Baker Leaves Underachievement Behind

The best day Dallas Baker has had in his four years at the University of Florida happened during the spring semester of 2005. The moment he got the results from a microeconomics class, he got on the phone to call his mom, Lolita McGraw.

I had a 97 percent on my microeconomics test and I called her up to tell her what happened," said Baker, one of Florida's Fab Four wide receivers at Gator Media Day on Friday. "She didn't even get a chance to tell me congratulations because she just started crying. Once you've experienced stuff like that it gives you the edge to do it all the time."

That test wasn't a one-shot deal for the 6-3, 204-pound junior from New Smyrna Beach who is the nephew of Gator great Wes Chandler. He turned in a grade point average of better than 3.0 in the spring and again in the summer.

While he was achieving in the classroom, Baker also began doing some things that had not been part of his repertoire the previous three years at Florida. He became a weight room and workout warrior, leading by example mostly but he was vocal, particularly with the incoming freshman wideouts, helping to teach them the ropes in afternoon workouts.

It was a different Dallas Baker during the spring and summer of 2005, not the classic underachiever whose first two years at Florida netted just 39 catches for 619 yards and six touchdowns. In Baker's first two years at Florida, he was better known for being a highlight reel player in the Orange and Blue Game but often a no-show when the games were played for keeps. .

"I keep hearing that he has been the spring game player of the year for 26 years or something like that around here," said Florida Coach Urban Meyer.

Spring game player of the year. Academic underachiever. Those were the perceptions.

* * *

There is this perception that has been fostered for the past four years that Dallas Baker is not the brightest bulb on the tree. He's heard all the whispers and the innuendo, fueled in part by his year of prep school after failing to qualify for the University of Florida out of high school and the fact he was redshirted his freshman year at UF because he had to concentrate on academics.

He's also heard all the talk about his lack of production on the football field in the fall. The perception is that he's Mr. April when what he needs to be is a football version of Reggie Jackson, who was known as "Mr. October" when he played big league baseball because he always produced in the fall.

Underachievement and Dallas Baker became synonymous, but all that started changing when Urban Meyer hit the Florida campus. From day one, Meyer demanded that his players go to class, study, live right off the field and do everything in their power in the weight room and workouts to become the best possible football player they could be. Meyer even set up the Champion's Club specifically to reward those players who were in class, making grades, living right and working hard at improving themselves as football players.

It may have surprised some, but Dallas Baker took the challenge that Meyer threw out and he became a champion. He changed his study habits. He changed his workout habits. He changed his life.

The first place it showed was in the classroom when he proved to himself that he could compete with the best students for good grades. Then he showed himself in the weight room, helping to transform his skinny body with 12-15 pounds of solid muscle. He had his usual spring game in which he wowed everybody, but he continued to work at his game in the summer.

Everything about Baker changed. Because of the lingering perceptions, probably most people are surprised. Baker isn't. This is a different Dallas Baker. This is a Baker who is growing more confident by the day and he likes what the new attitude and newfound confidence are doing for him.

"It's both maturity and finally saying 'I'm going to get my life together' that's doing it," he said. "Most players when you don't do so well in school, you make up excuses like 'I don't really care about school, all I care about is being eligible' but once you start making those grades you start looking at yourself like 'I can do it' so you try a little harder every day."

Meyer knew all about the perceptions so he has noticed the changes in Baker more than anyone else. He also knew the reasons behind the perceptions.

"I love Dallas and when I say this I have a great deal of respect for him," said Meyer after Sunday evening's practice. "He was an extremely immature guy. That's no one's fault, but he was but that's what happens your junior year in college a lot of times. Sometimes you're blessed when you have that guy who is mature as a freshman or sophomore but he [Baker] is really coming on."

Wide receivers Coach Billy Gonzalez has this burning desire that the players he coaches will have the highest grade point average on the Florida football team. He sees a direct correlation between good grades in the classroom and performance on the field.

"If you look at the core values at our receiver position, one of the things is to prepare yourself outside of the classroom and in the classroom both together," said Gonzalez. "It all works together."

Baker said he had more or less laughed about that notion that good in the classroom had an effect on the field. That was then. This is now. The only thing he's laughing about now is when he sees his grades and wonders how he managed life just skimming by.

"I've bought into that saying that if you're good in the classroom you're good on the field," he said. "Well, it's the truth because it's just like the playbook. If you study a play, positive things are going to happen. Before I took that microeconomics test I stayed up until two in the morning and I almost made the highest percentage in the class."

Gonzalez stresses to his wideouts that classroom discipline means discipline in every area of life and that includes what you do on the practice field and in games.

"I think the main thing is stressing the discipline, making sure he knows what's important which is first and foremost, academics," said Gonzalez. "We've been putting the pressure on him … I mean really putting it on him … and letting him work at it and all of a sudden he's seeing the results. When they start seeing the results and they're positive, they start to understand the positive is the result of hard work that they've put forward. It's no different in the classroom than it is on the playing field. Discipline gets results."

* * *

There was this one day in the summer when Gonzalez knew in his heart that Dallas Baker's days of underachieving were a thing of the past. Baker came into the Office of Student Life, the athletic department's study center for athletes. Baker arrived, opened his books and began to study. Gonzalez left for awhile, then came back and found Baker still there, still studying. That was the routine for ten full hours.

"When a kid takes 10 hours out of his day during summer school to put in the study time it shows you the commitment he has to make great grades and succeed," said Gonzalez. "Everyone wants to improve and when you succeed in the little things it carries over to the big things."

In the first week of fall practice, the big things for Baker have been hard work, making both the big catch as well as the routine catch, blocking hard on every play and showing his teammates that he's not willing to take a single play off. There has been no dog in his ethic.

"I was a wide receivers coach for 16 years," said Meyer. "I haven't coached many guys like that [Baker]. I have coached a helluva lot more player who are better numbers wise but not talent. He's got a chance to be a special player. His attitude is terrific right now. He's running after the catch, focused … going hard every day."

Gonzalez says what he sees Baker doing is "awesome because it shows he's really got things in perspective. I tell my wideouts that it would be a robbery for them to be here at school for free and not get great grades. Dallas understands that now. I see him doing it in the classroom and on the field."

Baker's new maturity allows him to focus on the things that are important.

"I want to do whatever I can to help my team win games," he said, "and I want to do whatever I can to be the best person I can be."

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