Oct. 3, 2013
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
Back in the spring, Troy Baker was coming off "probably the best scrimmage" of his life and primed to make the move from being a "decent" offensive lineman to being the best right tackle in college football.
And then life threw him the kind of curveball that nobody can hit.
During a routine practice drill on March 25, "I just took a step and tried to turn back on the defensive end, and my left knee just buckled inside."
Having torn the meniscus in his knee just two springs earlier, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound fourth-year junior knew it immediately. He had torn the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee.
"Once the MRI confirmed it, I wasn't surprised. I was upset, but I wasn't surprised," Baker said. "I went from practicing with my team at 3:30, to sitting in an MRI machine at 5 o'clock, and an hour later finding out that I had torn my ACL, MCL and meniscus. It was a drastic change of thinking, it's just another day, I've got to work hard and get better, to the realization that I'm going to have six months where I'm going to have to teach myself how to walk again and how to do normal things."
When he found out that one of his three returning starters in the offensive line would be MIA for a while, Baylor head coach said Art Briles said, "It makes you sick to your stomach, quite honestly."
"You come out here, and you work hard and you plan, and you do everything right," Briles said. "And then you have something freaky like that happen. It kind of puts a sting on you. Long term, it will be fine, everything will be all right. But right now, it's a big blow for him and it's a big blow to our football team. You're talking about a guy that's a 13-game starter, that's 6-6, 315 pounds, that brings a lot of chemistry and a lot of toughness to our football team."
After getting the official word from head trainer Mike Sims about an hour after the MRI, Baker said, "As soon as I got to the car and no one could see me, I let it all loose."
That was actually the advice that Baker got from Kaz Kazadi and the rest of the strength coaching staff.
"They were like, take the time you need to be emotional about it," he said. "But once you're ready to move on, then stop and just go from there, because you can only control what you can control. And that was rehab. I had a lot of great people around me supporting me, that I'm very appreciative of now, because without certain people, I wouldn't have made it through those six months."
Technological and medical advancements have been able to reduce the recovery time. But the standard rehabilitation from reconstructive knee surgery is nine months.
With his surgery done on April 4, there were doubts on whether Baker would play at all this season. But exactly 170 days after his surgery - or 10 days short of six months - the massive offensive lineman trotted on the field with the Bears' second-team unit and played in the 70-7 win over ULM.
Offensive line coach Randy Clements said, "It's amazing what they can do these days."
"That's football, that's life. It's happened to a lot of guys," Clements said of the ACL injuries. "And it's not so much that it happens to you, but how you respond. And he's done a great job of doing what they've asked him to do in his rehab, and he's progressing along really well."
Baker said he "didn't play that well" in the ULM game, "and thankfully I didn't have to."
"The biggest thing was it was a start, and it gave me something on film to work with. And it was very noticeable that there were things I wasn't trusting. . . . That just comes with more reps. It's gotten a lot better, and I still have work to do."
Baker's not afraid to put in the work. For six months, that's all he did - putting in countless hours in the training room and weight room, working to get his strength back and heal the repaired left knee.
"Michael Martin did the (physical therapy) downstairs," Baker said. "And he told me, there's a set time table of certain landmarks that you have to wait this many weeks to run under water, this many weeks to run on the treadmill, this many weeks to run outside, etc., etc. But just because that time table is there doesn't mean you get to do those things, if you don't do your part as far as getting your quad back and getting all your strength and doing all you can for that time period."
During the month of May, when the rest of the team was getting its one extended break of the year, Baker, Tuswani Copeland and Anthony Betters went through similar rehab routines.
"You're isolated, in the sense of being the only ones in the building for that whole month," Baker said. "And then once summer workouts come, you have to sit in a corner and ride a bike and do (abdominal exercises) all day. And you can go in and do upper body (work in the weight room). But even then, you're having to stay to the side, because you have to be really cautious that people don't run into you on accident and you don't run into anything."
In the same way that guys like Danny Watkins, Ivory Wade and Cameron Kaufhold trained him, when the new group of freshmen came in, Baker wanted to be able to help the newcomers and show them, "There are no secrets. We're just going to work our butts off."
"You really feel like you're gone," he said. "But that's when you've got to get that thought out of your mind, so that you can realize that I'll be back when I'm back. But I have to do what I have to do right now in order to get there."
Graduating from nearby Connally High School a semester early, Baker enrolled at Baylor in January 2010 and got to see former quarterback Robert Griffin III go through a similar rehab with running back Glasco Martin and former defensive back/kick returner Mikail Baker.
"You get a whole new appreciation for anyone that goes through an ACL surgery and all the difficulties that go through it," Baker said. "You can get down and be upset. I'm five months out and I'm not back yet. But you can look at those guys and know that they're doing great, it's going to happen. You just have to be patient and keep working your butt off with what you can do right now."
Checking off each critical step along the way - running under water, running on the treadmill, running outside for the first time - Baker said he didn't have a "single major setback through the entire process."
By the time preseason camp started in early August, he was able to do footwork drills "on air," usually with Martin monitoring every step.
"You really appreciate every single thing when you're going through this," he said, "because you realize how much you care about something when you lose it. It just sucks that it took this for me to figure that out."
The week of the Buffalo game, Baker started working with the blocking sled with offensive line coach Randy Clements. And then during the first of two bye weeks, he went through his first live contact during practice, helping him get ready for that ULM game on Sept. 21.
"The schedule has saved my season," he said. "Those bye weeks have been frustrating, because we're on such a roll. But it's a blessing for me, it's a blessing for (defensive tackle Trevor Clemons-Valdez), it's a blessing for (tight end Jordan) Najvar. It saved my season, without a doubt."
With one of the cornerstone pieces on the shelf, Baylor had to reshuffle the offensive line. Fifth-year senior Kelvin Palmer was moved from center to right tackle to replace Baker, Stefan Huber was switched from guard to center and sophomore Desmine Hilliard stepped in at right guard. The Bears have done just fine without him, leading the nation in points per game (69.7) and total offense (751.3 yards per game) and averaging 6.6 yards per rush and 307 yards rushing per game.
"We have a little bit of a luxury in that we had some good guys that were ready to step in, and they've done a great job up to this point," Clements said. "Anytime you can have depth, and quality depth at that, it's always a plus."
Briles, who marveled at how quickly Baker returned, said he's not ready to "come in and play full-time. But where he's at right now is just phenomenal, coming off an April surgery, an ACL. That's amazing in itself."
Baker doesn't even try to kid himself. After just a handful of workouts, he knows he's nowhere close to that dominant lineman he wants and expects to be.
But his dream and goals haven't changed. Baker expects his name to be called in the 2015 NFL Draft.
"Obviously things happen, and I know that now more than ever," he said. "But that is the end goal. Right now, I had to kind of put that thing on hold and just focus on getting back to where I could play college football again. Right now, it's all Baylor. I want to help this team win a Big 12 championship in whatever way I can. . . . They know and understand it, but coach Briles and coach Clem have done it. They understand that you have to be confident and comfortable and trust in it, and it takes time.
"End goal? Yes, I want to go to the NFL. But right now, I'm just focused on getting a Big 12 championship."