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Baker is a humble leader for USC

Two-time All-American offensive tackle doesn't seek attention, but he gets plenty of it because of his intensity and consistently solid play.

December 26, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The big man fidgets after practice, swinging a football helmet at his side, not entirely comfortable with being the subject of a newspaper story.

"Why me?" he said.

Because Sam Baker is a two-time All-American at offensive tackle. Because he anchors a USC line that will be scrutinized in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, needing to redeem itself after an unsteady, if not downright confused, performance in the recent loss to UCLA.

"Oh," he said. "Yeah."

Standing a massive 6 feet 5, with close-cropped hair and a wisp of a beard, Baker wants to help. He is good-natured and thoughtful. It's just that he doesn't talk much around strangers.

His actions, it seems, speak louder than words.

Such as the time he showed up on his father's doorstep at 3 a.m., distraught after last season's loss to Texas in the national championship game.

Or the afternoon at Washington State this fall when he came off the field after getting beat by a pass rusher, his coach hurrying over to calm him.

Or the gloomy hours after the UCLA game, when he approached the guys who play beside him, especially the seniors, and apologized.

"He'll always be the first guy to blame himself," center Ryan Kalil said. "Even if it's not his fault."

This is what you get with Baker. A pleasant young man -- "Probably the funniest guy you'd ever be around," Kalil said -- who nonetheless harbors a vein of angst. A nationally acclaimed player who is not satisfied.

Go back to 2003 when he arrived at USC as a prep All-American but barely made it through the first practice. His high school team had emphasized power-lifting and the Trojans were all about agility and endurance.

Coach Pete Carroll recalls it as one of the worst training-camp starts in his six years at USC.

It was an exasperating time for Baker, and his parents had to help him through.

"Man, I would pass him notes and Bible verses after practice," said his father, David, who is commissioner of the Arena Football League. "His mom would call him at night to keep him going."

The Bakers are not a traditional family. David and Patty, Sam's mother, were best friends and got married, then divorced and returned to being best friends. They did not let the split affect their two boys.

Growing up around kids more athletically gifted or more outgoing, Baker figured "my advantage was my mom and dad." But even as family got him through that freshman year, there came another shock: Patty was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"My mom is everything to me," Baker said. "So just that word, 'cancer,' was scary."

The teenager found himself driving home to Orange County a lot more often. When Patty lost her hair during treatments, he shaved his head.

Patty eventually got better and, as often happens with successful people, the ordeal had a galvanizing effect on her son. Baker, always goal-oriented, became even more the perfectionist. As his mother says: "Wanting to be the best, wanting to work harder."

Training with USC strength coach Chris Carlisle, the redshirt freshman grew slimmer and stronger and assumed the starting role at left tackle in 2004.

With the Trojans headed for a perfect season and a national championship, he made numerous freshman All-American teams. Then came All-American seasons in 2005 and this fall.

No surprise that what makes him special on the field is consistency. "Always on the right guy, always doing the right thing," said Pat Ruel, the offensive line coach.

If anything, Ruel worries about the redshirt junior being too hard on himself. The assistant and others close to Baker want to see the upbeat side of his personality a little more often.

Consider the early morning after the Texas loss when Baker showed up on his father's doorstep. His first, discouraged words -- How could we lose? -- soon gave way to a positive sentiment.

He talked about wanting to make good the following season.

"As a dad, that meant a lot," David said. "Someday, when his knees are gone and there's no football, he's going to need that attitude to keep a marriage together or to make payroll if he's an employer."

Ruel noticed something similar in the Washington State game this season when Baker got beat by a rusher. The assistant hurried over, thinking, Uh-oh, the kid's going to beat himself up.

"That guy spun on me," Baker said.

"I know. I saw it."

"Won't happen again."

Three months later, these words still put a smile on Ruel's face.

"I love a player who fails and right away makes a statement," he said. "It's like, that's not going to happen again because I'm not going to let it."

Now the question is, how will Baker respond to the UCLA loss? On a day when the offense faltered in many ways, he played no worse than others, maybe better than some.

But teammates and coaches know that he blames himself. They still urge him to temper that perfectionist attitude.

"He needs to cut loose a little more, be a little more aggressive instead of trying to do things perfect," Ruel said. "That's the next step to being a dominant player."

If nothing else, perfectionism will keep Baker at USC another season. He has announced that, despite the accolades, he will not leave school early for the NFL.

"A lot of guys just think about making it in the league," he said. "I want to go in there and play well."

His decision speaks volumes. There are a few more things he wants to get right.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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ROSE BOWL

USC vs. Michigan

Monday at Pasadena

2 p.m. (TV: Channel 7)

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