Lonnie Reed coached George Baker almost 20 years ago at Albany High, and he hasn’t forgotten him.
Baker, a state trooper from Albany, died Sunday from injuries he sustained during an accident while in the line of duty, and to hear some of his former coaches speak, it’s fitting he spent his life helping others.
“If you knew George, that’s just the type of guy he was,” said Reed, who coached Baker in 2004 and is now retired and living in Oklahoma, said. “He was just … the toughest kid I’ve ever been around. Didn’t complain, just willing to go the distance to get us where we needed to go and always had a smile on his face. Super guy. I miss him. I miss those kids because I’m not down there around them and seeing them grow into young men and watching their careers, but the world is going to be a dimmer place without George Baker in it, there’s no doubt about it.”
Baker, who graduated from AHS in 2005, played football and baseball for the Hornets and made an impression in both sports. He was a late bloomer in football, with Kevin Darouse, his position coach in football noting Baker didn’t come out for the sport until his senior season.
It was also Reed’s first season at Albany, and he said Baker’s leadership was invaluable, especially considering Reed brought in a new system for the Hornets.
“It was a new system, and he bought into it,” Reed said. “He could see the benefit of what we were trying to do with it, and by him buying in, naturally, you had a lot of other people buy in.”
As a senior, Baker had a touchdown catch in a 12-0 win over Varnado, an interception and a 29-yard reception that set up a touchdown in a win over Springfield and caught a 33-yard pass in a win over Grace King that helped the Hornets start the season 5-0.
“I’m not sure if he played football before that, but I can tell you that when we got him, he had marginal talent, but he was the kind of player that listened to everything that you taught him,” said longtime Albany football assistant coach Mark Thompson, who was also Baker’s position coach. “He absorbed it. He lived it. He definitely became a better player because of it, and that’s the reason his senior year he made so many plays is because he worked on the little things that we taught him throughout.”
“He bought into it 100 percent, spent tons of time in the weight room transforming his body,” Thompson continued. “You could see the characteristics that made him into the man that he was.”
“You could just see the makings of a phenomenal person. He just did everything the right way, and he never questioned anything – just did it. You can definitely see why he was a success in the Marines and on in life.”
At season’s end, Baker earned first-team All-District 9-3A honors in a district that included powerhouses Amite and Independence at the time. Amite won the Class 3A state championship in 2004.
“Once again, he just worked and worked and outworked everybody,” Darouse said. “He wasn’t the fastest guy out there, but by the end of his senior year, he was the best cover guy we had on the whole team.”
“For him to make all-district in that district, that speaks volumes right there about his character and his work ethic,” Darouse said.
Even though Baker garnered all-district honors, Reed said that wasn’t his main concern.
“George was one of those backbone guys,” Reed said. “He didn’t care who was getting the credit. He didn’t care who got the (awards). He just wanted to be on the field, and he wanted to win. He bought into what we were doing. He bought in 100 percent and then he gave 100 percent. He believed in what we were trying to get accomplished there – dependable, great player, talented guy, but he would just go the extra mile. George was the toughest kid I’ve ever coached, and I’ve coached a long time.”
“He was just a joy to be around,” Reed said. “Always upbeat, always happy, always looking at the bright side of things – just a pleasure to have in the locker room and pleasure to have as a friend. It’s certainly an honor that he played for me and I had the benefit of coaching him.”
Darouse said he got a taste of Baker’s competitive nature during his sophomore season as a member of the Hornets’ baseball team.
“He just kind of fell under the radar,” Darouse said. “I think it was him and maybe one other kid that I didn’t carry on the varsity team. He just came to me, and he said ‘coach, what do I have to do?’ I just said, ‘George, just keep doing what you’re doing, and an opportunity will present itself’, and he busted his behind, and before I knew it, there was no way I could keep him off the varsity team because he was doing things that some of my starters weren’t doing.
“That’s the type of kid he was,” Darouse continued. “He didn’t get mad at me. He didn’t blame anybody else. He just came to me and said ‘what do I have to do?’, and he did what I asked him.”
Darouse said Baker was also a leader during his senior season, which was a rough one for the Hornets record-wise.
“He was one of the guys that just kind of kept everything together for me and the team,” Kevin Darouse said. “He was constantly coming to me, ‘coach, what do we have to do to win?’ Finally, I was just honest with him like, ‘we don’t have very much pitching. I don’t know what there is we can do to win.’ He said, ‘well, let’s just keep working.’ He kind of kept my spirits up, too.”
After high school, Baker spent eight years in the Marines with one combat deployment in the Middle East and started his law enforcement career with the Greensburg Police Department. He also served with the St. Helena Parish Sheriff’s Office before joining the Louisiana State Police.
“I think one of the things that he always wanted to do was be a state trooper,” Darouse said. “There’s very few kids that you know that say, ‘hey, this is what I’m going to do with my life’, and they do it.
“He’s just the type of guy that always put other people in front of himself,” Darouse continued. “It never was about him when he was playing ball. It was always about the team, so none of that surprises me.”
Darouse said Baker’s selflessness was on display when he worked as a volunteer with the Livingston Parish District 11 Fire Department and was the one of the first people to respond after a former teammate, Shelton Vicari, was shot.
“He got there and applied pressure to the gunshot wound and made him keep the pressure on it,” Kevin Darouse said. “If that doesn’t happen, Shelton probably bleeds to death.”
Baker’s reach in the parish wasn’t just limited to Albany as his wife, Heather, was Doyle softball coach Amanda Decell’s assistant for six seasons.
“The one thing that I think of when I think of George is he always wanted to help,” Decell said. “Heather could have called any time of the day to say, ‘hey, we need some burgers grilled for our tournament, or we need help setting up tents’, and he would be there. Every year, he would be there to help with whatever we needed. I remember the girls would joke around with him a lot. He was very supportive of the team and Heather. He would come to a lot of our games, and the girls loved him. They joked around with him all the time. He was just always willing to help.”
Decell said she remembers Baker going through his training before becoming a state trooper.
“That was really important to both of them,” Decell said. “They were really proud.”
Thompson, who called Baker ‘probably my most favorite player that I ever coached,’ recalled seeing Baker later in life and that he was always smiling.
“You could just see the respect and appreciation for what you taught him,” Thompson said.
Darouse, whose wife is Albany girls basketball coach and athletic director Stacy Darouse, said the same, noting he and his wife would often run into Baker in New Orleans while he was on duty patrolling the French Quarter.
“You know how me and Stacy are,” Kevin Darouse said. “We love all our kids. We do. But George is just one of those that kind of pierces your heart a little bit more. His mama said this … the kid was born with a smile on his face and went out of this world with a smile on his face.”
“He just exemplifies everything you want your child to be.”