In late February, however, things took a sudden change as Sam became sick "real sick" and he eventually ended up in a hospital to treat a virus that had taken over his body as a result of an ulcer in his throat and esophagus.
"Here I was in the prime of my life and it just hit me," said Sam. "All of a sudden I just got real worn down, I couldn't eat, I couldn't do anything. I couldn't even drink water because my throat hurt so bad. The ulcers in my throat were just too painful to swallow anything. At one point when I was in the hospital the nurses would put ice chips in my mouth and I would just let them melt."
Baker lost twenty pounds during the ordeal, from 312 down to 292, and, in an ironic twist, his mother was healthy enough to be there by his side throughout the whole process.
"My mom was great," said Sam, who is back up to 304 pounds as of Monday morning. "There was a lot of missed work for her during that time but I couldn't do anything for myself so it was nice to have her there. My dad was also in town, he had already planned to come home for his birthday. We ended up not being able to do too much but he was glad to be around."
Sam's father, David, splits his time between New York and Southern California with his job as commissioner of the Arena Football League but he is still able to find time to be on the sidelines watching practices or in the stands at games wearing the familiar #79 jersey.
The father certainly had to be pleased with what he saw from his son and the rest of the USC team last year as Sam settled into the left tackle spot on an untested offensive line and helped lead the Trojans to an undefeated season. Along the way Sam faced such top NFL prospects as Bill Swancutt (Co-Pac 10 defensive player of the year along with Shaun Cody), Dan Cody, Justin Tuck and Ryan Riddle while blocking for a Heisman Trophy winner. With so many memories to look back on, we asked Sam if he had any thoughts that stood out from last fall.
"Oh, it would have to be the Orange Bowl," said Sam. "That was one of the greatest feelings I've ever had in my life. The feeling going into the locker room at halftime, we just knew the game was over. In films we had watched their defense just take apart other offenses but after the first couple drives Ryan Kalil and I just kind of looked at each other and we knew they weren't going to be able to stop us."
When Baker, who says his strength as an offensive lineman is his quick feet, looks back on the 2004 season he recalls the environment he faced at Virginia Tech as the one thing he wasn't quite prepared for. The hostile crowd may have been a shock for a first game starter but the level of play on the field was fine for Sam after going up against All-Americans like Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson every day in fall practice. Last season it was that veteran Trojan d-line which helped break in the inexperienced offensive line during endless practice battles but this year the roles are reversed and Baker is well aware of the responsibility.
"We have to do the same thing for the defensive line that Shaun and Mike did for us. I think they have a chance to be a real good group. Sed Ellis, he's ready to step in right away. It's hard to replace a guy like Mike but Sed's going to be real good. I don't know how much Frostee will play in spring because of his toe. A guy like Jeff Schweiger, he's got great technique. I think the sleeper of the group could be Rashaad Goodrum."
There may be plenty of experienced talent on the offensive line but the starting line-up is far from set as the unit welcomes a new coach who has some tough decisions to make when it comes to playing time. Ruel is known as a no-nonsense and vocal coach who has already made a good impression on his players.
"Coach Ruel seems like a real good coach and be brings a lot of experience with the NFL. I've always looked for that since playing at that level is my ultimate goal, it's what we all want as players, and he's already shown me some things that will be able to help my game. I told him my goal for the spring was to get my hands better and he showed me this drill he uses which forces the OL to focus on using their hands, things like that make a big difference.
"My primary goal for the spring as we head into fall is to hold my own spot, I just want to lock down that side of the line. I'm not at the level I want to be in terms of my strength because of the ulcers but I should be able to do most everything. The good news this spring is that we've got a lot of depth. Winston Justice is an incredible athlete. Tiny Malu is just a big athlete. Kyle Williams is gonna come out and wow people. It should be fun."