Indiana WR David Baker found loss, loyalty on the path to Bloomington
Indiana 2020 wide receiver signee David Baker took pain in loss and loyalty to give pain when he arrives in Bloomington in June.
Indiana wide receiver signee David Baker is a movie fanatic. He has a recliner in his bedroom in his Indianapolis home that sits in front of his TV, thanks to an arrangement with his mother, and he watches movies deep into the night, sometimes until 4 a.m. Some of his favorites include Will Smith’s "Pursuit of Happyness" – his favorite of all time – and Michael B. Jordan’s "Creed II."
The Scecina Memorial star believes that he watches more movies than some actors. And if he was in control of how his own movie at Indiana will play out, he’s clear about how it would finish.
“I want to be able to win a Big Ten Championship. I want to be able to win the Rose Bowl,” Baker told TheHoosier.com. “Then your name is there. So you go 5-7, then 8-5. Let’s say we go undefeated and make the College Football Playoff. Then I want to win the National Championship. That’s what I want to do.”
Baker rejects the idea of realism. It upsets him. One of the many ways he’s able to carry that mentality into his college career is because he’s fueled by a head coach who feels the same way. Tom Allen stood in front of cameras after a historical win at Nebraska and told Indiana fans to forget about the past and get to Memorial Stadium for the Hoosiers’ next game against Northwestern. His tenure at Indiana began with the “breakthrough” mantra that fell short in 2017 but was felt in 2019, as Indiana recorded its first eight-win season in 26 years.
“If you aim for somewhere at the top, you’ll land somewhere you want to be,” Baker said. “He dreams big like I do. When you’ve got people like us, people who dream big, think big and have big aspirations, people look at you sideways. People said Coach Allen couldn’t do it. When you talk to him, you’re like, ‘Okay, his mindset is along the same lines as mine is.’”
His connection to Allen dates back to his freshman season while he was on the first college visit of his recruitment. The visit coincided with Allen’s first season as Indiana’s head coach. Baker watched Allen push his receivers through sets of gassers, the football edition of suicides, during a fall practice, and when the receivers were getting tired, Allen ran sets with them to push them through.
“I want to play for a coach that does what he preaches,” Baker said. “He talks about going hard all the time and giving maximum effort. Then he goes and does that.”
Baker has taken on the attitude of Allen – unintentionally and intentionally, before and after that visit – but that moment was when the seed was planted in Baker’s mind, the idea that he could play at Indiana if given the chance.
There’s a line in "Creed II" that jumped out at Baker the first time he watched the movie: “I’m telling you, if you want to give pain, you’ve got to be willing to take the pain,” Sylvester Stallone’s character tells Michael B. Jordan’s.
“I just sat up in my recliner, paused the movie and stared at the TV like, ‘That makes so much sense,’” Baker said.
Taking pain has shaped much of who Baker is, whether it be in the decisions he and his family have made, losses they’ve felt or pain inflicted at practice by Scecina’s natural ground football field. But soon, the promising receiver hopes to unleash some of that pain for Indiana.
Family ties bind
Family, and the characteristics that come with a close-knit family, are deeply ingrained in Baker. His family used to meet up almost every weekend just to be in each other’s company, and most of the family has made sure to live nearby in the Indianapolis area so they could be near each other.
That began largely with David’s grandfather, John.
John and his wife coached David’s mother, Eva, and her siblings at Heritage Christian School after John played football at Arsenal Tech High School and passed on college football for the Vietnam War. His children played collegiately at the NAIA level. Eva played volleyball and competed in track and field.
“They were always there in the stands and continued that with my nieces and, definitely, I will say, with David, just because he doesn’t have a father involved in his life,” Eva said.
Eva leaned on her family as she worked long hours in retail as a single mother. David’s grandparents provided the support most single mothers need, and one of those avenues of assistance was taking David to practices.
John attended every football practice and, nearly, every basketball practice. He would sit in his truck when David was in junior high and talk to the fathers nearby before parents no longer observed practice. He would even attend training sessions that weren’t organized practices for teams, David said. And he was always at games, whether it was a football game or an AAU game.
John would drive David and three of his friends to the gym to work out with him two or three times per week, and when David, a junior high linebacker, made 10 tackles in a game, John would encourage him to make 11 in the next game.
He became the primary father figure in David’s life and guided him in more ways than a typical grandfather would.
“When you’re younger, you’re getting all these life lessons, but it doesn’t really click,” Baker said. “Then you’re going through life and you are reminded of the things he said, and you’re like, ‘Yo, that’s crazy.’ It’s so crazy that something said years ago applies now.’”
When David was in seventh grade, John passed away due to complications with his heart.
“When he passed away, it was hard on us,” Eva said. “Hard on the whole family, but hard on David too because he was kind of like a dad.”
Without his grandfather there, David had his uncle, who he said is a lot like John, but he began to develop closer relationships with his Scecina basketball coaches, former Harlem Globetrotter Derick Grant and his best friend’s father, as well. And eventually, once he reached the high school level, he became close with his football coaches.
John’s absence is felt most days, David said, but Eva said it was really felt throughout David’s recruitment. Eva would drive David to summer camps, oftentimes only having a couple free weekends between June and August, and to his college visits – flying was too expensive.
“That was kind of exciting, and it was just a great time because I knew my dad would love it, and he would just be horribly proud of David,” Eva said. “Not just the player but the man he’s become. He’s just kind of achieved a dream.”
While on the recruiting trail, David and his family would do their best to manifest the advice that John would have given. Both David and Eva said there were schools that presented themselves as “family atmospheres” but didn’t have the feeling the Baker family is accustomed to. That is until the family met Tom Allen.
Eva said, following a visit, Allen spent time speaking with just David and his family, and Indiana’s effort to offer David in person rather than over the phone was significant to Eva and her mother. The Bakers didn’t get the same treatment at other schools. And David said his affinity for the message Allen presented to his team and to recruits was intuitive, that his life of family and love led him to put his trust in Allen and assistants like Grant Heard, Matt Rhea and David Ballou.
“There were some coaches my grandpa wouldn’t have wanted me to be a part of,” David said. “But if he talked to Coach Allen for like 20 minutes, he would’ve been like, ‘Yeah David, you don’t have a decision in this matter. I’m making the decision for you. You’re going to IU.’
David said he was able to trust his intuition because his family often tells him he’s a lot like John. There’s a fire about the Bakers, David and Eva said. When Eva was younger, John would be one of the loudest fans in the stands, until the trait was passed on to Eva and John would tell her to quiet down at David’s games. That passion follows David.
A wide receivers coach from Western Michigan once told Scecina Memorial wide receivers coach Jared Scaringe that, after watching David run routes in tennis shoes on a basketball court, all he needed to know was that he “had the edge to be a guy” at the next level.
Eva watched David closely throughout high school and talked to Scaringe often – not to ensure David got the ball as often as he should, but to be sure he wasn’t “acting up,” as she likes to put it. Eva said she has no doubt that rooted in David’s passion for football is the passion that John felt for the game as well.
But John never got to watch David switch his focus from basketball to football, never got to see him play at wide receiver, never got to see David receive offers from coaches like Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and take on that dream of playing college football, even though David embodies some of John on the field.
“It’s bittersweet,” David said. “But I feel like maybe some things wouldn’t have worked the way they did if certain things didn’t happen. I know that he has the best seat in the house for the journey.”
An identity rooted in loyalty
David had multiple opportunities to leave Class 2A Scecina Memorial.
He initially chose Scecina instead of Bishop Chatard and Cathedral because he wanted to play basketball for his Scecina coaches and with his best friends. Then David exploded onto the football scene in a way he didn’t in basketball. The sophomore caught 60 passes for 971 yards and 14 touchdowns as Scecina made a state finals appearance in 2017. Then those basketball coaches stopped coaching, and the friends he entered high school with left the school.
David and Eva had a number of conversations about whether he would want to change schools, but David had developed a good relationship with his quarterback, Mac Ayers, who now pitches for Ball State, made new friends and created strong relationships with his head coach, Ott Hurrle, and Scaringe. So Baker stayed, hoping for continuity for the ever-important junior season.
That season, David and Ayers connected 63 times for 799 yards and 11 touchdowns to make a semi-state appearance, and David was named to the IFCA Top-50 All-State team with current Purdue wide receiver David Bell, current Ohio State linebacker Craig Young, current Northwestern wide receiver Bryce Kirtz and current Duke wide receiver Eli Pancol.
Before that junior year, David wasn’t finding luck with offers, and even when he did land some offers – Iowa, Purdue and eventually Michigan – they weren’t the same kinds of offers as the other top receivers in the state.
“My confidence can borderline arrogance sometimes,” David said. “I watch college football and think, ‘I could play up there. If I put the work in, I could do that.’ Then when you see other people getting offers – I went to camps and I didn’t get any offers. Especially being from Indiana. It’d be different if I was from Ohio, Florida, Texas or Georgia.”
Scecina Memorial isn’t the same type of athletic school as other Indianapolis private schools. Scaringe said David is probably the best football player to graduate from Scecina, with former Purdue wide receiver Donald Winston, who caught passes from Drew Brees, as a close second.
The football field at Scecina is not the same quality as other schools’ fields. The center of the field can often feel like concrete while practicing, David said. The school also doesn’t have a track. He decided to run track after quitting basketball because his grandfather’s rule was that he always needed to play more than one sport. The track team practices on the emptied parking lot behind the school.
So when Ayers graduated after David’s junior season, there was significant pressure on David to leave Scecina. Replacing Ayers with another All-State quarterback at the 2A level was unlikely, and the odds of David’s production dipping were high while he was projected beside Indiana walk-on commit Charlie Spegal as the two most likely candidates for 2019 Mr. Football.
“I don’t know if they know this, like the people picking Mr. Football, but I don’t know if I’m going to get the ball this season,” Baker said he thought to himself.
Baker spoke with the Indiana staff about where his commitment stood and warned them that his production would drop so that the staff “didn’t think (he) was getting the ball 60 times and dropping 40 of them.” Allen told him that the relationship he and the Indiana staff had “wasn’t that fragile” and that his offer would always be on the table, regardless of his numbers in 2019, and Heard continuously worked Baker through the season, urging him to be patient with a young quarterback and oftentimes getting half-upset with Baker for being in the gym too often.
That support he received from the staff, and the close relationships he said he didn’t want to leave, made Baker feel comfortable enough to stay at his Class 2A program and take a different approach to football than blasting away the record books, which already had his name at the top of every receiving category.
“I had to talk to (Scaringe) and my mom to be like, ‘What do I have to do for us to win?’” Baker said once he decided to stay. “It was me blocking, basically. Blocking, playing defense, playing special teams.”
The adjusted plan decided between Baker and Scaringe – who graduated from Scecina, walked on at Ball State and was part of the two teams that beat Indiana in 2011 and 2012 – was that David would devote himself to blocking and better understanding offensive schemes in 2019. His quarterback wouldn’t be able to get him the ball as well as Ayers did, so blocking for eventual Scecina rushing leader TyiShaun Woods was the new focus.
“A lot of kids would shell up, and a lot of people would pack it in or look to even go to a different school,” Scaringe said. “He had plenty of players and coaches trying to get him over there. I said, ‘You’ve done all the right things. I’ve told you what needs to be done. Here you are. At the end of the day, your character will show if you stay here at Scecina and do everything you can for the team.’”
Scaringe and Baker studied Ball State film together, picking apart the Cardinals’ spread offense with current NFL receiver Willie Snead and how defenses defended that type of an offense. They’d always studied Scaringe’s film and Baker had always taken a different mental approach in preparation, Scaringe said, but in 2019, there was significant growth. Baker began to understand collegiate blocking schemes and could identify where he needed to be in nearly every situation that didn’t involve catching passes.
His production did fall. He caught just 41 passes (down 22 from 2018) for 493 yards (down 306) and six touchdowns (down five). He would often play defense as well, lining up at cornerback and intercepting three passes in the season-opener, but in an effort to get him rest, he wasn’t always used at corner, otherwise, Scaringe said, he’d have had double-digit interceptions. The star receiver’s focus expanded to special teams, where he contributed in every phase and blocked a field goal too.
“The first time you make it on the field next year, it may be special teams,” Scaringe would tell Baker. “You may be on kickoff, may be on kickoff return. The great college players end up playing special teams because they can’t be taken off the field. That’s where you need to be.”
Woods eventually rushed for 1,721 yards and 24 touchdowns, and Scecina lost in the sectional title game. But Baker doesn’t feel regret about the way his high school career played out. He’s always been able to see the bigger picture, Eva said. That bigger picture involves carrying his bonds from his small school, which reveres him as a loyalist, to the Big Ten, where Scaringe believes the sky's the limit for Baker.
And as far as movies go, this one had a happy ending.
“Maybe we don’t see it now, but when he’s an adult, we’ll see what’s more important,” Eva said. “Yeah, you can go to another school and maybe win a state championship and win Mr. Football, or you can try to stay and understand that long-term, as you get older, you’re learning more in life than you are school hopping. Now, he’s got a school that he’s graduating from and not a place he went to for a year that he’s graduating from.”