Nebraska High School Football lost a great figure early Monday morning. Oh man, how I wish I could have seen him play in that Fall of 1941. He played Quarterback and Linebacker for the Class "C" Genoa Orioles and piloted their Single-Wing formation that swept through opponents proficiently enough that Kenneth was named to the Omaha World-Herald 1941 All-State Football squad as a QB. He and a guy named Bob Shipley of Fairbury were one of four signal callers on that mythical team. It was rare indeed for a small school lad to make such a team in those days of dust, despair, and poverty. I can't imagine how tough it must have been.
Kenneth Baker was raised on a farm during the Great Depression. His father, the provider on the family suffered a stroke at an early age and was never able to work again, leaving the family of 12 in a tough if not impossible situation. None of the boys were old enough to take over the farming, so things were so difficult that his family could not even afford to buy enough milk to put on the corn flakes they ate. They had to use water. Couldn't afford any kind of a ball, so they used a rolled up a worn out pair of socks for a football, basketball and a baseball. The boys learned the game of football playing rough and tumble tackle in a potato patch. Baker started all four years for Genoa at quarterback and linebacker, and to this day the old boys I talked to that played against him said he was one of the most vicious hitting linebackers of his day......all 160 pounds of him. In all my years of following high school football, I never ran into a man (who was not a coach) who loved high school football as much as I do.
He was a purest and strict student of the game. His brother Don, who now resides in St. Edward, was a World-Herald All-Stater two years after Kenneth. They both played in the backfield when Ken was a Senior and Don was a Sophomore. On one occasion, the elder Baker had called Don's number to run the ball to off tackle to "zero hole" as the terminology went. Genoa was on the opposition's 10 yard line. Running out of the single wing formation, Don took the direct snap and ran to that zero hole. Finding it clogged, he bounced to the outside and ran in for the tally. Upon returning to the huddle, Kenneth unloaded on his younger brother for not running the designed play. Don fired back "What's the difference, I scored didn't I? The well chiseled older brother then informed him who was calling the plays " I don't care, Don. You run to the zero hole if that's where the play is supposed to go!!!" The young Sophomore/younger brother never repeated that "mistake" with Kenny running the show.
The man with the well chiseled face and body to match finally ran into an opponent he couldn't beat Monday at 1:30 in the morning. In all his 85 years, he persevered through some of the most rugged times and situations imaginable. This guy believed that football was simply blocking and tackling. For a ball carrier to run out of bounds was a sin. Missing a block or arm tackling would cost you his respect, and blocking meant knocking your player to the ground. Fumbling was inexcusable. So was losing. But beneath this hard nosed man who never had the resources to go to college or put milk on his cereal, lay a gentleman to whom no man was a stranger. Everybody who breathed was Ken Baker's friend and he made certain they knew that fact. The man just seemed to demand great respect and earned that respect from multitudes.
Mr. Baker had a daughter that I fell in love with and married. One day back in 1974 after I tied the knot with Carla, he told me about his days at Genoa High and how he thought he had gained a 1000 yards rushing but had no way of proving it. The light bulb went on above my head and the inspiration from that day led to the formation of the Bobby Mills 1000 Yard Club. Years later, QB/LB Kenneth Baker became the only player to be recognized on my 1000 yard list without proof of his feats. Somehow, I just knew it had to be. The single wing teams from that day rarely passed and with the All-State Baker taking most of the direct snaps and I firmly believe this man gained his 1000 Yards.
Tomorrow will be a day suspended in time for me. The All-State QB will be laid to rest in St. Edward. The high school game lost a great player in Kenneth Baker. We were so much alike in our views. He passed his toughness on to my wife and two children. I will never be in this man's class though, but I was the fortunate one to have known this gem of a human being who remembered details from EVERY game he played his Junior and Senior seasons at Genoa. Yes, not many will turn back the pages of a 1941 World-Herald and see his name on that All-State squad, but I know and so do the ones still living that played against this man. There is a team up above that has probably already nabbed Mr. Baker as a QB/LB. There are some good ones up there, but he will fit in perfectly. I never had the opportunity to see you play, "Dad", but if you'll save me a place on the sidelines I'll bring my clipboard and document those 1000 yards this time around. So long Ken Baker, and as you always used to tell me when you were ready to leave my home...."it's been a little bit of heaven."