James Burns: Baker's big idea

June 3, 2009 

Tonight, just before the sun melts into the horizon, inspiration will wash over a couple thousand gowned teenagers spread across Merced County.

It’s commencement season, the last paces for the Class of 2009 and the first steps for a new generation of white- and blue-collar go-getters.

Two steps, in particular, will leave a lasting impression long after the gowns have been packed away and the grandparents have flown home.

If all goes according to plan, Buhach Colony senior Eric Baker will stand and accept his diploma tonight.

With his teeth.

More on that in a sec.

Eric, who broke his neck in two spots and crushed his skull during a diving accident in October, will be wheeled onto the stage by his best friend, fellow senior William Coate.

Then, his trainer, Jessica Cahill of Anberry Rehabilitation Hospital, will help lift him out of his chair and onto a walker.

The rest of the four-second drill is on Eric, a quadriplegic who was given less than a 3 percent chance of walking.

He’ll wrap his hands around the walker and lift himself to a standing position for the first time in public.

It’s been a goal of his since his life was turned upside down at the DeLong water polo tournament at Johansen.

Eric slipped near the pool’s edge, losing his footing as he dove into the shallow end.

The next thing he remembers...

He’s floating weightlessly in the water, unable to move his rudders and fins. “Standing is the next step to walking,” his mother, Michelle Hafer, said. “If you can stand, you can walk.

“His one big worry is that he doesn’t want to take away from the other people (graduating). But I’ve told him he is an inspiration — that he needs to show them his next step.”

Weeks of get-after-it training — the kind of exercises that would make even able-bodied athletes cringe — have built toward this moment.

“Eric ... Baker!” a speaker will inevitably say tonight, grabbing the attention of the hundreds assembled in the campus courtyard.

At that point, Eric, a letter-winning swimmer and the emotional force behind the BC water polo team’s first conference championship, will dispel the notion that his injuries are permanent, his condition forever.

He’ll stand.

Open his mouth.

And accept his diploma, clinching it between his teeth like a vise grip.

“You want to do what?” Michelle recently asked her son.

“Mom, I want to be able to accept my diploma. I want to grab it,” Eric said. “I don’t want somebody putting it into my pocket.”

“OK,” she said skeptically. “Seems kind of weird, but OK.”

“Well, I use my mouth more than I used to.”

Kid’s got a point.

In the last month, Eric has become quite the keynote speaker.

He delivered a lecture on the nervous system to Mr. Walker’s physics class at Buhach Colony. He spoke to 180 third-graders at Joe Stefani Elementary School.

In October, he’ll help captain the Valley Children’s Hospital’s radio-a-thon.

So, you see, whether Eric makes it to a standing position tonight — “He will stand,” Michelle said matter-of-factly — shouldn’t be the basis for your applause or full attention.

That he is involved in the ceremonies, has overcome hardships and spread his optimism and strength....

Now that’s inspiring — that’s worth latching onto.

For all us.

For his classmates, those standing on the edge of The Great Unknown, bracing themselves for life’s biggest leap.

For the proud papas and mamas, those struggling to make ends meet in a tough economic climate.

And for those living with disability, wrestling with the emotional strains attached to physical limitations.

Tonight, the Class of 2009 will take its first steps into the real world. And Eric Baker, the never-say-never kid rebuilding his broken body through hope and prayer, will stand and take the lead.

Lead the way, E.

Lead the way.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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