Defensive tackle Chris Baker's rehabilitation is off to a strong start in Denver, where he's mending not from an injury but a tarnished image.
Baker was kicked off the Penn State team last summer for his role in two off-field fights, so he went to Hampton for a season and then joined the Broncos this summer as an undrafted free agent.
The 329-pound nose tackle quickly impressed the coaching staff with his ability to stuff the run and push the pile.
"Chris has shown the ability to knock people back," coach Josh McDaniels said, breaking from his usual cautious script to lavish high praise on a rookie. "Chris has done some good things in this camp."
Baker also has made some fast friends, when he faked a fair catch on a punt that bounced inside the 10-yard line and out of the end zone. With that, the beefy lineman earned his teammates a night off from team meetings.
The gregarious Baker's plan is right on track: Baker wants to show everyone not only what kind of player he can be, but what kind of person he is.
"That's the one thing that I really want to do, I want to change my image," Baker said. "Because if you Google my name, you'll see stuff about me getting in fights and getting arrested. But I'm not a thug. I'm none of that."
Baker and fellow defensive tackle Phil Taylor were kicked off the Nittany Lions by coach Joe Paterno after a critical "Outside the Lines" report on the Penn State program last year.
Baker had already pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges stemming from a fight at an off-campus apartment and a fight at a campus student union, both in 2007. He had been cleared by a university judicial affairs panel of wrongdoing in the latter fight and allowed to return to practice after sitting out the spring when he was dismissed from the team.
"It was definitely a surprise because everything had happened a year before, we were already suspended for a game, we missed the whole spring. So I thought that was the punishment we were going to get," Baker said. "I got back on the team in the summer and I did everything the coaches asked me to do. I made good grades on my summer school classes. I didn't get in any more trouble and then this 'Outside the Lines' story came out, they released me from the team three days later."
Baker said he never really had the opportunity to defend himself because he had accepted a plea before going to trial. He was sentenced to two years probation in May 2008 for his role in the two separate fights. He also was ordered to pay about $2,500 in restitution covering both cases. All other charges, including felony counts in both cases, were dismissed.
"I never got a chance to tell my side of the story, but I don't really care about anything that happened in the past. I'm just trying to move on," Baker said.
Baker didn't want to transfer to another big program where he'd have to sit out a season, so he went to Hampton, where he had 69 tackles, including 16 1/2 for loss and 8 1/2 sacks as a junior.
Against Hampton coach Jerry Holmes' advice, Baker declared for the NFL draft, and when nobody called his name, he signed with the Broncos.
"Denver didn't draft any interior linemen, so I just thought it was the best chance for me," said Baker, who was listed as the backup to free agent Ronnie Fields on the first depth chart released Monday.
Even though his college experience didn't go as planned, Baker said he'll always be a Nittany Lion in his heart, defending Paterno's program against the constant ribbing from fellow Big 10 defensive linemen Kenny Peterson (Ohio State), Matthias Askew (Michigan State) and Darrell Reid (Minnesota).
"I'm always going to love Penn State, but I'm also going to love Hampton because they gave me a second chance," Baker said.
"And now I have a chance to show everybody the kind of player and the kind of person I am. I'm not what people portray me as: a thug or a crazy guy that goes around fighting innocent people. I'm a nice guy. I'm a football player, I'm not a thug."
NOTES: RT Ryan Harris injured his right arm at Monday's practice. ... The workout was held at Invesco Field so the players and coaches could get accustomed to game-day logistics. Unlike last week, when fans were on hand and booed QB Kyle Orton's poor play, this practice was closed to the public.
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