Friday Night Hero: West Rowan’s Jesse Baker
Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 2, 2017
By Mike London
MOUNT ULLA — Fifty years ago, West Rowan had its first good football team. They were sons of teachers and sons of farmers.
There were only 22 players. They rode a bus that maxed out at 35 mph, and they beat neighbors such as Mooresville and Davie County that the Falcons had been losing to. They went 8-1-1 (tying North Piedmont Conference champ North Davidson). If they hadn’t slipped up against North Rowan they would’ve given the Falcons their first conference championship — 33 years before West finally won one.
Jesse Baker plays tight end and H-back — and occasionally, tailback — for the Falcons in 2017, but he wouldn’t have been out of place on that chugging 1967 bus, seated next to Labe Sloop, Roger McSwain or David Morgan.
At 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, Baker would have been on the small side for a football player even 50 years ago. He lives on a farm in the Millbridge area, rural country between West Rowan and South Rowan. He knows what sweat is. He knows what a day’s work is. He knows what crawling into bed exhausted feels like.
“I lift weights five days a week before school starts,” Baker said. “Then I have a weightlifting class at West. Then I go to football practice. After practice I go home — and that’s when I really go to work on the farm. We raise beef cattle. That will keep you busy.”
Baker didn’t play much football as a junior. He was the backup fullback.
“He’s a kid who really wanted to play more as a senior, so he went to work in the offseason and he’s still working,” West head coach Joe Nixon said.
Baker wishes he’d started his intense training regimen when he was younger.
“I wish I’d gotten started earlier, wish I’d been lifting when I was a freshman and sophomore the way I lift now,” Baker said. “I’d be bigger, stronger, better.”
Nixon isn’t complaining. Baker is a gritty blocker. When the Falcons have a strong rushing night —and they definitely had one in Friday’s 45-13 thumping of Carson — Baker is part of the reason. He’s one of those tight ends who never expects to have a pass thrown in his direction. He has a lot more in common with West’s tackles, guards and centers than with the wideouts. When the Falcons break down into position groups, he hangs with the offensive linemen.
“I’m really just an extension of our offensive line,” Baker said. “My role isn’t to run the ball or catch the ball, it’s to make those essential blocks. A lot of times, I’m the lead blocker for our backs.”
As a reward for the way he works and goes about his business, Baker usually gets the late-game carries when West (6-4) has a victory well in hand.
“He’s just a great teammate, unselfish, always cheering,” Nixon said. “He’s not a guy who cares about touching the football. He’s excited for his teammates when they’re successful, and they’re happy for him when he gets a touchdown.”
Baker, who also blocks on West’s kickoff return team, has carried the ball 25 times this season, including 10 times against East Rowan. He punched the ball into the end zone against East and Carson, prompting roars from West fans.
“Honestly, I don’t hear the fans much,” Baker said. “Running the ball isn’t that big a deal for me, but blocking is.”
Prior to this season, Baker was known mostly for his work with a trowel. He’s probably the county’s best prospect as far as masonry, the go-to guy if you want to discuss bed joints, head joints, backer rods and anchor bolts. He won $1,000 (and some tools) at the regional competition held in Rowan last spring.
He’s competed in the Greensboro Coliseum in statewide competition. He placed sixth as a sophomore and moved up to third place as a junior. He could be a state champ when he competes for the final time in late April.
“I always enjoyed building things, like barns, growing up,” Baker said. “Masonry came naturally to me. I took the class at West. It just went from there.”
Baker would like to go to college for a civil engineering degree and he’d like to own a construction company someday.
But, first, there’s some football to be played. West’s most anticipated game of the season is Friday. The matchup in Mount Ulla with Statesville will determine second place in the North Piedmont Conference. The winner will get a nice seed for the 3A playoffs and a first-round home playoff game. As for the loser, they’ll settle for a wild-card berth and probably a difficult first-round matchup on the road.
Adding to the excitement will be the return of former West head coach Scott Young, now a Statesville assistant, and his son, Bryant, Statesville’s successful starting quarterback. Baker and West’s other seniors were coached by Young when they were freshmen, so this matchup means a lot to a lot of people.
Baker is confident West will play well. West is coming off its best outing all year.
“Carson was the first time we’ve put it all together and played a complete game,” Baker said. “Our offensive line is a young group, but I have great respect for them. They showed up and dominated.”
NOTES: West was so efficient on offense Friday that it scored on seven of eight possessions and ran the clock out on the other one. Nixon praised all three running backs (Martavio Rankin, Jayden Jones and Jaden Perry), as well as QB Payne Stolsworth and receivers Jalen Houston and Ty’Kese Warren. “Warren made a catch on a third-and-8 when we were on our 3-yard line,” Nixon said. “That got a 99-yard drive going and was a huge play.” … In 22 games as West’s starting QB, junior Payne Stolsworth has thrown 47 TD passes. He’s already among the county’s all-time leaders. … Junior DB JooJo Brush and sophomore lineman Baiden Suddarth were defensive standouts against Carson.