Bubba Baker can trace the path of his football career from the unlikely training ground where he first practiced sacking imaginary quarterbacks to his status as an elite NFL pass rusher that was launched in 1978 as a rookie with the Detroit Lions.
Baker played five seasons with the Lions before being traded to the Cardinals during training camp in 1983. He played eight more years in a 13-year career, but he was never better than those first years with the Lions.
That's no knock on Baker. Few defensive ends had five better seasons than the ones he strung together from 1978-82. Baker and his fellow quarterback hunters on the Silver Rush defensive line made quarterbacks shiver and the old Pontiac Silverdome rock on gameday.
Baker was so dominating that a veteran Detroit columnist once wrote that his favorite play for the Lions was when they punt. It sent Baker onto the field to rush the quarterback.
He hit hard, often – and sometimes late in toppling quarterbacks like they were bowling pins.
"I made my noise," Baker said in a telephone interview from his suburban Tampa home.
"If you had a chance to hit the quarterback after all those chop blocks ... when you arrived at the quarterback, you wanted to arrive in a bad mood.
"I think I embodied that."
He was a special player from the start. He had 23 sacks as a rookie and was All Pro. He followed that with season sack totals of 16, 18 and 10 from 1979-81. He finished his stay in Detroit with 8.5 sacks in a 1982 season shortened to nine games by a players strike.
The bottom line: Baker had 75.5 sacks as a Lion, but only the 8.5 in 1982 are considered official by the NFL. The 1982 season is the first when sacks were an official stat.
The first 67 don't even get the benefit of an asterisk in the stats logs. It's like they are ghost sacks. They never existed.
It's a sore spot with Baker that galls him to this day.
"I earned those sacks," he says now.
For the record – the official record – he has 67.5 career sacks for his last nine seasons that ties him with Marco Coleman for 107th on the official career sacks list. After the Lions traded Baker he spent four seasons with the Cardinals, three in two tours with the Browns and one with the Vikings.
Add the 67 ghost sacks for his first four seasons to 65.5 for his last nine, and his career total is 132.5 – tied with Lawrence Taylor and Leslie O'Neal for 14th on the all-time list.
Sacks aside, James Albert London "Bubba" Baker III is enjoying retirement at the age of 63 with his wife of 38 years, Sabrina. They have two grown children – Brittani Bo and James Albert London Baker IV.
Last year he closed the popular Bubba's-Q restaurant he operated for 13 years in the Cleveland suburb of Avon. He is still overseeing sales and other aspects of the business, but not on a daily hands-on basis.
He is recovering from a spinal injury sustained last October that required nine hours of surgery. The airport limousine he and Sabrina were riding in was hit from behind.
"These last six months, they've been a gift from God," Baker said. "When they go into your spine, that's a whole lot different than when they replace a knee or replace a shoulder."
Baker can look back on his life's journey with the satisfaction of a man who overcame obstacles and controlled what he could control.
"I'm that dark horse, coming out of Newark, New Jersey," he said. "Playing sports saved me. My Mom (Ernestine) always knew where I was.
"With Ernestine, it was 'When he falls down, it won't be 'Come here, baby,' It'll be, 'Get your butt up.'"
Sometimes he was in unusual places – like the cemetery where he first applied the pass-rush techniques he saw the pros do on TV.
He'd weave between headstones, mimicking their moves.
"The only place where there was dirt and a little bit of grass was the graveyard," Baker said. "I learned to do the arm over from when I watched a football game on Sunday. I never knocked over any of the headstones.
"If you think about it, it's kind of taken out of an Our Gang movie. It was in the fifth and sixth grade. By the seventh grade, we were playing organized sports. We called that 'Where the big kids played after school.'"
He was one of the biggest kids by the time he got to Colorado State. That's where he made a transformation – from a finesse basketball player at heart to a lethal pass rusher.
"I was 6-6 and 300 pounds – this mush of a kid," he said. "I didn't have a tough bone in my body. I was used to playing basketball.
"I look back at that, and I say, 'Thank you.' That gave me something to shoot for. That gave me determination. That gave me drive to shoot for. I saw guys go to the weight room."
He started out as an offensive lineman at Colorado State and was moved to defensive end.
When he got to the Lions as a second-round draft pick he quickly learned the harsh reality that his draft position – high or low -- didn't matter to legendary defensive line coach Floyd Peters.
View photos as the Detroit Lions practice facility reopened on a limited basis Wednesday, June 10, 2020 in Allen Park, Mich.
"Floyd started out by telling me how nobody else wanted me," Baker said. "I looked at the other kids being hugged by the commissioner and said to myself, 'I get it.'
"In hindsight, that was the best thing that happened to me."
Peters coached the defensive line for Baker's first two seasons. They developed a strong relationship, but there was no letup on how hard Peters drove him to excel on every snap. The more Baker produced, the more Peters demanded.
"I'd get three sacks, seven hits in a game with an interception," Baker said. "On Monday, he'd say, 'Take a look at this play. Is that the best you've got?'"
It turned out that he gave the Lions a lot.
Although he spent less than half his career in Detroit, Baker's lasting mark was made in Detroit with the Silver Rush stars along with tackle Doug English and a strong supporting group.
Baker should be in the discussion for the "best ever" of any player at any position in the history of the Lions' franchise.
Just don't judge him by his stats – especially the ones that don't show up on his record.
"It hurts," he said. "I shouldn't have to defend myself. How about putting in there, saying 'it was before sacks were an official stat'? I worked my butt off for those.
"My career speaks for itself."