They put it down for the extra point, and all I’m thinking is, I want that ball.”

It sailed through the uprights, bounced off a wall and fell to the turf. Baker dove for it. In the ensuing dog pile, someone managed to strip it away, but Baker wrestled it right back.

“When I got up,” Baker said, “my first thought was: Run!”

An hour later, he returned home with the ball.

Then the offers poured in. A guy who ran an auto body shop near Baker’s house offered him $1,500 in cash that day. During the years, others have offered six figures.

Baker declines them.

The moment he got the ball, it belonged to his newborn, Sam.

“You come to me with $2 million, and I’d say no,” Baker said. “There’s a reason for that: I lost my son. Until I die, or the grandkids decide they don’t want it, the ball’s not for sale.”

The Steeler legend who scored that impossible touchdown would like to have it.

But Baker is right: Franco does get it.

“I understand that emotional attachment between a father and a son,” said Harris, a father, “and I would like Jim to feel that the whole Steeler family is connected with him. When you think about Jim and his boy, and that connection the ball brings to them, that makes it pretty special.”

To a collector, the ball is a prize, a mere trophy to display on the mantel.

To Baker, it’s a portal to a better time, before he suffered the greatest wound of his life.

Rarely does a day pass without somebody asking about that ball. Tourists show up at his house hoping for a glimpse. Church groups pile onto buses and pull into his driveway. Everyone who has heard of the Immaculate Reception - the most famous play in NFL history - wants to talk to Jim Baker about that ball.

When they do, when they ask to hear the story of how he came to own it, Baker gets to do what he loves most: Talk about his boy.

“Ever since Sam’s passing, I get to tell the story or remember my son daily,” Baker said, crying at his son’s memory, as he does every day. “I don’t care what family member you lose, very few people get to do that. With that ball, I get to talk about him every day. Every day.”

Baker loves his kids equally - he has two more sons and a daughter - but Sam’s death left a void.

So day after day, people ask and Jim Baker answers. He tells them about the time Sam decided he wanted to wrestle, just like his old man did, how the two of them spent years training in the family’s basement. He explains how Sam went from average to great, how he wrestled at Pitt, married a beautiful girl he met in school, and grew into what every father hopes for in a son: A kind man. A devoted dad. A winner.

Then, he explains that it started with a simple pain in Sam’s side. That’s when the doctors found the cancer and gave him four months to live. He was 33.

At this point in the story, all he can do is shake his head and cry.

And hold on to that football.

Because collectors can put a price on it, but what does that mean to Jim Baker?

Nothing.

“Good morning, Sam,” Jim Baker says today and every day until the day he dies. “I love you, Sam. I love you.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1I83IyY

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com

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