When David Baker was tapped to serve as president and executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, back in 2014, journalists and industry insiders joked he’d have no difficulty filling the big shoes of his predecessor, Stephen A. Perry.
At six-foot-nine and well over 300 pounds, Dave Baker, a former power-forward for UC-Irvine back in the early 1970s, jabs and asides about his physical stature are nothing new. But recently retired from his role with the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the size and strength of the California native’s Christian faith and unwavering kindness dwarfs by comparison the big man’s height and weight.
In fact, his personal story is befitting a Horatio Alger novel, the popular books of another generation that featured the radical transformation of impoverished boys to successful men. I had the pleasure and privilege of talking with Dave over the Thanksgiving weekend about his life and career.
“My mom and dad came from Arkansas and Mississippi. My dad worked in a lumber mill – difficult, filthy manual labor. He was the hardest working guy. My mom was the most loving person. She had some education, but not much. She was barely literate. Her gift was that she could love kids. So even took care of other people’s kids also.”
Baker’s parents were determined he’d live a better life than they had, so they purchased a set of Encyclopedia Britannica’s for him.
“They had monthly payments on those books for the rest of their lives,” he told me. “And with the purchase, the salesman threw in a series of books called ‘The Story of Civilization’ by Will and Ariel Durant.”
The 11-volume set, first published in 1935, opened a young Dave Baker’s eye to the wider world and the values and lessons that shaped civilization – and that eventually shaped and molded him.
“In reading the books, I learned that every great empire had at the core of their culture competitive values, where you would test yourself, where you would fight someone, and you would get stronger. They featured a competitive environment of integrity where the stronger would reveal themselves. And the stronger would take care of the weaker.”
With Pentecostal parents, Dave remembers being in church all the time as a child growing up – but the penny dropped for him regarding his faith thanks to a neighborhood father who both coached and talked to the kids about the Lord. His name was Ron Kohler.
“Out of his own pocket, he would sign us up for basketball tournaments, also volleyball. This guy would coach us. He wasn’t that great on the X’s and O’s, but he had a Cadillac and he’d open the trunk and pull out a grocery bag of jerseys that his wife had washed. If you wanted to play, you had to get there an hour before the game. And then he’d pull out a grocery bag full of Bibles. And he’d pass out the Bibles, and for thirty or forty minutes, we’d have a Bible study. He also had a Bible study at his house on Friday night from 10 P.M. to midnight. Everybody would go to the high school basketball game or football game and then they’d meet at this guy’s house because it was the one place parents would let you stay out that late.”
“I can’t tell you how many lives this guy impacted,” Baker shared. “He impacted mine. From those experiences, I learned about the grace of Jesus Christ.”
For Dave Baker, sports and faith proved to be an inseparable combination, and his route to the better life his parents had prayed he’d one day find. Considered too tall for football at the time, he poured himself into basketball, rightly believing it would lead to a college scholarship. Arriving at the University of California-Irvine, he expressed a desire to study a difficult major, landing on English literature.
“Sports teaches you that you’re going to have to fight for something,” he said. “It reminds you there are things that are worth fighting for, and there are people who are worth fighting for – and you’re going have to work to get it. That work just doesn’t happen on the day you play, it happens in the week leading up to the game, it happens in the off season. You learn values and virtues from sports.”
Following graduation from UC-Irvine, Baker was recruited to play basketball in Switzerland for two seasons, where he continued to evangelize and share his Christian faith. He then returned and attended and graduated from Pepperdine Law School.
Consequential lives are rarely straight and smooth lines, and Dave Baker’s journey is no exception. While working at a law firm specializing in corporate mergers and acquisitions, Baker ran successfully for city council in Irvine, serving as mayor for one year. But during a run for the United States Congress, Baker got wrapped up in a financial scandal involving campaign funds.
“”It was a mistake under pressure,” Baker said. “It was my mistake and my fault. I lost everything.”
By “everything” Baker means “everything” that really mattered, including his wife.
“When you lose everything you’ve got, you only have two things. You have your faith and you have what you believe. You learn what’s really important and you realize that living for Jesus Christ is more important than anything else. You have to get back to the basics.”
Not only did Dave Baker bounce back, but he’s experienced an even richer second-half of his life. Owner of an Arena Football League team, he was chosen to serve as the fledgling league’s commissioner for twelve years. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but he chose to concentrate on the good things. He had a bell from a boating store installed outside of his office to ring when good news came his way.
Baker’s ascent to lead the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014 came as another surprise to him, but one that he embraced and leaned into with great enthusiasm.
“What’s great about the Hall of Fame is it sets the standard of greatness,” he said. “Canton constitutes what it is to be great over a period of time. I get excited about a message that translates to our families, our companies, our communities and our country. Canton stands for greatness. If we can translate that to other things, we will make it more relevant and make a difference in the lives of others.”
By all accounts, Baker’s seven-year tenure in Canton was a roaring success, growing both the footprint of the facility and the organization’s worldwide reputation. When he announced his retirement from the Hall in 2021, he said, “I have come to the conclusion that it is time for someone else to have the ‘best job in the world’ so I can still do a few more exciting things in my professional life while also returning home to our four children, 10 grandchildren and soon-to-be great grandson in Orange County, California, whom I’ve missed so much during my tenure at ‘The Most Inspiring Place on Earth.’”
Sam Baker, one of Dave’s sons, was an offensive tackle for six seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.
It makes perfect sense that a strong Christian believer would thrive heading up an organization whose stated mission is to “Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve its History, Promote its Values & Celebrate Excellence Everywhere.”
Dave Baker’s oversized and imperfect life mirrors his former employer’s mission because it’s been his unwavering faith in Jesus Christ that’s inspired him to tell the world about the greatest man who ever lived and whose excellence, unlike the glory of the gridiron, will never fail or fade.