MIAMI BEACH — David Baker is taller than the door. No, this is not an optical illusion, though the white pinstripes on his massive black suit play tricks on the eyes, somehow making his 6' 9", 400-pound frame seem even larger. He knocks unnaturally high up on the door frame, just a few inches from the top, making a regular-sized hotel-room door look fun-sized.
When Baker walked through the Loews Hotel during Super Bowl Week in Miami, fans who recognized him took to shouting their hotel room numbers in his direction, jokingly hoping they might get the knock on the door that means they are a Hall of Famer. Hey, room 1624! Room 1532!
“Now when I go get my food at Wendy's, I go in and the lady goes, ‘Hey am I going into the Hall of Fame?’” Baker says.
This is Baker’s seventh year as the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and after making Jimmy Johnson and Bill Cowher cry on live television, he’s become one of the most visible off-the-field characters associated with the NFL.
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When Baker gives a speech or any introduction of any sort, it most likely begins with this phrase. “Canton, Ohio, a little place we call the most inspiring place on earth. If Walt Disney had the happiest place on earth, we can have the most inspiring place on earth.”
When you hear a line like that, it can be difficult to suppress an eye roll. But after a few minutes listening to Baker, it’s clear just how earnest he is. He defines his job as the protector and preserver of legacies, and he promises the Hall of Fame finalists that their bust will live on in Canton for “the next 40,000 years,” a number he got from Blair Buswell, the sculptor who creates the bronze busts.
Baker has several more Bakerisms that he rotates that all prove the power of the Hall of Fame in inspiring people with the player’s stories. He’s a well-practiced public speaker and his deep voice draws people in because it has no sharp edges, all warmth and slow rounded sound.
They didn't fall out of bed great.
There's not one quarterback in the Hall of Fame who didn't have a whole lot of incompletions.
“What I love about football and these guys is it's a lot of failure,” he says. “You go through a lot of failure to win.”
Baker believes in this power sincerely, because he has seen people visit the Hall of Fame during their last week of life, as a bucket list item. He’s seen a young boy visit and take meticulous notes and photos to bring back to his dad, who was sick in the hospital with cancer. He’s heard the emotional stories told each year on ‘Measurement Monday.’ the day after the Super Bowl, when new Hall of Fame class is measured for their gold jackets and each member shares a story from their career that isn’t included in their bio.
“We really believe this stuff,” he says.
Baker really believes it because the message of failure, imperfection and fighting back resonates deeply with him. Thirty years ago, he made a mistake of his own that derailed his first career in politics.
In the ‘80s, Baker was a city councilman and later became mayor of Irvine, California. In 1988, he ran for the republican nomination for a congressional seat, and when his campaign was low on funding in the final days of the race, he forged a $48,000 check. Baker was the executive director of the nonprofit Irvine Health Foundation, and he admitted to writing a $48,000 check to himself on the foundation’s account, and forging the name of a member of the foundation’s board of directors on the check, which required two signatures. Baker stopped payment on the check shortly after it was written. He pleaded guilty to the forgery charge, and was sentenced to community service. His political career was over.
“I didn't intend to take anything,” he says. “I was trying to bridge something for 48 hours, but the bottom line is, it was wrong. And I had to fess up to the fact that it was wrong. But man, I learned a whole lot about what it is to lose stuff. It's not a lesson that I would want to go through again but I wouldn't want to miss it. It makes this stuff right here, it makes it real, very real.”
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Imagine just for a second what it’s like to always be the largest person in any room you walk into—even when the rooms you are walking into are frequently filled with ex-NFL players. Baker is instantly noticeable anywhere he goes. People subconsciously pause a little bit longer when they glance his way, some whisper to a friend, some subtly—or obviously—point him out.
Once, Baker bought tickets to a Broadway play for himself and his two sons, who are also very tall. “I never contemplated that we couldn't sit next to each other because we were so big,” Baker says. He ended up standing in the back aisle to watch the play, while his sons sat in the outside two seats. When he flies coach, he buys two seats, because, “You immediately understand that when you are getting on airplanes there are not a lot of people who like you,” he says. “They are afraid you are going to sit next to them.” Last fall, footage of Ellen DeGeneres sitting next to former President George Bush in Jerry Jones’ suite at a Cowboys game went viral. And seated directly in front of Ellen was Baker, who she called, “the tallest man in the world.”
Baker grew up in Downey, California. His parents—his father worked in a lumber mill and his mother was a caretaker, neither knew how to read or write—relocated there from Arkansas to look for work. It was often difficult to find clothes that fit him, or basketball shoes for a size 16, 6E width foot. Baker didn’t play football seriously while growing up; weight limits, he was too big. When he was eight years old coaches wanted to play him with 14 year olds. So he played basketball instead, and was good enough to earn a scholarship to play at UC-Irvine, and later played professionally in Europe.
At 66 years old, Baker is used to the attention and complications that come with always being the biggest man. He doesn’t know anything different, and he only really notices what an outlier he is when he looks at a photo where he’s standing next to someone else. “I look out of my eyes and see the rest of the world and it's very unusual for me to look at myself,” he says.
His overwhelming height and width makes him easily recognizable, which is actually helpful to expand the Hall of Fame’s reach. If he can leverage his size and memorability to promote the Hall of Fame and it’s values, he sees that as a good thing.
“God made me this way and I can't change it,” he says. “So if we can use it to inspire people or have fun with people, that's what we're going to do.”
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Every knock on the door is a different experience. Baker is always the same, all heart and sincerity and sweaty forehead (he carries a hanky with him everywhere to wipe his brow), but the man on the other side of the door is often unpredictable.
Before he even got to the door-knocking this year, Baker sat down in a small conference room to make a call. The first Hall of Fame enshrinee chose not to stay at the Loews like the rest of the group, because he didn’t want to put himself in a situation where he might get frustrated. It’s uncommon for a finalist to not stay at the hotel, but Edgerrin James had never done so in four years as a finalist. And the former Colts star running back lives in Miami, so he especially wasn’t going to leave home this year.
“Hey Edgerrin,” Baker said as he puts the call on speakerphone. “I know I have called you in the past with some not very good news for that year. But I want you to know that I am calling you today to welcome you to Canton, Ohio where you are going to be a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and we are going to protect, preserve and promote your legacy for the rest of time.”
“Thank you,” James said. “I appreciate it. I gotta get up now.”
Although it was 3 in the afternoon, James was still lying in bed when Baker called. He owns a gentleman’s club in Miami, and he was sleeping in after several long nights of hosting Super Bowl parties.
“I think he was just getting out of bed,” Baker said after hanging up the phone. “That's a first!”
In room 603, Steve Atwater shouted when he heard the knock. “Oh, yes sir!”
Baker grabbed Atwater’s hands and held them close. They’d been through this together twice before. “Love you man,” Atwater said. “It's worth the wait.”
In room 803, there was no audible reaction to Baker’s first knock, just an odd silence. Fifteen seconds went by before Baker knocked again at the top of the doorframe. Finally, a subdued Isaac Bruce answered. Bruce had trained himself and his family to not allow situations to dictate emotional responses. “It's about quiet confidence,” he said later. “You hit the game-winning shot, there's no reaction because you expected it and you practiced it. It's not arrogance, but confidence.”
Baker gave his spiel and shut the door. As soon as he did, Bruce’s wife and two young daughters let out that emotion and screamed together at the top of their lungs.
In room 1106, reggae music played loudly. Troy Polamalu’s sons, Paisios, 11, and Ephraim, 9, are first to the door. “Hiiiii,” they sang together.
“Hey what do you say guys?” Baker said. “Guess what? Your dad is going into Canton!”
The young Polamalu boys are a spitting image of their dad, long wavy hair and dimples.
“This is awesome,” Ephraim says. Baker continued his speech, but Ephraim wasn’t listening. He pointed to the video cameras behind Baker. “Can I say hi to my class? Can I say hi to my class?”
“Hi class!” Paisios says.
Ephraim started listing off classmates, “Hi guys, Hey Jacob!”
A man across the hall in room 1107 heard the commotion and opened his door halfway through Baker’s speech to Polamalu. The Hall of Fame staff asked him to please refrain from tweeting or texting or calling anyone about what he’s just overheard until 5:30 that night when the news would be released.
In room 1550, Steve Hutchinson silently cried as soon as he opened the door. He embraced Baker and said nothing for 30 seconds. When Baker gave his opening line, Welcome to Canton, Hutchinson’s wife Landyn scream-cried at his side, gasping for breath.
Baker slapped Hutchinson on the back. “I know it's been a tough week here,” he says.
This was Hutchinson’s third time as finalist. Finally, he broke his silence. “Why did you get me last?” he said, choking on his first word. “That was a long wait, it's been a long day.”
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After Baker’s knock, the four 2020 Hall of Famers hopped in a white van with their families and headed with a police escort to the NFL Honors awards show, where they were officially introduced. When they walked into the green room, the living members of the Hall of Fame’s centennial class were waiting to greet them.
For the NFL’s 100th anniversary, the Hall of Fame put together a blue-ribbon committee that selected 15 men for a special centennial class, which included players and coaches and contributors that had been overlooked for the Hall of Fame, like former coaches turned broadcasters Jimmy Johnson and Bill Cowher.
Cowher embraced Polamalu, who played for him in Pittsburgh. Johnson put up the Miami Hurricanes’ “U” sign with James, where coach and player each made their last stop before jumping to the NFL.
In an appearance on the Dan Patrick Show a few days earlier, Hall of Famer Deion Sanders had ranted about the Hall of Fame selecting a larger class this year. "What is a Hall of Famer now? Is it a guy who played a long time?" Sanders said. "It's so skewed now. Once upon a time, a Hall of Famer was a player who changed the darn game, who made you want to reach in your pocket and pay your admission to see that guy play. That's not a Hall of Famer anymore.
"Every Tom, Dick and Harry, you're a Hall of Famer, you're a Hall of Famer, you're a Hall of Famer. They let everybody in this thing. It's not exclusive anymore. And I don't like it."
Baker obviously disagrees with Sanders’ stance. “This is a class, all 20, that have withstood more scrutiny and more investigation than any class previously,” he says. “And so, I have great confidence in the guys that are Hall of Famers. The blue-ribbon committee went through 23 hours of meetings to come up with it.”
“Well, he can make that comment again, in 100 years,” Johnson says, with a wink.
By 6 p.m. Baker was sweating through his suit. He takes the hanky out of his pocket and wipes his forehead before his last obligation of the day, the press conference for the Hall of Fame class. He sat on the left of the stage and grabbed the microphone.
“Hello, my name is David Baker, and I’m the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, a little place we like to call the most inspiring place on earth…”
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