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Posted on Mon. Aug. 11, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

Retired series: Baker fighting to keep NFL career going

Veteran punter isn't ready to call it quits

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Seventh in a series of eight

Few professional athletes get the choice when to retire, and every other one is usually angry about it. Injuries happen, age limits their physical abilities or employers decide they no longer are necessary or don't want to pay the current rate.

Even fewer leave their professions healthy, partly because they retire one year too late versus one year too early.

But what happens to someone who has had to retire and lost their dream before reaching middle age? What's next after the only thing you ever wanted to do is no longer possible? How do you plan the next 30 years of your working life or replace that competitive appetite which has driven you for so long?

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Because he was an undrafted free agent, when Jason Baker attended his first NFL training camp he was more worried about surviving 12 days so he could play in an exhibition game than we was dreaming of playing 12 years. He has never taken anything for granted.

Maybe as much as anyone, the Wayne High School product understands that the length of an NFL career is largely out of the player's control. Injuries, contracts, finances or personality disagreements can all force a player into the next phase of his life at any time. He's played for six teams already, three of those in the 2004 season.

"You can't really get mad about it, no one forced you to do this," Baker said. "You sign up for it yourself. Guys sometimes ignore the realities of it when you are young. That cliff at the end is steep for every guy."

Right now, Baker, 36, may be facing his retirement, though he declines to even use the word. For a variety of reasons, he hasn't kicked in the NFL for two years, but he's in shape and 100 percent ready to go to training camp if the phone rings. He's been in limbo.

Park of Baker's situation is economic. As a veteran, he generally costs more against the NFL's salary cap than an untested rookie. Cost is one reason why he's been released at least a couple of times during his career.

He takes the high road and doesn't complain about it because one time he was that rookie who made the team because a higher-costing veteran got released. That allowed him to have a wonderful lifestyle, it allowed him to mature as a man, meet his wife and follow his faith. Baker believes God has a path for him, and he's trying his best to follow it.

"Football has been the channel of communication for God to refine me," he said. "Most of the significant things that have happened in my life have happened as a byproduct of pursuing my football career. There are blessings and trials.

"Culture and society are mistaken. We want to measure the God we believe in by the blessings we receive. If we are satisfied with the blessings then God is worth believing in and following, too many trials and He is not. Nowhere did He promise a smooth ride. The truth is that we serve and follow Him not the other way around. Every single thing that I have dealt with has brought me closer to Him. He weaves blessings and trials together beautifully."

As an example, Baker met his wife Carol Lindsey through a move to a football team he originally didn't want to make. Now they have a 14-month-old daughter Marilyn. The Carolina Panthers offered him a contract early in the off season of 2005 and he declined instead choosing to re-sign with the Denver Broncos for fear of going to yet another new team. He was traded to the Panthers a couple weeks later. A player rarely has influence over trade.

"He didn't let me have what I wanted, and I feel like that's one of those laundry list of lessons I have learned," Baker said.

That doesn't mean Baker dismisses his free will and the choices he makes in his life. He simply chooses to trust God and His path for him. If his football is over, he believes God will tell him the next phase of his life he needs to follow. So far, he doesn't think that's the message being delivered.

In fact, Baker thinks if he makes another NFL roster, he can use his experience being out of the game to provide a guiding to younger players. He could be a better mentor and possibly share his faith with others to help them.

He would also take a different mentality back to the game. He's older now, more refined in his outlook and more understanding of how the game works and what it means to him.

"I would be very interested in going back in now because I would have a degree of freedom that I've never had before," he said. ""Its hard not to get caught up in your own significance and importance when you are in the middle of all of it. The hype and the attention can be overwhelming. You begin to think that you are so needed that you will never deal with a day without football. That is good because without football, what would I do? You think being out will be the worst thing in the world.

"When you get out, you realize there is a whole lot of life out there that has nothing to do with football. There's a lot of fear that I no longer have. I have already kind of dealt with that."

And if that doesn't happen, Baker knows his priority is taking care of Carol Lindsey and Marilyn, preparing for his next punting opportunity, furthering his Fort Wayne football camp and the Catie B Circle of Care Project and managing his philanthropic projects. He's just not ready to use the R word yet.

"If you get a phone call and don't answer, then you are done," he said. "I truly believe football is still what He has in front of me right now. It hasn't been taken from me yet, but there may be a day that comes when I'll trust Him then the way that I trust Him now and we'll see what's next."

The phone rang recently, and Baker is preparing for what he hopes is his next pro punting opportunity.

bsebring@news-sentinel.com


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