LOS ANGELES -- This weekend's battle for the Victory Bell in Pasadena is creating quite a buzz here. Everybody's talking about the gathering of our cross-town nemeses. Even at The Cow's End coffee shop in Venice, where the conversations I overhear are usually limited to surf conditions and screenplays, the focus has shifted.
It's all USC-UCLA, all the time.
I hear one woman say to another over lattes and chai, "We're having about 14 people over for the game. Kevin went to Arizona State but he's a huuu-uuuge Trojan football fan." I laugh to myself as I sit a few tables away, typing feverishly on the story of the biggest Trojan football fan of them all. No, really, this guy is at every single game on USC's schedule, even though he lives in New York City.
He's also 6 feet, 9 inches tall and a few Twinkies short of 400 pounds.
Meet David Baker. You may know this giant personality as the commissioner of the Arena Football League, or the former mayor of Irvine, Calif., but the Trojans' All-American offensive tackle Sam Baker says, "He's really just my dad."
That sounded cliché until I had the chance to talk with the jolly commish this week, and listen to him reel off the details of his Thanksgiving dinner, which he had at his home in California with sons Sam and Ben (who go 6-5, 305 and 6-7, 310 respectively), and four USC players who couldn't get home for the holiday.
"We broke bread and watched a lot of football, just like everybody else in America," said Baker.
Commissioner Baker talked to me on the phone from his AFL headquarters in New York because somehow I couldn't find the big guy amidst the other 90,000 people at the Coliseum last Saturday for the Trojans' victory over Notre Dame. Sam Baker called in from the Campus of Troy.
"Sorry I missed you at the ND game, commissioner. How was your Thanksgiving?" I began.
"Just delightful. We had quite a spread -- turkey, prime rib, potatoes, all the trimmings, lots of cakes not nearly the feast we had on the Irish," David remarked, with a grin I could feel through the phone.
David Baker was at the Notre Dame game, just as he was at every other game this season. And last season. And the one before that. And before that. And so was his oldest son -- Sam's big brother Benjamin -- who now works under his dad at the AFL as coordinator of league development.
David: "I've got you on speakerphone here, Mary, because my son Ben is in the room, too. Ben's the one who set the record for the most consecutive losses  when he played at Duke."
Mary: Geez Ben, that's quite an introduction he gave you. What's it like to be that guy?
Ben: What? You mean, in terms of being the brother of the guy at SC on the cover of Sports illustrated? [Laughs] It's something that is a little hard to live up to but you know what, honestly, I couldn't be happier. For the first part of my life, Sammy was always Ben Baker's brother, and now, here I am on the flip side, Sam Baker's brother. He is doing awesome. Some people might see jealousy as a problem but I couldn't be more proud.
Mary: Sammy you don't give your brother a hard time about his days at Duke, do you?
Sammy: Nahh, never. Me and my brother have always been each other's biggest fans. We look out for each other.
Mary: I don't know somebody tells me you can sing every word to "See My Vest."
Sammy: What? Oh man. Me and my brother used to watch "The Simpsons" all the time.
Mary: So you guys got along just fine when you were little guys?
Ben: Well, no. We were never little guys. When me and Sammy threw our tantrums, it was a much larger issue physically than emotionally. Seriously though, we've definitely become closer as we grew up. We were always brothers but now we're more than just family, we're best friends.
David: What's so special is that Ben makes most of Sammy's games. He pays his own way, I'm not covering him, he does it all on his own. As their dad, it's so neat to see the support. And I know it means a lot to Sammy. He really looks up to Ben. When they get together and they just laugh -- man I love to hear those guys laugh.
Mary: Commissioner, you've actually had the travel to SC games written into your contract, right?
David: Yes, I'm so fortunate, I've never missed one of their games. From little league soccer right up till today -- well, except for 9/11 when I couldn't get a plane ride out from New York -- that was the only one.
Mary: Sammy did your dad make some kind of verbal promise to you that he was going to be your superfan and be at every game? How did it come about?
Sammy: I was in high school and he always talked about how his dad, my grandpa, always went to all of his basketball games and there was only one that he missed because my dad was playing in Hawaii. So he just made a point to come to all of my games. It's awesome having him there. My dad does amazing things to get to the games. Whether it's flying in from meetings somewhere, or having all kinds of crazy connecting flights just to make it on time. And Big Ben gets out here whenever he can and it's just so great to get to see him as often as I do. I really appreciate what they go through to get here.
Mary: David, the word on the street is, you log about 200,000 miles a year. I hope you like to fly!
David: You know, I'm actually afraid of flying. I do it because of what's on the other end. I just love going to USC practices or to the games and just being a dad amongst dads. I love going out there and talking about our boys. We're so very fortunate to be a part of [head coach] Pete Carroll's program. There are a lot of other kids whose practices are closed and their coach is in total control of everything. Pete strongly encourages people to come out to the practices -- especially the families. He wants you to come out to the games and be around the team. A lot is said about the Trojan family, but Pete is really the guy that allows all of us to really feel a part of everything. I never leave a practice without getting hugged by about 15 players. I told Pete that once. You know what he said? "Well, you do know you're the commissioner of a professional football league, right?"
Mary: You guys are coming out to be with your Trojans this weekend -- let's hear the itinerary.
David: Well, we'll go to work on Friday. I'll take off from the New York office around 3 o'clock, Ben will leave around 6 o'clock. We get to California around 9 o'clock at night, get to the house around 10:30. Because it's an early game we'll leave around 8 a.m. [on Saturday] and head over to the Rose Bowl. We gotta be there at least two hours before the game so we can cheer on the guys as they get off the bus and walk into the game. Then I'll worry the whole game. Those games are very emotional. Then we'll wait for Sam after the game. Normally on Sundays, Ben flies back home and I have lunch with Sam so we can talk about life and lessons learned. They always have to tell me what they've learned. Then I take the red-eye back. This week I have to catch a red-eye on Saturday night to go to meetings in Atlanta and then New Orleans, and then back to New York. And then Thursday I think I'm flying to Orlando because Sammy made the All-American team. Then it's back to New York.
Mary: If I peeked at your confirmed travel plans, would I see any trips to Arizona scheduled around, say, January 8th?
David: Absolutely not! We're not even searching for flights to Arizona we did make a call to see if any hotels are open, but -- no really, we could easily get beat this weekend. Anything can happen against UCLA.
Mary: Are you really worried about the Bruins?
David: We handled Notre Dame, Cal, Oregon, Nebraska and Arkansas, but we struggled against Oregon State, Arizona, Arizona State and both Washingtons. So somehow we have trouble with the guys we should beat.
Mary: If you were the commissioner of all of college football, would you do away with the BCS system and go to a straight-up playoff?
David: Haha -- that is an interesting question. As a professional I'd have to say yes, but as a dad and a fan I'd say no. I think college football is special. It's all about your team and your conference. While I'm always ribbing Notre Dame, I have so much respect for that program. College football is just so special. If SC is fortunate enough to go against Ohio State, who is the unanimous No. 1 right now, then people would really know how good Ohio State is or how good SC is. I don't have to have a champion. Frankly, I think the controversy is pretty healthy. It's great for a team like Wisconsin to go to the Alamo Bowl, or whatever it is. I think the lessons are there for players and coaches and conferences, and I respect that. I kind of like the argument about the co-champions in 2003. I'm not going to live and die as to whether or not there's a playoff.
Mary: Talk to me about the special Trojan-Bruin rivalry.
Ben: When we were growing up, the Rams and Raiders had already left and the Chargers weren't doing too well, so it was always the Bruins, Trojans or arena football for us.
Sammy: It's always a big game whenever SC plays UCLA in anything. It's a rivalry for L.A. and all of Southern California, really. You grow up rooting for one or the other and wanting to go to one or the other. Growing up here, you're never really torn between the two. It's Trojans or Bruins.
David: Yes, SC-UCLA is a big one. But you know, we beat the Irish. We're going to be in the Rose Bowl no matter what, and that's not a bad consolation prize. Plus, if they do beat the Bruins this weekend and earn that shot at the national title, Sammy, as a redshirt junior, will have helped his team play for the national championship four straight years. That is just incredible. It's really, really special.
Sammy: I knew my dad would say he wants to beat Notre Dame more! But being here in Los Angeles, I want UCLA.
Mary: Commissioner, you've been at the helm of the AFL for 10 years now. Back in 1996 an AFL expansion team was valued at $400,000, these days a team goes for $20 million. What has it been like watching something develop like that?
David: As thankful as I am for the Arena Football League, and watching it grow -- and it has grown so much -- I can certainly tell you that the most fun I have is watching my boys grow up. We love sports in this family. I truly believe that sports can bring about enormous development of character and teach some of the most significant lessons in life. Ben may have learned more at Duke in that one record-setting season of losses than Sammy has through three losses in three years at SC. The point is, when we sit down at the table we have both. There are great lessons that come from wins and losses and the AFL -- it's all a learning and living process.
Mary: You're a family man, David. A lawyer, the commissioner and a family man, but very systematic, always.
David: It's funny. There was actually one point in time that we would negotiate contracts -- Baker family contracts. The only thing I knew was being a lawyer and being an athlete, so me and their mom [Patty] negotiated a 13-page contract with the boys. We went over each paragraph. Mom was the general manager, I was the coach and the kids were the players. It was a lot of fun.
Mary: Ben, were you happy with the terms of your contract?
Ben: Let's just say there were some provisions that we would have liked to have included.
David: The boys were always wheeling! Part of the contract was that we would be responsible for their health, education and welfare, but if they wanted something like say, an iPod, they would have to earn it themselves. They got a certain specified allowance for just showing up, and they had to go to church and do some basic chores, but they got bonuses for their grades, and hits in a baseball game, and points in a basketball game -- but they had to fill out an invoice every week. [Laughing] So I'd be doing these big deals as a lawyer and out of the blue, across my desk would float this invoice from Ben for $65. [Laughs] It was a lot of fun.
[David says of Ben and Sam's mother, Patty: "She's a lovely lady and a lifelong friend. We've been divorced for, I don't know, 18 years now, something like that? Even when we were divorced she was the team mom and I was the coach. I remember even when they were very young, she was afraid that I was going to be one of those former-athlete parents, who are just too much. But she was tougher on them than I was! It didn't matter if these guys were sick or hurt or what, these guys were going to practice. Now we all go to the games together, supporting Sammy and USC football. Patty, Patty's mother, Ben, me, Colleen my girlfriend of 12 years -- I always say that sports is what makes this dysfunctional family function!]
Mary: Can you think of a Baker family highlight that does not involve sports?
Sammy: Shoot. Uhhh. Shoot. I'd say NJB [National Junior Basketball] when we used to all play basketball together -- when my dad was the coach and me and Big Ben were on the San Luis Obispo team.
Mary: That's still sports.
David: The midnight buffets? [Laughs] I can remember when we were at the Quarterback Challenge in Hawaii and I wanted so badly to take my boys on that helicopter ride in Kauai. If you ever get out there, it's great, for about 150 bucks they'll take you on this amazing ride, up and around where they filmed "Jurassic Park" and everything else. So this was back -- oh I don't know -- Ben had already committed to Duke and Sam must have been just a sophomore in high school or so, but we were all good-sized -- I mean, we could all kill a buffet. And I remember being so excited about being one of those dads, taking my kids on this experience of a lifetime. So we get to the place and we meet the helicopter guy and he says, OK I can take you three up there but I'm going to have to charge you for five!
It was like that other time, when we had Sammy back here in New York and I took them to Blue Man Group and it never occurred to me until then that we couldn't all three sit next to each other because our shoulders were so big! Those are two memories that have nothing to do with sports!
If I had 10 seconds to live I would think of Christmases and smiles and wrestling on the floor with kids and dogs and then of course I'd think of where we all were, and what we all were doing and the day that Matt Leinart scored behind Sam Baker at Notre Dame last year. If you recall, Matt Leinart kind of went up the middle and then slid left and got the Reggie Bush push and it was right over the tackle Sam Baker to beat the Irish. It just comes full circle, Mary!
Mary: What's it like for three lives to be so constantly rooted in football?
Ben: I'll tell you right now, Mary, the only thing constant in my life is food. [Laughing] No, actually, football really wasn't a part of our lives early on. Sam and I played basketball growing up. We thought that if we were going to be athletes then we were going to be basketball players because in Pop Warner, there's a size limit. So I was out of the running by the time I was about seven or eight.
David: It's funny. My parents were loving, hard-working people but they weren't very sophisticated. They couldn't read or write. When I went down to try out for football as a kid, I weighed too much to be on a team, and by the time I got to high school, I had a football body -- I should have played football -- but I was into basketball. I loved it and that turned out to be my scholarship to college, and then I got a partial post-graduate scholarship to law school [at Pepperdine] and played some professional basketball overseas. My life was similar to [former NFL] commissioner [Paul] Tagliabue's. We've laughed that we were both basketball players who became lawyers, and were in charge of all these football players.
But from my own experience growing up, I was able to recognize the same thing happening to Ben and Sam. They were just too big to play football, but I knew enough to know that these guys had football bodies. When Ben was a freshman he went out for football. To his great credit, he had a coach -- a little old-fashioned Jewish guy -- great guy. He'd carry the bags of equipment and balls himself -- and he loved offensive linemen more than anybody else on the team. He only passed the ball about three times a game! That really made all the difference for Ben. But until then -- until high school -- the boys really weren't into football at all. They were too big.
Ben: I was working at arena football camps for my dad at the AFL before I ever actually played on a football field.
David: [Laughing] It's true. By the way, Ben is bigger and faster than his brother.
Sammy: Oh yeah. Ben is definitely bigger and stronger than me!
David: But Sammy loves football. When you play at USC, you only get like a week off a year, so you better love it. Ben, on the other hand, loves the business of football. I always think of this old Ronald Reagan movie, I think it was about Grover Cleveland Alexander, where he was always rushing to sweep up the store he worked at so he could tear off his apron and get out to the ball field. Ben was the exact opposite. Ben could not wait to get out of practice to come over to the little AFL office we had out in California so he could look at the business plans. I've never seen a kid love business as much as Ben.
Mel Kiper's top junior offensive tackles
1. Sam Baker, USC
Mary: So tell me, with the AFL running through your family veins, don't you wish Sammy wasn't quite so high on Mel Kiper's big board so maybe he could slip out of the NFL draft contention and log a few starts in the Arena League?
David: "You know, it started about two years ago, really after SC won the Orange Bowl, and I was doing some radio shows leading up to the Super Bowl and all the guys were asking me about my son Sammy. Like Ben said, I went from being the commissioner of the Arena Football League to being Sam's dad. And so, of course people would ask if I wanted him to play in the AFL or NFL. I always explain that in the AFL, we have a lot of two-way linemen. So, while I know that Sammy is a great offensive tackle, I just don't know if he could hack it on defense. [Laughing] Of course, Sammy argues that on Matt Leinart's six interceptions last year, he made the tackle on three of them.
Mary: Sam, your dad is your biggest fan. What's your favorite aspect of his support?
Sammy: I love how he is always telling me that he'll be there for me, wherever I end up and whatever I do. He always says that he's 100 percent behind me, but if I do make it to the NFL then he says he'll be right there to tell me I'm a momma's boy. That's what he always says -- he'll be there at the tunnel when I come out in the NFL and say, "Sam Baker's a momma's boy."
Mary: Your dad and [Ben] say they want the best for you in the NFL, but tell us the truth -- is there any pressure to pass on the NFL and have a go in the Arena Football League?
Sammy: No, there's no pressure. They're behind me completely but my dad does say that if I go to the AFL, he'll let me play quarterback.
Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.