The John Baker Story

What's In A Name, by Dan Green

John Baker was too short and slight to be a runner for his high school track team. But, John loved to run and he wanted to join the track team. His best friend John Haaland; was a tall and promising runner and heavily recruited by the Manzano High School track coach, but he wanted nothing to do with the sport. John Baker convinced the track coach to let him join the team under the premise that his best friend would follow. The coach agreed and John Baker became a runner.

The first meet of the year was a 1.7 mile cross-country race through the foothills of Albuquerque – this was John’s first meet, too. The reigning state champion, Lloyd Goff was running at the meet and all eyes were on him. The race began and the pack of runners led by Goff disappeared behind the hill. The spectators waited. A minute passed then two and three. Then, a single runner appeared. Immediately everyone assumed the shadow of a figure was Goff or Haaland, but they were wrong – it was John Baker. In his first race, Baker dusted the field and set a new meet record in the process.

When asked what happened behind the hill, Baker explained that during the halfway point of the run, he was struggling hard. He asked himself a question: “Am I doing my best?” Still unsure if he truly was giving his best effort, he fixed his glance on the back of the head of the runner in front of him. “One at a time”, he thought. His entire focus was on one thing – to pass the runner in front of him. He committed to himself that nothing would distract him, fatigue, pain, nothing. One by one he caught and passed each runner in front of him until there was no one else to pass.

As the season progressed, John proved that first race was not a fluke. Once the race began, the fun loving, unassuming teenager became a fierce and relentless competitor that refused to lose. By his junior year, John had broken six state track records and by his senior year, he was highly regarded as the best miler in the state. The future certainly looked bright for the seventeen-year-old.

John entered the University of New Mexico in 1962 and he took his training to the next level by running over twenty-five miles a day. In the spring of 1965, Baker and his team faced the most feared team in track - the University of Southern California Trojans. There was little doubt that the mile belonged to the Trojans. During the race Baker led for the first lap then purposely slipped back to fourth. At the far turn of the third lap, Baker collided with another runner vying for position. Baker stumbled and struggled to stay on his feet; losing valuable time. With just under 330 yards to go, Baker dug deep and living up to his reputation he blew past the leaders to take the victory by 3 seconds.

Yes. The future looked even brighter for John Baker. After graduating college Baker set his sights on the 1972 Olympics. In order to have time to train and to also make a living, John took a coaching position at Aspen Elementary in Albuquerque where he would get the chance to work with kids – something he always wanted to do. Within a few years, Coach Baker became known as the coach who cares. He invested a great deal of time and energy into working with his athletes as individuals. He was not a critical coach; but he only demanded what he demanded of himself and that was the each child gives their best effort. The kids responded and loved learning from Coach Baker.

In May 1969, just before his twenty-fifth birthday, John noticed that he was tiring prematurely from his workouts. Two weeks later he developed chest pains and one morning he woke with a painfully swollen groin. He went to see his doctor and they discovered that John had an advance form of testicular cancer. The only chance John had was to undergo exploratory surgery. The operation confirmed the worst case. John’s cancer had spread. His doctor believed that he had best six months to live. A second operation would be required.

I can’t even begin to imagine the devastation that John must have felt. How easy it would have been to lie down, quit and feel sorry for himself. In fact, shortly before the second operation, John drove to the mountains and prepared to end his life. He did not want to put his family through the pain. Just before he thought of driving off the cliff, he recalled the faces of his children at Aspen and wonder if they would think that this was the best that Coach Baker could do? This was not the legacy that he wanted to leave behind. At that moment he decided to rededicate his life to his kids and continue to strive to give his best effort. John was not a quitter. He drove home determined to give his best effort for the rest of his life.

In September, after extensive surgery and a summer of treatments, John returned to Aspen where he added a unique program to include handicap kids within the sports program. He appointed kids as “Coach’s Time Keeper” or “Chief Equipment Supervisor”. Everyone that wanted to was included. By Thanksgiving, letters from parents were arriving daily at Aspen Elementary in praise of Coach Baker. John created special award for any child that he thought deserved recognition. He used his own trophies as awards; carefully polishing off his own name. He purchased special fabric with his own money and at night would cut blue ribbons to give as awards.

John refused to take medication to help with his pain because he was afraid of how it would impair his ability to work with his kids. In early 1970 John was asked to help coach a small Albuquerque track club for girls – The Duke City Dashers. By that summer the Dashers were a team to contend with. Baker boldly predicted that they would make it to the AAU finals.

By now, Baker’s condition was complicated by the chemotherapy treatments. He could not keep any food down, his health rapidly deteriorated and he struggled to make it to his practices One October at practice a girl ran up to Coach Baker and shouted, “Coach, your prediction came true, we’re going to the AAU championship next month.” Baker was elated and wished for one remaining hope – to live long enough to go along. Unfortunately, it was not to be. A few weeks later, John clutched his abdomen and collapsed. He would not be able to make the trip. Then, at the age of twenty-five on Thanksgiving Day in 1970, John Baker passed away – eighteen months after his first visit to the doctor. He had beaten the odds by twelve months. Two days later, the Duke City Dashers won the AAU championship in St. Louis – “for Coach Baker”.

As it stands, that would be the end of the story. Except, a few days after his funeral, kids at Aspen Elementary began calling their school “John Baker School” and other kids rapidly adopted this change. A movement began to make the new name official. The Aspen official referred the matter to the Albuquerque school board. In the spring of 1971, 520 families in the Aspen district voted on the matter. There were 520 votes for the name change and none against. That May, at a ceremony attended by hundreds of Baker’s friends, family and kids, Aspen Elementary officially became John Baker Elementary.

Today, John Baker Elementary stands today as a testament to a courageous young man who believed in giving his best effort right down to the very end. His legacy lives on through the dedicated efforts of the John Baker Foundation.

Excerpt from the book Finish Strong, Amazing Stories of Courage and Inspiration, written by Dan Green.

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