MILLIS, Mass. -- One day last April, Jon Baker had finally had enough.
The Boston College-bound two-way lineman, a returning ESPN Boston All-State for Millis/Hopedale and one of New England's top 2014 recruits, had become increasingly frustrated with the lack of participation in offseason workouts. One morning, a scant six players showed up to a morning weightlifting session.
Meanwhile, their quarterback/safety and captain Taylor Sack -- two months removed from a skiing accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down -- was down in Atlanta, rehabbing at the world-renowned Shepherd Center, with hopes of one day walking again.
The typically mild-mannered Baker, who has remained close to Sack throughout his recovery, was angry, and fired off a Facebook message to the team letting them know their lack of participation was unacceptable.
"I said, 'Look at [Taylor] right there, if he's doing it, you have no excuses," he recalled.
And perhaps that inevitably becomes the lasting impression on Baker's decorated career with the Mohawks. Athletically, he's a freak, combining nimble footwork and fluid agility with superior lower-body strength to make him the state's most feared run-blocker. In the weight room, he's a dynamo, benching 550 pounds and squatting well over 600.
But it's the mental part of it -- the 4.4 weighted GPA; the soft-spoken, austere leadership skills -- that complete the total package. Mohawks head coach Dale Olmsted compared Baker to former Walpole offensive line standouts Bubba Cox and Michael Cook, from his days on the Rebels staff in the 1990's and early 2000's, but says Baker is undoubtedly the best he's ever had.
"In my 23 years coaching, with 10 years plus at Walpole, we had some great linemen, one that went to BYU [Cox], one that went to Boston College in Michael Cook," Olmsted said. "Jon Baker ranks as the No. 1 football player that I've ever coached. He is the ultimate word of professional, whether it's on the field or off the field, whatever he sets his mind to he does it, and he does it 100 percent. He doesn't stop until he gets it right.
"It's such a pleasure to have him on my team. He looks around and he tells a kid what to do, or he says 'Good job', you're hearing it from a guy like that, it means a lot. That means more...peer pressure, we always talk about the negative things, [but] this is where Jon [separates himself]. They look up to him. He's certainly a role model. He had a lot of opportunities to go elsewhere -- BB&N, Xaverian -- but he's chosen to stay here with his friends, be part of the community, and I think that part speaks volumes of his character."
The Mohawks finally achieved their first winning season under Olmsted in 2011, falling to eventual Super Bowl champ Mashpee in a Div. 4 Eastern Mass. Playoff, and fell to Abington in last year's D4 playoffs. After going 18-6 over that two-year run, there are plenty of fresh faces in the fold that will have to grow up quickly if M-H is to sustain their success.
Baker reported to camp yesterday 20 pounds lighter from the end of 2012, weighing close to 290 and devoid of the familiar baby fat on his torso, and he'll be switching from center to guard (the position he projects to at BC) for this upcoming season. After toying with zone read schemes half of last season, the Mohawks are fully adopting a one-back zone running scheme (that too should please the BC staff, which will be deploying a zone/gap scheme under new head coach Steve Addazio).
With 285-pound senior Gavin Bradbury moving to left tackle, alongside Baker, combined with elusive scatback Chris Ahl and quarterback Sean Heffernan setting the reads, there is a confidence in the air.
"I definitely like the commitment, and the talent we have coming up," Baker said. "I've seen the guys all winter, spring, summer, a lot of them are talented kids. I'm excited to see how we turn out."
Many of those kids got the message after Baker aired his frustrations that fateful April day. The presence of Sack has contributed mightily to the hunger of the program, which suited just 33 at its first practice yesterday, but may be deeper in terms of athleticism.
Sack, who is now able to drive a car using hand-controls, has been with the team everywhere. He's often present at workouts, traveled with the team to Bay State Camp last week, and is on the sidelines at each practice.
"Obviously this offseason was unlike any other," Olmsted said. "It was very emotional, with Taylor, something I haven't had to deal with as a head coach, such a sensitive issue. Our kids did a good job making Taylor feel as comfortable as he can. [He's] going to have a great life ahead of him, it's just going to go a little different than he thought it would be, and he's bought into that.
"He's been to the beach. He's got a new truck. When I see him laying down by the pool, with no chair, he just looks like a regular kid, relaxing. I'm very proud of Taylor, and how he's handled all of this."
Said Baker, "It's definitely helped us out a lot. We all got [his] No. 11 on our helmets. It not only helped us come together as a team, helping him out, but it also gives us something to look to when we don't feel like going to a workout. You go, you see Taylor is there, it's just a great thing to see."
MILLIS AT A GLANCE
Coach: Dale Olmsted (8th year, 34-45 overall)
Last season: 8-4, lost in Div. 4 Playoffs
Returning Starters: Eight (four offense, four defense)
Key Returnees: Jon Baker, Sr. OG/DT, 6-3, 290 lbs.; Chris Ahl, Sr. RB, 5-6, 160 lbs.; Sean Heffernan, Sr. QB, 6-4, 180 lbs.; Tyler Angel, Sr. TE, 6-0, 200 lbs.; Gavin Bradbury, Sr. OT/DT, 6-0, 285 lbs.
Strengths: Offensive and defensive lines, running game, size.
Weaknesses: Youth, depth, inexperience at skill positions.
Overview: There are plenty of fresh faces in Millis, where the Mohawks must replace seven starters on both sides of the ball, but in terms of athleticism Olmsted believes this team is not as top-heavy, but deeper, than last year's TVL Small champion product. Defensively, Baker was one of the state's most obdurate two-gappers last year, earning ESPN Boston All-State honors after recording 78 tackles and four sacks from the defensive tackle spot. This fall, we could see Baker playing some interior five-technique defensive end, a style similar to what you see from the Houston Texans' J.J. Watt. Offensively, moving Baker to guard alongside Bradley makes for an imposing half-line that will outweigh many opponents at the point of attack. And perhaps Ahl is the best compliment to the Mohawks' new zone running scheme, his short frame difficult to pick up behind the big line. He's a one-cut, north-south runner who's good at identifying the cutback lane, but he's also got a little shake and bake in his game. "All summer he's been making kids look silly in passing leagues," Baker said. "I remember one play where he just hopped to the side, side-stepped a kid, and the kid slid flat on his face."