Wilcox County, Alabama has produced many remarkable college and professional athletes over the years, including a number of outstanding football players. Among their number is linebacker and receiver Johnny Baker, who will celebrate his 76th birthday today (Wednesday), March 15.
Baker was born John Hendrix Baker III on March 15, 1941 in Camden. Some sources say that Baker grew up in Coy, and sometime prior to high school, he moved to Meridian, Miss. Baker was a football standout early on, but was sidelined for a couple of years after suffering a head injury as an eighth-grader at Meridian High School.
On the advice of doctors, he gave up football for a while, but two years later, as a junior, he rejoined the football team at Meridian High. In his final two years as a prep player, Baker became one of the all-time greatest players in the history of Mississippi high school football. College scouts took notice.
It came as no surprise that upon high school graduation, Baker signed a football scholarship with Mississippi State University, where he went on to become one of the greatest, recording-setting players in MSU history. In the days of two-way football, Baker starred as a linebacker and offensive end for the Bulldogs and collected all sorts of honors and awards between 1959 and 1963.
Inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1984, Baker was named an All-SEC Sophomore, was an honorable mention All-American in 1961 and 1962 and was also an All-SEC selection in 1962. He set school records for pass receptions (22) and receiving yardage (323) during the 1961 season.
Off the football field, Baker was also a top student and campus leader in Starkville. During his years as an undergraduate, he was named “Mr. Mississippi State” during a campus-wide student vote, and he also served as president of the Baptist Student Union. He went on to graduate with a degree in Business Administration in May 1963.
After his senior season at MSU, Baker played in the Blue-Gray College All-Star Game and in the Senior Bowl, serving as co-captain of the South teams in both games. Baker was also named to the then-prestigious College All-Star Team in 1963 and played in one of the most remarkable football games ever played. Playing outside linebacker alongside Monroe County native Lee Roy Jordan of Excel, Baker and the College All-Stars upset Vince Lombardi’s NFL champion Green Bay Packers, 20-17, at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Aug. 2, 1963.
Back in the pre-merger days of the early 1960s, the National Football League and American Football League held separate player drafts. Baker was the 37th overall pick in the third round of the 1963 NFL draft, and he was the 54th overall pick in the seventh round of the AFL draft. Baker ended up signing with the AFL’s Houston Oilers and played for them from 1963 to 1966. In 1967, during his final year in the pros, he played for the San Diego Chargers. In all, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Baker played in 51 games during his five years as a professional player.
As best that I can determine, Baker currently lives in the Houston, Texas area. He and his wife of 48 years, Carla Swanson Baker, have four children, two of whom went on to play professional baseball. Baker’s son, Jacob, played professional baseball for the Kansas City Royals while Baker’s son, Joshua, pitched in the College World Series for Rice before going on to play for the Texas Rangers and the Milwaukee Brewers. Baker’s daughter, Cara, is married to former Major League outfielder and first baseman Lance Berkman.