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Football standout Hayden Baker

Hayden Baker

Hayden Baker

Three years ago, Hayden Baker and his younger brother, Quinn, were teammates on the Cary-Grove High School Class 6A state championship squad, which ended its season with a spotless 14-0 record.

Quinn, the senior quarterback of the 2012 Cary-Grove team, was one step away from repeating a similar feat: Winning a 6A championship and going undefeated. The Trojans faced Lake Forest in the Class 6A state semifinals Saturday, Nov. 17, and Hayden — who’s completing his redshirt sophomore year as a center with the Northwestern University Wildcats — attended his brother’s playoff games when his schedule allowed.

“I’m just proud of him and how he’s led the team,’ Hayden says of Quinn, who’s been playing despite suffering a broken hand earlier in the year. “To overcome that injury takes a lot of character. He’s doing well.”

So is Hayden, who was a preferred walk-on when he entered Northwestern in the fall of 2010 after graduating from Cary-Grove that spring. Hayden has since worked his way up the depth chart to become the Wildcats’ second-string center.

Stepping onto the practice field as a walk-on that first time, though, was, in Hayden’s words, “a complete culture shock.”

“It’s a new environment,” he says. “You get beat up a little bit, but you learn and grow. It was a great opportunity to have. Not a lot of people get that.”

Adam Cushing, Northwestern’s offensive line coach, says, “Hayden was a really good football player for Cary-Grove and one of those guys where we didn’t have many scholarships [to give out] in his class. But he is a really intelligent individual who wants to be a doctor, wanted to come to a great school like Northwestern, and show he could walk on and stick.”

Hayden says he’s on a “pre-med track” at Northwestern, and is considering going into sports medicine because of his interest in athletics and medical care.

Although Hayden hasn’t seen much action in his first two seasons — he had played in only one game during the Wildcats’ first 11 contests of 2012 — he’s in uniform every game. However, he must prepare for each matchup as if he were the starter.

“You have to treat your role like that,” he says, because if the team’s starting center goes down, he’s next in line.

“Hayden’s a great fit, not only for Northwestern but for our football team and our offensive line,” Cushing says. “He’s a critical part of the team, which is the backup center. To an offensive line coach, the backup center is worth his weight in gold. He’s involved in the game plan, he knows all the calls and he can go execute it.”

Hayden competed in two games during the 2011 campaign, and vividly recalls his debut in a Wildcat uniform versus Eastern Illinois.

“Everybody remembers their first game,” Hayden says. “On Eastern’s defense there were a couple of people I played against in high school, so that was cool.”

Another particular game in which Hayden didn’t play but still stands out in his mind was the Wildcats’ 33-22 loss to Texas A&M last Dec. 31 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, held at Reliant Stadium in Houston.

“Bowl games are a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not a lot of people get to do that. You take it all in while you’re there and enjoy it as much as you can. One of our goals is to make it to a bowl game every year.”

Balancing the rigors of Big Ten football with the demands of class work at a school known for its academic excellence can be challenging, but Hayden says it’s all a matter of time management.

“You have to set a lot of time for school work,” he says. “It’s definitely doable. You have to be disciplined with your time management.”

Hayden says he hopes to compete for the starting job at some point over the next two seasons.

“We have to see how things play out,” he says. “You can’t go too far in the future. You just have to focus on this week and what we have to do to beat the next team.”

Italian roots are prevalent in the Baker family. Hayden and Quinn’s mother is Mary Ellen Baker, whose maiden name is Marchese. Mary Ellen’s side of the family hails from Naples and Potenza.

“Every Christmas on my mom’s side we make homemade ravioli,” Hayden says. “Having the family supporting each other is a great thing to fall back on. My parents [Mary and Robert Baker] have always been there for me. They supported my decision to come here. They’re behind you the whole way.”

About Mike Sandrolini

Mike Sandrolini has been published in the Elmhurst Independent, Voyager Media, the Daily Herald, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Bear Report. His stories and columns have been recognized for editorial excellence at regional, state and national newspaper contests over the years. He also has co-authored two books: "Bear With Me: A Family History of George Halas and the Chicago Bears" and "All the Good in Sports." His father, Raymond, is a native of Gaggio Montano, a small village around 30 miles southwest of Bologna.