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Budda Baker Heads Home To Seattle As Cardinal

Rookie safety returns to the place his football career took off


Michelle Baker chuckled incredulously, still in awe at how this came together so perfectly.

Sixteen years ago, she stood outside her home in Bellevue, Washington, unceremoniously pushing a mower across the lawn. The single mother of five was tired, both physically from health complications and mentally because of the constant financial strain.

As Michelle cut the grass that day, her 5-year-old son, Budda, popped outside with a request.

"He wanted a lawn mower, and he wanted a shovel," Baker said. "He said he was always going to help do the yard, because that's what little boys are supposed to do. He was always helping."

Budda was too young then to truly ease his mother's burden, but the desire never faded. When he was 7, Budda told Michelle he would one day be in the NFL, where he would earn gobs of money and buy her a house.!

While many children have spun that optimistic yarn, Baker followed through in April, becoming a second-round draft pick by the Cardinals. His ascension began in Bellevue during a fabled high school career and then moved down the road to Seattle, where he became a star at the University of Washington.

On Sunday, Baker will return for his first NFL game in the state where he rose to prominence. Not as a member of the Seahawks like so many envisioned, but dressed in red.

"When I was getting drafted, and I realized I was getting drafted by the Cardinals, I was like, 'Oh, OK, it's the NFC," Baker said. "'It's the NFC West. We're going to be playing them two times a year.' I instantly got happy."

Beginning in middle school, the expectations placed on Budda Baker's shoulders have been outsized and unfair. But every time, he's delivered.

Baker's sport of choice growing up was soccer, until his mom and aunt decided to sign him up for football in sixth grade. It wasn't long before he was carving up defenses as an unstoppable running back, scoring touchdowns by the handful.

The success ballooned at Bellevue High School. Baker's football teams went 42-0 with three state titles, and he won several sprinting championships in track and field. As a senior in 2013, Baker was named the state's Player of the Year by multiple publications.

Michelle began to understand her son's mounting celebrity when most of the mail delivered to their house had his name on it.

"I never would have thought my little Budda would become such a big old thing," she said.

Baker originally committed to Oregon for the next stage of his career, but he wavered, because the instincts within his 5- and 7-year-old self never left.

In 2010, Michelle was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, colitis and fibromyalgia, health problems that affect her to this day. When Budda was choosing a college, his big brother, Robert, was in prison for robbery and possession of a firearm, making Budda the de facto man of the house.

!Baker wanted to stay close to his family and attend Washington. His main worry was that "the football team wasn't that good."

He took the leap and switched his commitment to the Huskies, and it was there the hometown legend really took off. Baker started as a true freshman in 2014 and picked off his first career pass in the Cactus Bowl against Oklahoma State. On his phone after the game was a text message from a member of the Seahawks' Legion of Boom.

Hey, it's Earl Thomas. You had a great game.

"I'm not a really big star-struck guy, but for him to text me was really cool," Baker said.

Baker's individual success came quickly, and the Huskies made strides as a team. It culminated last season with a Pac-12 championship and a trip to the College Football Playoff. Baker was named a first-team All-America.

"I had the opportunity with my class to help bring the football team up," Baker said. "Leave the program better than it started, and that's what we definitely did."

Baker entered the NFL much-ballyhooed and praised. To many, that can be a detriment.

Here, physical freaks dot the landscape, and those who think too highly of themselves and don't put in the work can get left behind. When friends warned him of potential pitfalls, Baker waved them off.  

"I put the most pressure on myself," Baker said. "All the people would say all of these type of things, like, 'Oh, you should do this,' but in my head, I just blocked it. I already knew I was going to be doing all those things."

Baker has continued on his idyllic trajectory as a rookie with the Cardinals. He made plays on special teams immediately – so well that Baker was a named to the Pro Bowl – and has been dynamic since entering the starting lineup at safety.

In the first start of his career, Baker registered 13 tackles, a sack, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery against the Texans in mid-November.

Defensive coordinator James Bettcher said it's the hard work Baker puts in behind the scenes that makes him special. During midweek preparation earlier this year, Bettcher and defensive backs coach Nick Rapone told Baker that an opposing tight end had only run a specific route once all year from a certain alignment.

That meant it probably wasn't coming in the game, but Baker nevertheless hunted it down.

"He's a guy that's not just doing what he's asked to do," Bettcher said. "He's doing more. And you can see it in his play. That's why he's going to be a special player for a while."

The early NFL success does not shock Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who remembers Baker well from his Pacific Northwest exploits.

"He's always been a great player," Carroll said. "It's no surprise at all they got a great guy in him."

Michelle Baker bought Budda a plastic lawn mower after his request to help back in 2001, and he would shadow her during the yardwork. Nowadays, he has the means to make a tangible difference.

Baker received a $3.1 million signing bonus when he signed his rookie contract in late May, which makes things easier if Michelle needs medicine or has hospital bills. He wants to pay her back for always keeping food on the table and a roof over his head.

"My mom is my everything," he said.

The hard part is getting her to accept aid.

"I have the financial stability, but she still never wants to ask for help," Budda said. "Sometimes I'll send my sisters money and they'll slip it in her purse."

For Michelle, the true happiness goes beyond finances. It's certainly nice to know her son can help if needed, but the greatest joy is seeing him achieve his dreams. The family will be at CenturyLink Field on Sunday, hooting and hollering from the stands, a chunk of Cardinal red 'Baker' jerseys in a sea of neon green.

"They're like, 'Michelle, what side are you going to sit on?'" she said. "I said, 'Well, I love my Seahawks, but I love my Cardinals better.'"

Michelle Baker laughs again, and then she gets quiet, reflecting on it all.

"I'm so excited," she said. "Everybody is. It's just kind of weird. He's played for Bellevue and in Seattle for so many years. Now he's coming back, as an NFL player. His dream. It's like a mirage, really, you know?"

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