Tackling weight loss

Former football player learns how not to drop the ball on good health

Posted: Sunday, July 15, 2007


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  Jeff Baker's lean shadow leads him down Gas Well Road on a recent run. "I just started enjoying running, and this seems like something nobody who's known me would ever think I can do," Baker said. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Jeff Baker's lean shadow leads him down Gas Well Road on a recent run. "I just started enjoying running, and this seems like something nobody who's known me would ever think I can do," Baker said.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Regular fans of Soldotna High School football scanning the sidelines this fall will recognize the Superman T-shirt, but they might not recognize the man wearing it.

Over the past year and a half, Jeff Baker, Soldotna's resident man of steel, has dropped 125 pounds from his 6-foot-5-inch frame.

While Baker says he still has some work left to do to reach his target weight, at 312 pounds, it's as if Clark Kent has ducked into a phone booth and changed more than his wardrobe.

"I played college football at about 325. Ever since high school, I've been over 300 pounds," said Baker, who was a lineman and a wrestler at Valley City State University in Valley City, N.D., after graduating from Skyview High School in 1993. "My wife and I moved back here in '97. I went from being a two-sport college athlete to a no-sport father of five, and chasing them around was not enough for my metabolism. It took about eight years of not paying attention."


Baker is pictured in a family photograph, taken about a year and a half ago at about the time he started losing weight, holding his nephew Tommy.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Managing his weight after leaving athletics is tough for many former athletes, and Baker said he was no exception.

"It's a struggle. I think it's a struggle with any naturally big guy, but leaving a college sport, your appetite stays the same but your output stops," he said.

Sarge Truesdell, who coaches wrestling and football at Soldotna with Baker and has been a friend and teammate going back to their elementary school days, said Baker has never been one to look for sympathy because of his weight. However, Truesdell said he did worry about his friend's well-being.

"Jeff's got a real unique personality. ... He never put out that 'feel sorry for me' kind of vibe, but as a friend, I was concerned about his health," Truesdell said. "... Here we are as coaches, we know the value of fitness in people's lives, but he went for so long without having that in his life."

Baker said wanting to be able to play with his kids is a big part of why he decided to make some changes in his life.


Jeff Baker's lean shadow leads him down Gas Well Road on a recent run. "I just started enjoying running, and this seems like something nobody who's known me would ever think I can do," Baker said.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"My kids were getting old enough where chasing them around started being really hard," Baker said. "I was short-winded all the time. My back was hurting, and I just couldn't do the things I wanted to do. I was tired all the time. I couldn't run, I couldn't play basketball."

If he needed any more motivation to start making some changes, it came after a visit to the doctor that included an electrocardiogram. The doctor was brutally honest: if he wanted to live to 40, he needed to make some changes.

Change is exactly what he did.

Baker said he started with a dietary supplement to cleanse toxins and improve his body chemistry. The biggest changes have been in his eating habits — he no longer frequents area diners — and to his exercise regimen. He now makes time to get in a workout as close to every day as possible.

"The one thing I've definitely learned is you can't just pick some short-term fad. You have to decide you want your life to be different," Baker said.

"I genuinely wanted my life to be different."

Baker has a treadmill, a recumbant exercise bike and a weight bench in the shop next to his house. He's committed to getting himself into the shop every morning over the winter for a workout.

"All winter long — I hate them. It sure is nice to get outside, but all winter, I'm in my shop."

Baker set a series of intermediate goals, and he's getting plenty of support and motivation from friends and family members.

"Stepping stones, so I don't feel like it's forever away," Baker said.

He's got a competition going with his younger brother, and every Sunday he runs the five miles from his house on Gas Well Road to Soldotna High School to weigh in with his brother and mother.

"He's trying to create more and more buy-in for himself, and then trying to infect the other people around him," Truesdell said. "I think he's just trying to stay pumped up, and get other people on board. Making it a fun thing with family and friends makes it easier to do that."

Baker and Truesdell have a deal: if Sarge runs a marathon in under four hours — something he recently did — and Baker reaches his target of 275, the two will book a flight to Boston to take in a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

As a Kenai River guide, Baker begins his summer days at 4 a.m. with a dietary supplement shake. He packs himself a smart, healthy lunch and has a sensible dinner. He said he's also cut back his between-meal snacking.

"Snacking is what gets you. People don't realize how much they consume. You don't count it because it's not a meal, but your body counts it," Baker said.

Eating healthy isn't as easy as it sounds. Baker said there aren't many restaurants in the area with health-conscious offering, making it difficult to pick up a meal on the run.

"That's the biggest problem. People are so strapped for time, they can't eat right," Baker said.

While Baker now runs four to five miles several days a week, he had to walk before he could run.

"I couldn't even run at first. I started walking on a treadmill and progressed into running," Baker said.

"I always made fun of people who run. I was a football player and a wrestler. Why would anyone want to do that?"

Baker tested himself by entering the 10-mile event at the Run for the River, the community road race staged as part of the Kenai River Festival. While he wasn't near the front of the pack, he was pleased to have completed to course.

"I'm not breaking any records, but I ran every step," Baker said. "That's my goal — finish. From where I started, finishing a 10-mile run is awesome."

Baker has set an even bigger goal for himself: He'd like to run the Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage next year.

"I just started enjoying running, and this seems like something nobody who's known me would ever think I can do," Baker said. "It sounded like an impossible goal, and I liked that idea.

"Weight loss and living healthier — those aren't optional — but running a marathon, I like that challenge."

"When he did the 10-miler, there were lots of people patting him on the back. A lot of us were excited for him," Truesdell said. "If he's able to work for the next 10 or 11 months and run the Mayor's race next year, that would really be a feat. I think anybody that's known Jeff since he was a kid would think that's quite an accomplishment."

Baker said he's determined to be down to 275 by next spring. His one concern is that his knees, having been subjected to years of football and wrestling, may not be able to handle the training that goes into running a marathon.

"I'm not sure if I'll be able to physically do it, but God willing, I'll be able to make the Mayor's race next year," Baker said.

Baker said he can't put into the words how good he feels after the changes he's made.

"I can't even explain the difference. I get up at 4 in the morning, fish all day, and as soon as I get home I run. As soon as I get done, I have fun with my own kids, chasing after them," Baker said. "The difference is absolutely amazing. I just wish I didn't wait so long. If everybody who is struggling with weight could feel the difference, they wouldn't wait."

Baker said his wife, Jessica, never gave him a hard time about gaining weight, but has noticed his sunnier disposition since he started taking the weight off.

"She notices the difference in me, how much more energy I have, how much happier I am," Baker said.

Truesdell said his fellow coaches and even their players have taken note of what their coach has accomplished.

"When you're a football and wrestling coach, you coach a lot of athletes with the same kind of build," Truesdell said. "It's like being a cancer survivor or overcoming alcoholism. Anybody who can beat odds like that — I know our players comment on it."

Baker is hoping the determination and drive he's had to reach his personal goals will make him a better coach when he goes back to working with young athletes this fall.

"I'll be coaching SoHi football and wrestling, and hopefully being a better role model for all my high school kids — especially my brother, who will be a senior. I hope he doesn't go through the struggles I did."

Will Morrow can be reached at will.morrow@peninsulaclarion.com.

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