The Touchdown Maker

PERRY LEFKO -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:03 AM ET

Robert Baker cuts to his right, catches a pass and turns quickly upfield.

On another play, he makes a stunning shoestring catch.

It is only days from the Grey Cup, the biggest football game in Canada, and Baker is showing why the Argonauts signed him this year and why he may be a factor in Sunday's game against the B.C. Lions at Frank Clair Stadium in Ottawa.

It is a time for Canadians to celebrate football, but for Robert Baker, 28, it is a chance to celebrate how he bounced back from a mistake he made six years ago that cost him time in jail and nearly ended his career.

---

Baker grew up in an area of Miami called Liberty City, a rough and tough neighbourhood where the violence of the streets could lead to time in prison, or even death.

Baker was a good kid in his youth, playing all kinds of sports. But his life changed forever at age nine when his father, Robert, took ill with cancer.

The combination of the disease and the treatment withered away the elder Robert Baker's 6-foot-2, 240-pound muscular frame. Only two years before that, he had turned around his wild lifestyle by devoting himself to God and becoming a deacon of the local church.

"I'm thinking 'how could God do him like that?' " the son says now.

Baker did not cry the day his father died, nor at his funeral. But when the tears did come, they flowed for two days, mixing with the bitterness and hurt.

"After that, my mentality just changed," he says. "I was a very good kid before that. At least I thought so. I was your average young man. I got into mischief, but after that I looked at life a little differently. That was my first time witnessing death, experiencing death, and I kind of saw it from a different point of view then, which I didn't like."

He had promised his dying father, a bus driver, that he would not become a loser; that he would assume the male responsibilities in the family, which included his mother, Sheila, and two sisters, Toy and Whantavia, and a cousin who had been adopted.

But within two years, Baker had become a changed person, wanting material possessions his mother could not provide, and he turned to selling drugs, off an on, with his cousin. It was a chance to make some money, but it was a harbinger of what would become the second turning point of his life.

While he had lost his innocence, he never lost his love for sports, in particular football. In high school, he starred on both sides of the ball, earning the nickname "The Touchdown Maker" and had multiple scholarship offers from all the big schools in the Southeastern Conference. The University of Florida, a powerhouse at the time, recruited him as a defensive back, but he wanted to play as a receiver and opted to go to Auburn in Alabama.

He starred in his first two years, catching 62 passes -- seven for touchdowns -- for 896 yards. He also had 48 punt returns for 466 yards and one touchdown and had 46 kickoff returns for 980 yards.

He also demonstrated his reputation as someone not to be messed with. A teammate found out the hard way when Baker broke his jaw in a dormitory fight.

Baker had to sit out the 1997 season for academic reasons.

"His biggest problem was he was immature and did not like school all that much," former Auburn coach Terry Bowden says. "He was a great guy to coach. He'd be the first guy on the field and the last guy off of it because he loved football, but he was a little immature in the way he handled himself socially and immature academically. I had lots of kids like that. It wasn't anything terribly unusual."

Heading into the 1998 season, Bowden had big plans for Baker, seeking to use him as a receiver and as a running back, a position he had starred in at high school. But it never happened, because of Baker's illicit activities off the field. He became involved in drug dealing and gambling, which produced $30,000-$40,000 a week, of which he collected a small sum. Baker called it simply a means to make money.

"Whatever I could get into, that's what I did," he says.

In April of that year, police nabbed him and three other Auburn players following a two-month sting operation. He was charged with one count of trafficking cocaine and two counts of distribution of cocaine and sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined $50,000.

Bowden had no idea Baker was involved in those activities.

"What happens sometimes, and what happened to Robert, is when you're academically ineligible you're removed from the football team and he got (involved) with some shady people," Bowden says.

Baker spent five months in a county jail before he was transferred to the state penitentiary.

"We have so much freedom in this world, that's a whole other life," he says of the experience in jail. "I've seen people get killed for sitting at the table with a couple of guys, and one guy is finished his food and he gets up and he don't say 'excuse me.' It's a whole other life. It's just different.

"I never feared (for my life). I used to be scared to be scared when I was little. I grew up (in an area) where you can't be scared. Ain't no way you can be scared. You be scared, you lose. I never feared for my life (in jail). I knew I was capable of doing whatever it took for me to protect myself. There was no need to fear. It was just all about survival.

"I knew the consequences, but it ain't reality when you've never seen it before. You've heard about it, you've seen it on television, but you ain't actually going through it. And when I was going through it, it was just a shock to me. My father was the first person who ever got me into playing football. I watched my dad take his last breath and as he's taking his last breath I promised him I would take care of my family.

"Prison wasn't the one that hurt me the worst. Getting into trouble didn't hurt me. None of that bothered me. Prison never bothered me. I was raised with the mentality that everybody's heart pumped blood just like mine, so I was going to do whatever I needed to survive while I was in there. What hurt me was not keeping the promise to my father."

Fortunately for Baker he had an individual who came to his rescue. Bowden had visited his former player on a regular basis in the county jail and later in the state penitentiary. He had lots of free time after resigning from Auburn and began a process of seeking early probation for Baker, who had been a model citizen in prison. Eleven months after his transfer to the state penitentiary Baker got his early release.

"His mother would say that when I resigned at Auburn it was like God intended it," Bowden says. "It was like the worst day of my life, but she felt it was meant to be so I could spend some more time helping Robert get through his problems."

Baker knew he could survive in the streets, but he yearned to play football again. Bowden helped him by contacting various National Football League teams, offering a character reference and the background of what happened. Bowden also joined his agent, Ricky Davis, with Baker, and the two impressed the Miami Dolphins enough to offer him a contract only two months after his release from prison.

A knee injury six weeks later shelved Baker for the season and temporarily ended his dream.

It took awhile before it finally came together. He didn't make it as a full-time roster player with the Dolphins until the 2002 season, dressing for 10 games, mostly in a special-teams role.

In 2003, the Dolphins allocated him to NFL Europe and he was picked up by the Frankfurt Galaxy, where he earned all-star honours and helped the team to a championship. The Dolphins brought him back for training camp this spring but released him and two days later he was picked up by the Minnesota Vikings. It lasted under six weeks. He had a brief stay with the New Orleans Voodoo of the Arena League, but he found the indoor game too restrictive.

---

With his career at a standstill, Baker got word from his agent that the Argonauts were interested. Baker's attitude was he would play football in Alaska, so Toronto was no problem.

"He has been everything and more than I thought," Argos personnel director Greg Mohns says. "I knew he had the great receiving skills. I knew he could be physical. I knew he could be productive. His work ethic and his raw physical, gifted ability as a receiver stood out from Day 1."

Changes in the lineup, caused by injuries, led to a juggling of the personnel, and Baker had to move into different positions. His production fell off as he became less involved, but he still finished as the only receiver on the team with 1,000 yards. And he found the joy of playing again in the process.

"Being up here it's almost like playing football in high school," he says. "They put a lot of love, a lot of fun, back in the game. This is the way football is supposed to be played. Football is a great sport, and when you put too many rules and too many restraints on it, it takes all the juice out of it. The NFL is almost like slave labour. That's what it's similar to."

---

There is a tough, physical side to Robert Baker, which he demonstrated in a confrontation with a reporter this year, and later showed in a fight with a teammate in practice. But there is also a kinder, gentler and creative side that he expresses in words and music as a rapper.

He has a rap name, Shake Severs, a combination of his nickname Shake (a short form of Shake and Bake) and Severs, derived from Colt Severs of the old television show The Fall Guy.

"He was like a vigilante type of cat," Baker says of the Lee Majors character, adding he once dreamed of being a stuntman.

"I grew up thinking that was what I going to be, but I changed into a fall guy, a ghetto fall guy. I rap for all hoods, for all ghettos. I'm a testament for the hood.

"I always (rapped). It was a form of release for me. I was probably the only kid that would go out in the streets and be crazy, but then I'd come home and go to sleep and listen to classical music. That's a strange combination right there, and writing and rapping was just a form of release. I could just exorcise all my demons. Music is just one of those types of situations. I'm good at it, why not try it. If it does anything, good, but if it don't I wouldn't be upset."

Baker has recorded several songs and is hoping to release a compact disc. He's working with Bill Thies, who has a background in music production and who was floored the first time he heard Baker's music.

One song in particular, My Daddy's Eyes, has been particularly moving. It's Baker's recollection of his final moments with his father before he died.

"He's a tremendous writer," Thies says. "He seems to me to be one of those guys that being put away (in jail) actually worked out for them because he isn't ever going to go back. Robert is just on the beginning of where he's headed in life. The guy got a second chance and he's making the best of it. It's awesome to watch, it really is."

Baker wants to use his music to spread a message of hope.

"You've got so many people growing up in this world that's playing behind the 8-ball, that's dealt a bad hand, and I just want to let them know they ain't got to ever give up," Baker says. "Whatever you want to be you can do. And anybody that says you can't is a liar.

"You can do whatever you want to do in this world. Can't nobody stop you, regardless of where you're at and what's your nationality or whatever. You can accomplish all your dreams; you've just got to be driven about trying to get there. I had to learn the hard way."


Videos

Photos