Pass it along and pay it forward are metaphors that people use to remind themselves to be grateful, to remember how good they've got it and to always share their fine fortune.
Nancy A. "Ma Bakes" Baker, 75, of Oshkosh, who passed away from heart failure Aug. 5, did that for her three great-grandchildren, her 11 grandchildren and her five children, including her youngest, Menomonee Falls football coach John Baker.
She never missed a game, made meals for the less fortunate and homebound and was always kind to animals.
"I think a lot of that rubbed off on me," Coach Baker said following his mother's funeral Aug. 10, the day before fall football practice officially started. "Her idea was that life is too short to be mean. You've got to be good to people."
And Baker found out just how good people could be, when on a rainy Aug. 9 afternoon, a yellow Johnson Bus pulled into the parking lot of Fiss and Bills-Poklasny Funeral Home in Oshkosh where the Baker visitation was held and unloaded about 38 members of the Falls football team, all dressed in black shirts, black slacks and ties.
They were there to pay their respects, paying it forward for all the kindness and good work that Coach Baker has done in his long career as assistant and now as head man of the storied Falls program.
"It was an easy decision," said senior guard Drew Menne, one of several organizers of the road trip. "(It was) something that we needed to do. Coach was having trouble and all of us wanted to support him and his family."
Team brings coach to tears
Already overwhelmed by the outpouring of sympathy from the area teaching and coaching community (including friend and Sussex Hamilton head John Damato and Baker's long-time mentor Kimberly coach Steve Jorgensen), the former tough guy offensive lineman could hold it in no longer.
"I was just very surprised," Baker said. "I was trying to hold it together and not cry, but when I saw them, I just lost it. I just couldn't stop. They just came up and told me 'We're a team.'
"Wow, you go from one of the hardest times in your life to one of the most amazingly emotional ones in a split second. I'll remember this for the rest of my life. It just shows you the strength of a team. The strength of people."
And in the mind of Falls Junior Indians football program coordinators and trip chaperons Doug Menne (Drew's father) and Lou Sanicola, it was the strong will of the kids that made the trip possible.
"Almost the moment we got word that she had passed, Drew got on the phone and told a bunch of the other guys," Doug Menne said. "We found out about the arrangements and then the next night kids like Cole (Myhra), John (Cording), George (McKinnon) and Drew were asking if there was a way we could go up there as a group."
"I told them if that they were serious, I would make arrangements with Johnson and get a bus. No more than three minutes after that conversation, I swear, almost everybody on the team knew what we were going to do.
"It was totally their idea."
One that was taken very seriously.
"It was a quiet ride on the way up," said Drew Menne. "We wanted to make sure everyone knew that we were going up there for a reason."
The reason became crystal clear when the players walked solemnly up the aisle at the funeral home and respectfully handed a vase full of maroon (the Falls colors) carnations to Baker's wife, Kara.
"I just said 'We're here for you,' " Doug Menne said, "and one by one they came up and gave John a hug. … We just hope that it helped."
"Everyone froze and watched what they were doing," Baker said. "People came up to me afterward and told me it was one of the most amazing things they've ever seen."
They then did something not seen at most funerals. They gathered in the middle of the room, with Baker at the center, for a team breakdown.
Plaque honors mother
And the players weren't done yet. They passed the hat around and collected more than $250 that will be donated to the Falls Capital Improvement Committee to help fund a refurbishing of the front gate on the Indians' home field of Schumann Stadium. In return, a plaque that will honor the memory of "Ma Bakes" will be installed on the site.
Because of the funeral the next day (Aug. 10), Baker missed the equipment handout but the rest of the coaching staff handled it without missing a beat. He also missed parts of the first few official practices because of family business after the funeral, but was back at work full time by Aug. 13.
"Today (Aug. 13) was the first day it felt really normal," Drew Menne said. "It looked like he was ready to go back to coaching."
"I was at my daughter's soccer practice the other night and people were coming up to me," Baker said. "I told them, I've seen a lot of amazing things and played in a lot of great games, but this was really something. We always try to tell the kids to be good to one another.
"It's nice to see that they got the message."
The same message that a mother passed onto her son a long time ago.
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