By: Willie Moseley
Visitation for Pete Cottle, who penned the legendary “Dirty Digs” column in the Tallassee Tribune for over three decades, was held in April 2016. Among those in the family’s receiving line were grandsons Drew, Jake and Andy Baker. I shook hands with each of them.
“Hello, champ,” I said to Drew, who had been one of six gold medal winners in THS’ state championship wrestling season of 2014.
Jake got the same two-word greeting, as he had recently won his own state championship as a junior. He would successfully defend his title at the 2017 tournament.
“Hello, future champ,” I said to Andy, who, at that point, had gone to the state tournament twice.
My whimsical and optimistic prediction about the youngest of the Baker boys didn’t quite work out that way. However, his backstory is memorable and meaningful.
In his school wrestling career, Andy Baker lettered five years starting in the eighth grade. He finished second at the 2016 state tournament as a freshman. In his sophomore season, he finished third. He was second as a junior. He held the school record for a number of wins in a season (57, which would be tied by another wrestler, Mason Bell, in the 2018-19 season).
Obviously, there were high hopes for Baker’s senior wrestling season. He began the 2018-19 school year as a standout member of the football team. Then came a play late in the game against Beauregard on Oct. 26 when Baker broke his leg in two places. The official diagnosis was a spiral fracture of the fibula.
“I feared the worst,” said wrestling coach John Mask, who, as an assistant football coach, was situated in the press box communicating with coaches on the sideline.
A doctor’s initial examination came to the conclusion Baker’s wrestling days were over but Andy was determined to wrestle and had surgery soon after the diagnosis. A metal plate was installed on his leg using seven screws. Intensive physical therapy rapidly got him back into shape. When he was cleared to wrestle toward the end of the season, a physician reportedly remarked it was the fastest recovery he’d ever seen.
Wrestling in the 182-pound weight class, Baker came back with a vengeance, compiling a record of 24-2 in his abbreviated senior campaign. He won his weight class in the sectional tournament at Montgomery’s Garrett Coliseum, qualifying for his fifth trip to the state match in Huntsville as the No. 1 seed from the southern event.
The winner of the 182-pound weight class at the other sectional meet (therefore the other No. 1 seed) was Kolton Clark of Scottsboro High School, a perennial contender for team state championships.
Clark is already a high school All-American wrestler and has competed in tournaments as far away as Fargo, North Dakota. He’s signed a wrestling scholarship with Virginia Tech. He came to Huntsville sporting a 38-1 record.
In Huntsville, Baker and Clark advanced to the finals which had the potential to be a sports writer’s dream — the formidable All-American from north Alabama versus the comeback kid from the east-central part of the state.
There would be no “Rocky II”-type ending, however, as Clark outpointed Baker convincingly.
That said, Clark didn’t win by a pin. Andy Baker took the All-American the full six minutes of the match, reportedly an extreme rarity for Clark’s opponents.
The saga of Andy’s determination and resilience is probably similar to numerous other stories at numerous levels of numerous sports across the country. Real-life circumstances often dictate not every such comeback will have a storybook ending but such efforts are always laudable.
Many sports fans would probably say Andy Baker is the best wrestler in the history of Tallassee High School who never won a state championship. The record books will document on Saturday, Feb. 16, Kolton Clark of Scottsboro High School won the 182-pound championship at the 2019 Alabama High School Athletic Association state tournament in Huntsville.
What the books won’t say is there were no losers in the championship match. What’s more, I’m sure that upstairs Pete Cottle is smiling.