After three unsuccessful seasons of trying to crack a 53-man NFL roster, defensive lineman Chris Baker finally reached his breakthrough last season as he earned a role as backup nose tackle with the Redskins.
The 6-foot-2, 233-pound Baker played well enough for the team to re-sign him to a one-year restricted free agent tender this past offseason, and this year has contributed at both defensive end and nose tackle.
In today’s Game day Q&A, Baker discusses his football journey (which may not have happened had it not been for the prodding of best friend at Windsor High School in Connecticut), the roots of his nickname, Swaggy, and his goals for this season.
MJ: You played more than you ever have last season, re-signed on a restricted free agent tender, and then moved from nose tackle to defensive end. What kind of expectations did you have for this year?
CB: This year, I just wanted to be able to compete for a starting position for the first time in my career. A lot of times, in other years, I was just trying to make the team. But this year, I felt like I could compete for something more. I came in in really good shape and really hungry. It’s a big year for me personally, coming back on a one-year tender. I want to take advantage of every snap, and play as well as I can, so I can get paid.
MJ: I hear you have an interesting history with Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
CB: Terrance Knighton is my best friend. We grew up together. I played basketball my whole life, and he’s the reason why I played football in high school.
How did he get you into football?
CB: I was going out for spring basketball, and he said, ‘Yo, Bake. Try football out.’ And I said, ‘All right. I’m going to give it one more shot.’ I went out and tried it and did good all week, so I knew I could stick it out and play a whole season, and I wound up being an All-State offensive tackle. I did good on defense but was still learning how to play. But that’s when the wheels got rolling.
MJ: Do you all still talk often?
CB: Oh, yeah. We talk all the time. We talked earlier this week. We planned to get dinner or something when I get [to Denver Saturday] depending on what the schedule is like.
MJ: Not many people would look at you and think basketball. What kind of basketball player were you?
CB: I was good! I played basketball my whole life because I couldn’t play football because of the weight limit, so I turned to basketball. I used to be 6 feet tall when I was 11 years old, so they used to call me ‘Baby Shaq.’ I was in the post. I was a monster down there.
MJ: They had a weight limit?
CB: Yeah, I forget what it was. But it was something like 130 and I was around 160, 170 when I was 11. I could never make weight limit. I’d practice all summer and come and try to play in a game and I could never make the weight limit, and I was too young to play with the bigger boys. So, I said, ‘Forget it. I’m playing basketball.’ But it’s all worked out for me.
MJ: Once you started playing, did you have a good indication early on that football was going to work out well for you?
CB: Well I wasn’t getting any scholarship offers in basketball, and I started getting scholarship offers my junior year. Well, in basketball, I had offers from little, small schools. But in football, once I got my first Division I offer, I said, ‘OK, this is going to be good.’
MJ: You were an All-state offensive tackle. When did you shift to defense?
CB: Well, I didn’t know until I got to Penn State that I was going to be shifting to defense. I could’ve played offensive guard, too. But when I got there, they shifted me to defense. It was a struggle my redshirt freshman year. I was real out of shape, but I got it. I love it. You get to be a little more aggressive. You get to make plays, stand out a little bit more. I’ve always liked to stand out, so defense, you get to stand up and dance after a sack or a big tackle. I like that.
MJ: You finished your college career at Hampton. Did you worry that being at a smaller school would hurt your chances of making it to the NFL?
CB: Well, I went to Penn State, but got kicked out [for two separate on-campus fights], and I chose to go [to Hampton]. I had a few schools to choose from, but I could play that year at Hampton, so I went down a level.
MJ: Did you worry that your chances of playing in the NFL were shot?
CB: I was doing really well at Penn State, so I was rated pretty high in my defensive tackle class, and so, I was a little worried because of getting kicked out, but I knew once I could get out on the field, my play would do the talking. I did well at Hampton and got a chance to go to the league.
MJ: You had a couple short stints with Denver and Miami, and then after being on the Redskins’ practice squad, you made it to the 53-man roster midway through the 2011 season, but then got hurt. How frustrating was that?
CB: Yeah, I never thought it wouldn’t ever work out. But I was just so upset because I had worked so hard to get there, and then once I finally got active, I tore my quad, playing basketball. Now, I don’t even want to look at a basketball. I don’t want to play horse, I don’t want to shoot jumpers. Nothing. But, everything happens for a reason.
MJ: What’s the story behind your nickname, ‘Swaggy’?
CB: It came from my good friend, John Walker, who I played football with. He lives up in Baltimore, and one night, he was talking about swag, and he was saying swaggy this, and swaggy that. And he started free-styling. And I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to start calling myself swaggy.’ And I was playing around with a reporter, and they wound up writing an article saying ‘Chris Swaggy Baker,’ and after that, I just went with it.
MJ: How did it feel last week to get your first sack?
CB: It felt real good. After four years, to finally get it. This year, I’ve been playing a lot of base defense, and that’s mostly playing against the run, and so, to finally get my first sack, it felt good. It was fun. I watched it on SportsCenter all week. I got texts, and e-mails and Facebook messages. I got a lot of love for it.