When Hayden Baker walked on at Northwestern last year, he did so with no guarantees.
Other football opportunities at other places may have provided promises of an immediate starting position or more playing time. But for Baker, who anchored Cary-Grove’s offensive line on the Trojans’ 2009 state championship team, Northwestern offered something more.
Remaining close to home gave Baker not only the chance to continue his football career in a Big Ten environment, but it also placed him in a world-class academic setting. For Baker, who has moved into the role of being the Wildcats’ backup center as a sophomore, that was plenty to go on.
“It’s a great experience,” said Baker, who was an All-Big Ten academic selection last year as a freshman anthropology major. “I cherish every day I get to walk on the field here, and I’m just trying to make the most of my opportunity here.”
While Baker hasn’t gotten the opportunity to get on the field on a regular basis for Northwestern the 6-foot-2, 190-pound former All-State selection has used his two seasons in Evanston to learn everything he can.
Despite being listed as the No. 2 center on the depth chart, Baker has learned every position on the offensive line. He realizes his hard work has put him in a position that an injury anywhere up front could throw him into immediate action.
“He’s kind of our get out of jail for free card,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said this week. “If something were to happen, he’s ready to go in at any position. Hopefully, if he continues to get stronger, we’ll find an increased role on the field for him.”
For now, Baker is content to work hard every day, doing everything in his power to continue to mature as a player, making himself a viable option should Fitzgerald need him. He knew when he chose Northwestern that Fitzgerald’s program had a long history of rewarding walk-ons, providing him with all the incentive he needed to prove himself on a daily basis.
He has labored in practice and in the classroom, well aware that Fitzgerald can’t make him any promises about future playing time. Like with any other walk-on, Fitzgerald guaranteed that Baker would have every opportunity to earn more playing time depending on their attitude and how hard they work.
“All they can do is control what they can control,” Fitzgerald said.
For Baker, who exhibited a work ethic at Cary-Grove that has been passed down to his younger brother – Trojans’ senior quarterback Quinn Baker, Fitzgerald’s offer has made the work he’s put in over the past two seasons all worth it.
Baker rarely thinks of trying to formulate a plan that would earn him a full-ride scholarship, knowing that if he pushes too hard and overdoes it, it could take away from his ability to perform in daily workouts.
“Right now, I’m the No. 2 center and right now, I’m a play away [from getting on the field],” said Baker, who holds aspirations of being a doctor one day. “[Getting a scholarship] is something I really don’t focus on, but if you work hard and do the right things, the rest of it will come.”
Baker and his Northwestern teammates are facing Illinois today at Ryan Field, playing for their ninth win of the season. But at some point during the day, he will think of his alma mater, which will be playing at the same time for a 6A championship against Crete-Monee in Champaign.
Winning the final game of his high school career is a memory he still cherishes and it’s one he hopes Quinn Baker and his teammates can replicate. In 2009, C-G finished 13-0, but never dealt with some of the injuries that this year’s team has played through - including to Hayden’s brother, who missed three weeks with a broken bone in his hand.
Still, the Trojans are one win away from their second state title in four years, leaving Hayden to pull for two victories on Saturday.
“[In 2009] all of the pieces just came together – we had no injuries – it was almost destined,” he said of his own championship experience. “We weren’t really challenged as much up until the state [title] game and then we played a great game to win.
“It was just a group of guys I had played with my whole career and it was a great way to finish it off.”