- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2016

Chris Baker waited anxiously at Reston Hospital Center. Hours later, on this early Thursday morning in January, his Washington Redskins teammates would be preparing for their playoff matchup against the Green Bay Packers. The defensive end was not going to be there.

His wife, Jamila, was ready to give birth to their daughter, Aria, and Baker was not going to miss it. He didn’t want to fall behind on the field, either, so he watched film of the Packers on his iPad while he waited.

The Packers’ offensive line, mangled by injuries, limped through the last two games of the regular season and allowed 13 sacks. Baker anticipated opportunities to get to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, which also meant a chance to dance, something Baker did frequently last season as he recorded a career-high six sacks.

“Man, it feels so good to really go out there and let loose,” Baker said. “Every time I get a big play, I need the people to know who I am, so I celebrate.”

If Baker sacked Rodgers — and he nearly did on the second play of the game — his fun-loving personality was going to take a backseat to the feelings of a proud, new father.

“I was going to rock the baby,” Baker recalled recently, his voice still bubbling with excitement at the idea of it.

Baker had to shelf the celebration — he never sacked Rodgers — but he hasn’t stopped enjoying what has been the best year of his life. He married Jamila on March 14, 2015, a perfect prelude to having a breakout season while playing alongside his childhood friend, nose tackle Terrance Knighton. The loss to the Packers was disappointing, but Baker was buoyed by the birth of his daughter and the excitement of spending the offseason with his new family.

Now, as Baker enters the final season of his three-year contract, he’s not stressed about what lies ahead. Instead, he is sharply focused on making sure his future, both on and off the field, just keeps getting better from here.

“They say a man that finds his wife finds favor in the Lord,” Baker said. “Ever since I’ve gotten married, it’s been a great story. I had my best season as a professional, now having my daughter. It’s just blessing after blessing.”

Earning his keep

The timing was too perfect to let the opportunity slip last offseason. The Redskins were originally interested in Knighton, then a free agent after two seasons with the Denver Broncos, and Knighton was in Washington to stand by Baker’s side as the best man in his wedding.

“I talked to anybody who would listen about bringing the guy in,” Baker said.

Baker and Knighton had dinner on Thursday night, and Knighton signed a one-year deal with the Redskins the next morning, the day before Baker’s wedding. Their childhood dream of playing in the NFL together, one that manifested from a friendship rooted at the intersection of Westland and Garden streets in Hartford, Connecticut, was coming true.

“I was extremely happy,” Baker said. “I knew how good of a player Terrance is and I knew how good he could make me. To have a guy like Terrance take up two people, that had to leave me one-on-one with anybody.”

Although the two were now teammates, it was unclear how often they’d actually see the field together. Baker had a strong season in 2014 — the first of a three-year, $12 million deal he signed that February — and anticipated being the starting left defensive end in 2015. There was a roadblock, though, and it was an expensive one. The Redskins signed defensive end Stephen Paea to a four-year, $21 million contract. After campaigning for his best friend to join the team, Baker was uncertain about his future.

In Week 3 of the preseason, the team’s final dress rehearsal against the Baltimore Ravens, Baker had a sack and a forced fumble. However, Paea remained the starter on the depth chart to start the regular season, though Baker played more snaps than Paea and outperformed him in each of the first three games.

“It was just stressful for me,” Baker said. “It was frustrating those first three weeks, because I’m [wondering], ‘Why am I not starting? What didn’t I do to earn my starting position?’”

Against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4, the Redskins opened in their nickel formation, which meant only two linemen, Knighton and Jason Hatcher, were on the field. Baker was finally going to get his chance. On the Eagles’ third offensive play, Baker sacked quarterback Sam Bradford. He added another in the second quarter for the first multi-sack performance of his career.

“It’s a performance-based business,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said the next day, explaining why he gave Baker the unofficial start. “In order to keep your job, you have got to perform at a high level. That’s what we’re expecting from all our guys.”

The following week against the Atlanta Falcons, Baker started and recorded another sack. It became more obvious than ever that the starting job was his. Baker, once an undrafted free agent from Hampton and practice squad player for three teams, including the Redskins, went on to start nine of the next 11 games. He emerged as the Redskins’ most consistent pass rusher along the defensive line.

“I understood what it was about, the business, but at the same time I’m a competitor,” Baker said. “And when I earn something, give it to me. It’s not like you’re giving me something I didn’t earn. I knew when the team pays a guy X amount of dollars, they’re going to see if he works out and see what he can do, but I just always felt like all I needed was a chance.”

That chance meant regular playing time together for Baker and Knighton, which was the way they always intended for it to be. Back in Connecticut, Ken Smith beamed with pride each week as the season unfolded. Before Baker and Knighton starred on the football field together — Baker didn’t start playing until Knighton convinced him to do so his junior year at Windsor High School — they dominated opponents as bullish post players on Smith’s basketball team.

Smith would drive his team along the East Coast in a ragged, gray van courtesy of the police department — the words “Police Athletic League” stamped on the side — each year to play the summer circuit. Once, Baker and Knighton made a promise.

“The both of them stopped and said, ‘Coach, when we make it, we’re gonna buy you a new van,’” Smith recalled. “And I said, ‘Wow, that’s nice of you,’ but I didn’t think nothing of it then. I’m just so glad that they made it.”

Then Smith paused, before letting out a laugh.

“But I’m still waiting on that van.”

‘A valuable lesson’

Marion Baker always warned his son to run away from trouble, not toward it.

“Don’t be the first one to get there and the last one to leave,” he cautioned. “If something breaks out, you’re going to be the last face they remember.”

Baker could hardly help himself. With an infectious personality and an unmistakable laugh, Baker sought to entertain in any setting. That also meant telling juicy stories, letting nothing stop him from getting the details, which almost always lead him to trouble.

“If I saw a fight, I need to see it all,” Baker said. “I needed to tell you who threw the first punch, who threw the last, who won, who said what. I was always that person.”

That’s why in April 2007, the spring after Baker’s redshirt freshman season at Penn State, he ended up in downtown State College when a massive brawl broke out at an off-campus apartment. Baker and several teammates arrived after safety Anthony Scirrotto was involved in an altercation in the street, which started after somebody insulted Scirrotto’s girlfriend.

Later in October, during a fraternity party at the university’s student union, a fight began outside between linebacker NaVorro Bowman and another fraternity brother from another university. When police arrived, a group of football players was surrounding the fight. Baker, along with Bowman, was identified as a main suspect.

Baker initially received felony charges in both incidents, though he maintains he never threw a punch.

“When the [April] fight started happening, I realized there was no need for me to fight,” Baker said. “The bad part was a fight happened and I went there. I was stuck in a bad position because I wasn’t going to snitch on my teammates, but I wasn’t going to go to jail for something I didn’t do, either.”

In the October incident, Baker tried breaking up the altercation and was misidentified as defensive tackle Phil Taylor, who was later charged for his role in the fight. Penn State’s office of judicial affairs cleared Baker from the incident, but he was still being charged in Centre County Court.

According to public records, Baker ultimately pleaded guilty to simple assault, a misdemeanor of the second degree, in both incidents. He also pleaded guilty to defiant trespassing, a misdemeanor of the third degree, from the April incident. He was sentenced to two years probation in May 2008, and in two months later coach Joe Paterno kicked Baker and Taylor off the team.

“That was the hardest time of my son’s life, but as a father, my words of encouragement were, ‘It’s going to be OK,’” Marion Baker said. “It was an unfortunate situation what happened, but it taught him a valuable lesson.”

From that troubling moment, Baker’s path to becoming a prominent NFL pass rusher was a winding one that tested his faith. After a year at Hampton in which Baker excelled, he declared for the 2009 draft but wasn’t selected. There were short stints with the Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins before Baker signed with the Redskins’ practice squad in 2011.

After spending most of the year on the practice squad, he was signed to the active roster on Dec. 6. The next day, he tore his right quadriceps trying to dunk a basketball before a walkthrough, which ended his season and crushed his hopes of playing against the New England Patriots that week.

“When it happened, I was so embarrassed because I didn’t want to get cut,” Baker said. “For some reason, they kept me. I was supposed to be out of there. I never knew if I would be back in the league again.”

Baker played in 29 games the next two seasons. In 2012, he was the backup nose tackle after Chris Neild tore an ACL in the preseason. Retained as a restricted free agent in 2013, Baker started the final three games of the season and was rewarded with his current three-year deal.

“That year, I didn’t know what my worth was,” Baker said. “In my mind, if I got a two-year deal for $4 million, I would’ve been happy with that. I just kept on praying. When my agent called me and said the Redskins offered three years for $12 million, I broke down crying.”

For Baker, solidifying his role on the Redskins’ roster required a feverish work ethic, but that was never an issue. In order for all this to happen, he had to mature as an individual. That was an equally gradual process, one that began in earnest his first day at Hampton and continued during his ascent to the top of the Redskins’ depth chart in 2015.

Those close to Baker have seen him come full circle. Ohio State assistant head coach and defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. visited Baker during organized team activities last spring. Johnson, who coached Baker on the defensive line at Penn State, helped guide him to Hampton and supported him following the expulsion.

While Johnson has kept in touch with Baker, last year marked the first time that Johnson saw Baker in person since he was kicked off the team.

“When you face adversity early in your life, that changes you, and it changed Chris in the right ways,” Johnson said. “When I saw him at camp, we just hugged like little kids. The first thing he said was, ‘Thanks, Coach,’ and I said ‘No, thank you for being who you are.’ That’s what coaching is all about. You cheer for guys like that. I’m happy with where he’s at in his life right now. I really am.”

Embracing change

This offseason started the same as the last, with Baker making a spirited pitch to Knighton to remain with the Redskins. The nose tackle ultimately chose to sign with the Patriots, marking a bittersweet ending to their single season together.

With Hatcher gone as well, Baker expects an increased role in the locker room, one that began manifesting itself last season.

“I felt like I took on that leadership role,” Baker said. “Just seeing the younger guys and giving them advice on how to become a professional, or what I did to last in this league as long as I’ve been in it as an undrafted guy.”

Part of that longevity is finding ways to keep improving, which is why Baker has been working tirelessly with Tobe Stevens at Enhanced Training Champions in Largo, Maryland. The goal is for Baker to increase his speed off the line of scrimmage, something he struggled with last season. With a quicker jump, he can pressure the quarterback more consistently — the key to remaining a prominent defensive end.

Better pressure means more sacks — and most importantly — more chances for Baker to let loose and celebrate.

After all, he never did get to rock the baby in that loss to the Packers. Perhaps he’ll save it.

• Anthony Gulizia can be reached at agulizia@washingtontimes.com.

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