Bill Hass on the ACC: After Two Years Away, NC State's Toney Baker is Back in the Groove
Nov. 12, 2009
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – Perhaps no football player in the ACC is having as much fun in 2009 as Toney Baker of NC State.
After two seasons away from the game because of a knee injury, Baker is not only playing again, he’s playing at a high level.
“I’m having a blast, the time of my life just being back out there,” he said. “It brings so much joy to me. I’m just happy to be back, just letting the instincts take over. I feel I’m back (at 100 percent) and it feels fantastic.”
Through nine games, Baker leads the Wolfpack in rushing with 588 yards and with a 5.2 average. He has added 280 more yards on 23 receptions and has scored nine TDs (six rushing, three receiving) to lead the team. At 5-10, 225 pounds, he runs hard and is difficult to bring down.
This Saturday he’ll help lead the Wolfpack effort against Clemson, one of the ACC’s hottest teams with four straight wins.
“He’s as good a back as we’ve played, maybe the best back,” said Tigers coach Dabo Swinney. “This guy is tough, tough, tough to tackle, a really hard runner (who) has made a lot of big plays.
“The other thing is he catches the ball extremely well; he’s done a nice job being a receiver for them, too. He’s a good football player (and) he’s got our full attention, I can assure you.”
There was a time when Baker might have wondered if he would ever hear such praise again. After a record-smashing career at Ragsdale High School in Jamestown, N.C. (10,231 yards and 161 touchdowns), he was progressing nicely his first two seasons with the Wolfpack.
In 2005, Baker had 546 yards rushing, 108 yards receiving and six scores. As a sophomore he bumped those totals to 699 yards rushing, 177 receiving and five TDs.
When Tom O’Brien took over as State’s coach in 2007, Baker won the starting job and was playing well in the season opener against Central Florida. He had carried 10 times for 38 yards and caught three passes for 38 more before things came to an abrupt halt.
“I remember making a big play and spinning off (a tackle),” Baker said. “The hit really wasn’t that bad, I just kind of got nicked in the knee.
“When I got up I felt my knee popping around and that was something I had never felt before. After that, I knew it was probably going to be a serious injury.”
And it was. Although the ligaments were intact, there was severe damage to the articular cartilage. Baker was told the nature of the injury the day after the game and knew he was done for the season. He had been healthy throughout his high school career so this was a new challenge.
“It was a different experience because I’ve never really been injured,” he said. “That was tough, without a doubt one of the biggest hurdles I’ve had to face in my life, having the game taken away.
“I had been playing since I was (young) and really had a lot of passion for the game. When I heard the news it was pretty devastating. My parents were there and when the doctor told me I was done for this year, my heart just dropped.”
The original prognosis put the odds against Baker ever playing football again. After surgery, he was off his legs for two months, beholden to others to drive him places he needed to be and reliant on crutches to get around campus and everywhere else.
Cartilage from other parts of his knee was grafted in place in the damaged section with the intent that it would re-grow. A lengthy rehab process began, and Baker sat out spring practice of 2008. By the time training camp opened, he still wasn’t ready.
Another surgery was required to clean up some things and Baker had to face the news that he would miss a second straight season. This time, however, it was a little easier to take. His body had started to re-grow cartilage on its own and doctors became optimistic he might eventually get back on the field.
“That was tough, too,” he said, “but I knew that if I went through with this I could possibly come back strong, 100 percent, if I could stay patient. That was my mental state at the time: ‘I’m doing this for myself to get back.’
“After that it kind of picked up. When I ran I started feeling like myself, I started feeling the explosiveness coming back. I’d be out there watching practice and that kept me motivated. After the second time, I felt I was coming back to being the runner that I am.”
Baker’s teammates and coaches did everything they could to make him feel connected to the team. His family and friends and former high school coach Tommy Norwood encouraged him to stay positive, which is his nature anyway.
“Just my faith has gotten me through all of this, trying to stay positive and not dwell on negative stuff all the time,” Baker said. “That really helps a lot.”
When spring practice rolled around this year, Baker was ready. There was some initial nervousness about getting hit for the first time, but after that happened he put it out of his mind.
“My mental state was pretty good and after taking that first hit and being in there, I just knew I was back,” he said. “I wanted to get in there and just play and not think about it, just have fun, and I was able do get that done in the spring.”
When training camp opened in August, Baker felt so good that he earned the starting job. Of course, no one knew exactly what to expect when he played in games for real, but he has exceeded expectations.
“He’s certainly grown in confidence as the season has gone on,” O’Brien said. “I wouldn’t have given you a penny to think he could play the way he’s playing now after watching him at the end of spring practice. He’s more like the back that we thought we had inherited when we came here two years ago, so it’s been remarkable, his turnaround and what he’s been able to accomplish running the football.”
O’Brien said he has never been around a player who worked harder and stayed more positive in his quest to get back on the field. Baker’s diligence hasn’t gone unnoticed by opposing coaches, either.
“I’m sure he really appreciates every opportunity that he gets to just play,” Swinney said. “And then to be able to play at the level he’s playing at, that’s a great thing for him because he’s overcome a lot.”
Going into last week’s game against Maryland, the Wolfpack needed to sweep its final four games to become bowl eligible. State needs seven total wins since it can only count one of its two wins over Football Championship Series (formerly Division I-AA) opponents.
The mission against Maryland was accomplished. Next, the Wolfpack has to do the same against Clemson.
“We know they’re real athletic,” Baker said. “It’s going to be a tough one and we’ll have to be ready to play. Our players are really taking it seriously; they know what we can accomplish and what’s at stake, so it’s just (a matter of) attacking practice with a lot of focus and getting ready to play fast on Saturday.”
Although Baker is a fifth-year senior, this season might not be the end of his college story. The paperwork has already been filed for a sixth season of eligibility, which the NCAA sometimes grants in extreme injury cases like his.
“It’s in the pipeline,” O’Brien said. “We don’t have anything back now but hopefully we will find out soon. I think he has a great case for it and I’d be very surprised if it was denied.”
Baker is taking a wait-and-see attitude on another season. If that doesn’t happen, he’d like to take a crack at the NFL, where his father, Tony Baker, played two years in the late 1980s.
Regardless, Baker plans to play out the 2009 season the same way he has approached it from the beginning.
“It feels fantastic just to get back in the groove, being out there with my teammates, just playing the game of football,” he said. “It’s a true blessing and I’m having a great time.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
E-mail Bill Hass
This article can not be copied or reproduced without the express written consent of the Atlantic Coast Conference.