This story originally appeared in the Dec. 5, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
When Robert Baker returned home he made two promises: He wouldn't shed tears, and he wouldn't cause any more heartache. But once he glimpsed his younger brother's childhood bedroom, the first vow came to a watery end. Many college athletes fill the walls of their rooms with certificates and plaques and posters of their sports heroes—a road map to what they achieved and what they aspire to. Budda Baker, a hard-hitting junior safety and a key to Washington's resurgence, went with a different decor, covering the room with letters that Robert, 28, wrote from prison.
For seven years the brothers exchanged handwritten notes full of updates from home and trash talk. They also spoke by phone most Thursdays while Robert was locked up for first-degree robbery and possession of a firearm, initially at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, Wash., then at Larch Corrections Center in Yacolt.
Over that time Budda, 20, grew from an annoying little brother who would beat Robert in Madden and Mortal Kombat to a 5' 10", 192-pound NFL prospect. When the Huskies were on TV, Robert would gather with dozens of supporters, from inmates to guards, who cheered any time Budda appeared. When Robert couldn't watch, he asked guards for updates or got the play-by-play from Budda later over the phone. He'd scrounge copies of The Seattle Times and cut out every clip that mentioned Budda, pinning them above his bed and dreaming of seeing his brother play in person.
That day arrived on Nov. 12, when Washington played USC at Husky Stadium. Reaching his seat in section 118, Robert turned in a circle and took a deep breath. Then he pulled out his phone and zoomed in on number 32 as the teams took the field. He couldn't quite believe that at the first college game he attended, 70,000 fans were screaming for the brother he taught to play, the leader of an unbeaten team then ranked No. 4 in the country. When a promo with Budda popped up on the big screen with the words LET PURPLE REIGN AGAIN, Robert pointed and cried, "That's him! That's Budda! We gotta get a picture of that!"
When Robert settled into his seat and Budda settled into the game, it was the end of a long trip to a place neither of them ever thought they'd be.
Bishard (Budda) Baker grew up a half hour from Husky Stadium, in Bellevue, where he blossomed into one of the best players in the 2014 class, ranked No. 45 by Scout.com and No. 5 at his position. A state champion sprinter whose rushing, defending and kick returning sparked Bellevue High to three Class 3A titles, he had the talent and temperament to change a program. Washington—once a conference power that drew barking fans who stomped so vigorously that the press box swayed—hadn't gone to the Rose Bowl since 2000, and in five years under Steve Sarkisian surpassed seven wins only once. Meanwhile, five hours south, Oregon was using its blur offense to sprint to the Rose Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl and the 2011 BCS championship game.
When Sarkisian left for USC after the 2013 season, the Huskies plucked highly successful Chris Petersen from Boise State, though the hiring failed to impress the top in-state prospect. Two weeks after the new coach's arrival, Baker committed to the Ducks. He wanted to play for a winner.
Robert, a lifelong Washington fan, made clear that fraternal support did not extend to Eugene, at least not fully. "Ain't no way I'm wearing Duck colors!" he yelled over the phone. "When I get out, I'll go to your games in a white T-shirt with your number written in black marker. That's it."
Petersen also continued to make his appeal. Budda's mother, Michelle, recalls that when Petersen came to visit, he opened his wallet and pulled out a photo of Budda, which he kept next to pictures of his children. Michelle recalls Petersen telling Budda, "I want to build my team around number 32."
"For him to be here in our backyard," Petersen says, "I mean, we had to get him."
The Huskies did. The night before signing day in February 2014, Baker declared for Washington. It wasn't only Petersen's persistence that swayed him. It was Michelle. In 2010 she'd been diagnosed with Crohn's disease, colitis and fibromyalgia. A mother of five—Robert is the second oldest, Budda the fourth—Michelle, who is retired, suffers from pain and fatigue every day, struggling to walk on "bad, awful knees" and requiring an oxygen tank when she leaves the house.
As much as he liked the idea of Oregon, Budda could not dismiss the tug of home. He was 13 on Aug. 14, 2009, the day he watched a judge sentence Robert to eight years. At first Budda was too shell-shocked to react. His tears flowed moments later, when police officers removed Robert's belt and handed it to Budda. Before being led away Robert told his younger brother, "You're the man of the house now. You have to take care of Mom."
Budda did as he was told. He locked doors and windows each night, making sure that Michelle and his sisters were safe. Robert hated that he wasn't there to accompany Budda on official recruiting visits or watch him walk at high school graduation. When they talked, Robert bit back tears. "I didn't want him to hear that," Robert says. "I didn't want to put that on him too."
The brothers saw each other roughly once a month, when Budda would drive three hours for visits. At Larch Corrections Center in May 2014, Robert started crowing about how Budda might be the college football star, but everyone knew big brother was the real athlete in the family, and how he could still whip little brother in a race. Soon they were stretching in the prison yard and running 50-yard sprints; Robert backed up his bravado. "Man, some things don't change 'cause even now he is slow as hell," he says.
Now that Robert is out, Budda wants a rematch, in cleats, on the Husky Stadium turf, and has plans to post a video of the race. "I think that'd be embarrassing for you," Robert told him. "On your field, having a 28-year-old beat you? Coach Pete might see me win and ask me to walk on."
He might; Budda is UW's second-fastest player in the 40. Of course it takes more than wheels to get on the NFL's radar. Budda complements his top-end speed with great acceleration, fluid change of direction and well-honed instincts. Although slightly undersized, he rarely misses tackles and covers well enough that he could wind up a cornerback at the next level. "He's almost a Honey Badger [Tyrann Mathieu] type in terms of how athletic he is and his ability to diagnose plays," says USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin. "When you watch Washington on film, you see him flash across the screen and it's like, Oh boy. He's everywhere." The play that best exemplifies Baker's range of skills came in a 30–22 loss to Oklahoma State in the 2015 Cactus Bowl, when quarterback Mason Rudolph threw to a streaking receiver who appeared open on a deep post. Baker read the route, closed the gap in an instant and leaped to snare the pass—one-handed—returning the pick 44 yards.
That bowl capped Baker's first season, during which he started every game but worried he might have signed on for a bigger project than he imagined. In his second college start, against FCS Eastern Washington, QB Vernon Adams torched the secondary for 475 yards. Although Washington won 59–52, Baker is still pained by the memory. "Oh, my God, they scored on literally every single defensive back that day," he says, closing his eyes. But under Petersen, the Huskies improved quickly. Led in the secondary by Baker, a freshman All-America, they finished the year 16th in red zone defense and second in sacks. In 2015 they cracked the top 20 in rushing defense and turnovers forced, while Baker was named All-Pac-12. By then he felt good enough about the team's prospects to level with visiting defensive recruits: "Look, we're gonna be good, whether you come here or not."
That has proved to be true, thanks also to the development of sophomore quarterback Jake Browning and the return of junior receiver John Ross III (out last season with a torn left ACL). Baker has continued to show why he is considered a second- to fourth-round NFL draft pick, with 61 tackles—nine for a loss—three passes defended, two interceptions and a forced fumble for a D ranked 10th in scoring. Petersen pays Baker his ultimate compliment, calling him "OKG: Our Kind of Guy." How does the coach define that? "On a scale of one to 10, those guys love football at a 14, have tons of passion and are really good kids."
Robert's first time seeing Budda play since peewee ball did not have a storybook ending: The Trojans pulled off a 26–13 upset, dropping Washington to 8–1. The day, however, was still a happy one. Earlier, at a Starbucks around the corner from the Bellevue home he shares with his wife, Samantha, and their three children, Robert talked about where he'd gone wrong. He was, he says, "a knucklehead" who got "mixed up with the wrong crowd" as a teenager. In September 2008, with a gun in hand, Robert confronted a friend who he says owed him money. That led to his arrest. He says the gun was linked to other crimes that he did not commit, so he cut a deal to avoid a longer sentence. "I learned life can be taken away from you in two ways: death or prison," Robert says. "I'm lucky it was prison, because death was around the corner."
Now busing tables at a restaurant, Robert used his errors as a lesson to Budda. "Let me be the prime example," Robert told him, "of why you need to do it the right way." After the USC loss Budda—who got his nickname as an infant because he "looked like a beautiful Buddha doll, with a big, round belly," says Michelle—preached confidence and persistence, assuring teammates that their loftiest goals were still attainable. Sure enough the next week they beat Arizona State 44–18; last Friday they took the Apple Cup with a 45–17 win at Washington State. Now, a win over a top 10 Colorado in the Pac-12 title game will give Washington its first conference title since 2000 and, possibly, a berth in the College Football Playoff.
In early October, the day after the Huskies bulldozed Stanford 44–6, Robert called Michelle from prison. Ecstatic over the win, Robert said he wished so badly that he could be at Husky Stadium next to Michelle, watching Budda lead Washington back to the top. "Your time is coming," Michelle told him. Budda believes Washington's time is too. Patience is achingly familiar to the Baker brothers, but they know the payoff is worth it.