Playoffs are just the latest adventure for best friends Baker, Knighton
Chris Baker was ready for Windsor (Conn.) High School’s Sunday morning scrimmage against New Britain High School, but first he wanted breakfast. A freshly minted 16-year-old built like the door of a walk-in refrigerator but possessing only a driver’s permit, Baker hopped in his dad’s Chevy pickup while his parents were in church and made the journey to a nearby McDonalds. He arrived safely. It was at the drive-thru, typically one of the easier lanes to maneuver an automobile, where the trouble started.
Somewhere between the driveway and the drive-thru entrance, Baker miscalculated his route and careened the car into the drive-thru, totaling the front of the vehicle and wrecking part of the restaurant. As smoke belched from the hood, the oversized teenager rubbed his eyes to assure this wasn’t a dream. The twisted metal and acrid fumes quickly alerted him that it wasn’t. Now, he had to call somebody to inform them of the accident and seek some advice.
Instead of his father or the auto insurance company, it was his best friend and high school teammate, Terrance Knighton.
“I just ran into a freakin’ McDonalds, man!” Baker said to Knighton. “My dad’s gonna kill me, bro! I don’t know what I’m about to do!”
Baker assured Knighton that he hadn’t sustained any injuries, but trouble on the home front awaited.
“The first thing I was worried about was if he was ok and did he call his dad,” Knighton says with a laugh. “Once I knew he was fine, I started laughing because he drove to McDonalds and was willing to risk his life over an orange juice.”
“I ended up working at that McDonalds after that to pay some of it off, and it was a running joke throughout the rest of high school” Baker says. “And after I started working there I gained a good 40 pounds.”
Over a decade later, Baker and Knighton still belly laugh while recounting the incident, just one chapter of their storied friendship that started in childhood. The long history between the two Washington defensive linemen has endeared them to a success-starved fan base during the Redskins’ surprise run to the playoffs. The two will play their first NFL postseason game together as teammates on Sunday in Washington’s NFC wild-card game against the Packers.
“We’re living the childhood dream now,” Baker says.
So let’s take a moment for introductions.
First, meet Chris. He’ll respond to any of the following: Swaggy, Big Bake, Big Wiggle, Big Sexy.
“Soon I’m going to go by Big Daddy, too,” Baker says. Roughly twelve hours after Baker and Knighton finished conducting this interview, Baker’s wife, Jamila, gave birth to a baby girl, Aria.
The formerly undrafted defensive tackle has emerged as a disruptive interior pass rusher who can line up both inside and out. For a rebuilt Redskins defensive line that brought in a new position coach (Robb Akey) and several free-agent signings (Knighton, Ricky Jean-Francois, Stephen Paea), Baker’s ascent to one of their most consistent linemen has helped anchor a unit that needed significant repair at the end of 2014.
He's also showcased some serious dance moves on the field and in the locker room over the past few years, with dances that include (but are not limited to): Shmoney dance, Milly Rock, Nae Nae, Truffle Shuffle and Terio’s “Ooh Kill ‘Em.” And none of these account for when he decides to improvise.
Now, meet Terrance. He accepts Pot Roast even if that nickname started because a fellow player heard him ordering pot roast on the team plane during his time with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Knighton was Washington’s most heralded off-season signing after a successful run as Denver’s starting nose tackle. The 355-pound run-stuffing behemoth was thrust into national prominence after a crucial sack of Tom Brady during the 2013 AFC Championship Game while he was a member of the Broncos and is one of the league’s novel figures. But Knighton wasn’t always a run-stuffer with a strong swim move and light feet. In his younger days, he was a tight end and receiver.
Yes, you read that right. Mr. Pot Roast was once a pass-catcher for the Windsor Warriors.
Take his 90-yard reception—90 yards!—during his senior year of high school. When asked about it, Baker interjected before Knighton could comment.
“Oh yes, the tight end pop pass!” Baker says, referencing the playcall. “This was against Bloomfield High School. The school of Dwight Freeney! Our rival who we hadn’t beat in something like 40 years! Terrance grabs the ball, and there he goes hauling 80 or 90 yards down the sideline … and then gets hauled down at the one-yard-line!”
Both pause for several seconds to try and contain their laughter.
“The running part will be tough if I catch the ball these days,” Knighton says. “But I’ll definitely catch it.”
Despite two successful seasons in Denver as the starting nose tackle, Knighton gauged surprisingly little interest in free agency and signed with Washington on a one-year, $4 million deal. The signing was aided by Baker, who staged a Twitter campaign labeled #PotRoast2DC and roused public interest in bringing Knighton to the Mid-Atlantic.
“He’s been recruiting me for years,” Knighton says.
“We went out to dinner right before my wedding with the team,” Baker says. “And we never let him leave D.C. without becoming a Washington Redskin.”
Knighton signed with the Redskins the Friday before Baker’s wedding, then served as his best man a day later.
“Bake sure sweats a lot,” Knighton says. “He kept trying to pretend they were tears, but I had to hand him towels throughout the ceremony.”
The genesis of their friendship was at a summer camp at the Kelvin D. Anderson recreation center in Hartford, Connecticut when Baker was six and Knighton was seven. Born and raised in Hartford, Baker and Knighton were two of the region’s finest young athletes, usually teaming up or squaring off in basketball—whether it was a pickup game or in a local tournament. They soon became regulars at each other’s homes as they grew from children into middle schoolers.
“I was not one to have a whole lot of other kids around the house,” Marion Baker, Chris’s father, says. “But we loved having Terrance around whether it was to eat or just be with us. I kind of adopted Terrance in a way, and I was happy having them around my home so I would know exactly what they were doing. He was with us pretty much every day and eventually I came to see him as one of mine, you know what I mean?”
Before he was “Swaggy,” Baker dreamt of starring in basketball as a brawny post player in the mold of Shaquille O’Neal. Knighton alternated between both football and basketball at Windsor High School and showed promise in both sports. Both bulky post presences with unusual vertical leaps and strong ballhandling skills, they thrived in AAU and were projected as potential collegiate players. Marion admits he thought his son’s future was in basketball after watching him dominate virtually every circuit of basketball throughout middle school and early high school.
The problem is that both players stopped growing vertically—Baker at 6’2”, Knighton at 6’3”—so dreams of dominating the post whittled away. As a result, Knighton and close friend John Manning lured Baker to try out for the football team. Baker slid naturally into both Windsor’s offensive and defensive lines while Knighton thrived at three different positions.
“I was more on the skill side back then,” Knighton says. “Obviously that changed!”
Both take several seconds again to try and contain their laughter.
While the fond memories of high school still gleam for both players, they needed each other through trying periods of their collegiate years. Knighton attended Milford Academy in New Berlin, N.Y. after a controversial failed class during his senior year at Windsor before eventually committing to Temple, where he’d start his collegiate career 1–21 and finish with 10 total wins. Baker was thriving as a starting defensive tackle for Penn State before he was dismissed from the team for his role in two campus brawls. He maintains that he was innocent of any wrongdoing.
“I could lean on Terrance,” Baker says. “He asked what the hell I did now, what do I mean I didn’t touch anybody? He knew what I was going through and he felt my pain. He’s been somebody I could always expressed my feelings to.”
“We just told ourselves to keep the end goal in mind,” Knighton says. “We always reminded one another what we said we were going to do and coming from what we came from in Hartford, we didn’t want to go back to that.”
Now is the fun part for the two of them.
“You’ve got two brothers out there playing side by side,” Redskins defensive line coach Akey says. “You grow up dreaming to play in the NFL. To play next to your childhood best friend is something else.”
Some were skeptical that Baker was lobbying the front office to sign Knighton since both played primarily nose tackle in 2014. Marion even asked Chris if he thought this was the best idea.
“He told me that God had room for both of their talents and that they’d be best served in D.C.,” Marion says. “And who wouldn’t want to play beside their best friend?”
The two embraced after clinching a playoff berth against Philadelphia and were seen earning a hearty laugh after a fumble recovery in Dallas. The two reveled together after Baker secured his sixth sack of the season, which earned him a $280,000 bonus. Baker’s dance of choice for that moment was a variation on Johnny Manziel’s notorious ‘money’ gesture.
Now all that’s left is winning a title together.
For Marion, it’s a time he won’t soon forget. His first grandchild was born on Thursday, and now he watches his son and his best friend—a kind of son of his own—line up next to one another in the NFL playoffs.
“It can get overwhelming at points when, so much that sometimes you want to cry,” Marion admits. “Eventually I just laugh it off and join in with the crowd and cheer loudly. But it’s just overwhelming you know?”
Meanwhile, the two best friends are taking it in stride ahead of Sunday’s game. Knighton joked that he’d agree to babysit Aria if he could fill her up with candy before returning her to her parents to calm her down. Baker admitted everything is happening the way he wants it, he just needs the win over Green Bay to complete it.
For some, it’d be the pinnacle of any friendship. For Big Bake and Pot Roast, it’s simply another chapter.