Tim Stevens

Baker, '99 freshmen elevated South Johnston

When Brantley Baker entered high school in the fall of 1999, he and a handful of friends decided they wanted to help build a football program at South Johnston.

Eight of the players who vowed to change the school's image as freshmen also played as seniors. Although they were almost always outscored, their devotion to the mission did not falter.

Baker thinks the group was successful, even though their team won four games and lost 38, often by lopsided scores.

This season's Trojans play Belmont South Point at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday at the University of North Carolina's Kenan Stadium for the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3-AA championship.

"I think we began to change the mind-set a little," Baker said. "Even though we usually lost, we gained a reputation for never quitting and playing hard to the end."

Baker is an imposing figure in his Wake County Sheriff's Department uniform with the sleeves pulled taut, a chest that threatens his shirt buttons and shoulders that look like they were made to lift boulders.

He can't bench press 525 pounds like he did a few years ago when he played football at Catawba College, but he still can press more than 480.

Brantley transformed himself from a 5-foot-8 freshman who couldn't bench press his weight, 168 pounds, into a 227-pound fullback/linebacker who could bench press 345 pounds.

He missed no games and only two practices, both after breaking a wrist, during his high school career. Teammate John Gregory missed three practices, Neal Beal, three; and Jeremy Sizemore only two. They were beaten physically but never mentally.

They were serious about changing the image of the football program, and Baker believes he and his friends helped lay the foundation for the success South Johnston has achieved.

Baker remembers turning down summer beach trips so that he could go to the gym and work out.

"We were very serious about getting better," he said.

The Trojans in those days were a 4-A school and clashed helmets with schools such as Garner and Southeast Raleigh. The little group of South Johnston seniors clutched small victories in games, making goal-line stands, forcing punts, scoring touchdowns.

"High school football made a huge impact on me," Baker said. "I am who I am because what I learned in high school football. I learned what it was like to give 110 percent of your effort and how to keep making that effort even when you don't get the results you want.

"People asked us why we kept coming back to play football year after year, but they didn't understand that we were getting so much more than we were giving. We struggled for four years on the field, but we loved what we were doing."

Baker graduated in the spring of 2003 and played football for two seasons at Catawba, which was ranked No. 3 in the country in Division II. Baker's career ended when he broke his leg and needed pins and plates to repair the damage.

Chris Boykin, the South Johnston coach, resigned after the 2003 season, and Joe Salas left the program he rebuilt at Franklinton to take on the building project at South.

Baker believes Salas didn't have to start from scratch.

"I think our guys worked so hard and played so hard that we won some community support," Baker said. "One of the most memorable things from my high school career was going into the community to sell raffle tickets for a grill. The team took the money and bought toys for the Toys for Tots program. It felt so good to see that people looked up to us because we were South Johnston football players."

Deep inside, he feels like he is a part of the program and always will be.

"I'm so proud of this team," said Baker, who can be found in the bleachers on Friday nights if he is not working. "I don't know if they realize how much this means to us."

Baker believes that a South Johnston win on Saturday would be for every player who ever pulled on a South Johnston football uniform and played because he loved the game, the school and the community.

The Trojans will win for all the 0-10, 1-9, 1-10 teams, Baker said.

He believes they will win for a group of 1999 freshmen who vowed that better things were coming.