BELLEVUE, Wash. — First, his older sister called in a panic. It was around 2 a.m. Budda Baker was on his way back from a club with his girlfriend after celebrating the birthday of his old college teammate, Shaq Thompson.
Baker's brother, Robert, had been shot.
Without wasting a second, Baker punched in Robert's number on his phone. He didn't get an answer. A few chilling moments passed, and his phone lit up with an incoming call—from Robert. Only it wasn't Robert. It was one of Robert's friends, shouting into the phone.
"Robert got shot!" the voice screamed. "They won't let me see him!"
"Give the phone to the detective!" Baker shouted back.
He did. But it was too late.
"Deceased," a voice said.
Baker instantly crumbled in tears.
On his way to the hospital in an ambulance, Robert was pronounced dead. And it was right around this time that Mom was already at Harborview Medical Center wondering how in the heck she beat the ambulance. When an employee delivered the news to her, Michelle Baker bawled and passed out. Everything, she says, "went blank." Mom needed her own room at the hospital to recover.
"Because," she says, sniffling. "I was just overly devastated."
The following week was the worst of Baker's life.
First came the sadness. For a whole week, he literally could not stop crying. The second-year Cardinals safety was supposed to head to Arizona for offseason workouts but couldn't get out of his bedroom, let alone head to the airport.
This was too cruel a fate.
After seven years in prison for first-degree robbery and possession of a firearm, his brother had finally been free. After seven years of letters and phone calls and visits, Robert was now going to be right at his side as he catapulted into NFL superstardom. He'd guide him, push him, goad Baker into another race or two. But then on the morning of April 22, Robert was targeted, gunned down, gone forever. So here was Baker...numb. He locked himself away from the world in his bedroom. His girlfriend, Micaela Castain, tried to get him to eat. He refused and lost 14 pounds.
Then, all sadness morphed to anger—"you get mad." Baker needed to know who killed his older brother. So he wiped away those tears and called everyone he could. He hunted for clues. He thought he was closing in on a suspect, only to find out he was wrong. Eventually, he decided to head back to work in Arizona.
"I was in a very dark place," Baker says. "I had to fly back...or else I would've done some dumb stuff."
The fact that a 25-year-old named Christopher Gates was taken into custody and now awaits trial helped. He can't imagine where his mind would've drifted if the cops had no leads. But as teammates, coaches, everyone at Cardinals HQ tried consoling Baker, he only grew angrier. This emptiness. This loss. None of them could possibly comprehend how he felt.
"They try to comfort you," Baker says, "but then you just get angry. It's like, 'You don't know how it feels. Why are you trying to comfort me?'"
Here in his hometown—a short drive away from where Robert was killed, on the verge of training camp—Baker says he views it as a decision. He can let his brother's death haunt him. Ruin him. Keep him locked away in a bedroom. Or he can use these emotions, somehow, to elevate him, to take his game to a level he doesn't even know exists. He can unleash the anger into every drill, every lift, every bone-crushing hit.
One of the NFL's true rising stars can make the NFL feel his pain.
On this summer day, wearing a black V-neck and a sparkling gold necklace, the 22-year-old Baker stares ahead blankly. His gentle, welcoming eyes turn cold, and he rubs his hands together.
"It's a vengeance type of motivation," he says. "That's what goes through my head—take my anger out on the football field."
So he will.
When Baker lost his brother the first time, his brother left him with a gift. They were in a courtroom in August 2009, and the judge had just sentenced Robert Baker to eight years in prison. Before being whisked away in handcuffs—tears flowing everywhere you looked—Robert asked the officers if they could remove the belt holding up his dress pants and hand it to Baker.
They obliged and handed Baker the belt. It was a symbolic pass of a baton.
For one...two...three seconds, Robert stared into his 13-year-old brother's eyes.
"I just saw in his eyes," Baker says, "he wanted to be strong."
And off he went.
Gone was the big bro who had never let him leave any video game victorious. Seriously, after Baker triumphed in one of their fight games—crushing him through Rounds 1 and 2 and 3—he threw his controller and tried to sprint free downstairs only to hear, "Come here right now!" Robert shoved him downstairs. They played again. Robert won. Baker laughed.
Gone was the big bro who was a cautionary tale, who succumbed to gangs when the Bakers moved to the Federal Way area—a pocket of Seattle that was, unexpectedly, "like a whole different country," according to Mom.
His biological father wasn't present. And while a stepdad was, Baker relished a Man of the House role as the family moved back to Bellevue.
He locked every door at night. He told Mom he'd be in the NFL one day and buy her a house. And Mom, a cancer survivor, has battled a litany of illnesses, from Crohn's disease to colitis to fibromyalgia to chronic back problems to there being no cartilage in her knees and needing to take oxygen when she leaves the house. A lot for any teenager to take on.
It was precisely at this moment—brother behind bars, mother struggling, being there for his four sisters—that Baker realized he could use this all as motivation.
On the field.
"I put myself in different...mindsets," Baker says. "I think about—even though this is weird to say—things that are sad. That's what gets me angry. That's what helps me play. When I think of my mom, that gives me extra strength. When people are saying things are hard—something's hard—if they're saying that on the field, that's not hard. You don't know what hard is. People who are in the hospital, almost 24/7, that's hard. A football game is not hard."
With this mindset, Baker obliterated everything in his path in high school, leading his team to undefeated seasons as a sophomore, junior and senior.
Along the way, he somehow grew closer to Robert.
They wrote letters to each other, even though many of those letters were intercepted. They talked on the phone every other week, Robert working as much as possible at the prison to earn money for that phone time and never sounding down or depressed in one of those convos. They met in person about once per month, even though there was that one time a guard scolded Baker for not keeping his hands on the table. It became clear: Baker was a shining light for Robert, a reason to wake up every morning. And Baker wanted to make Robert proud.
You could see it on Robert's prison walls, in the form of newspaper clippings mentioning his brother's name.
You could see it on Baker's bedroom walls, where he pinned up all letters from Robert.
Today, Baker has all the letters he used to write Robert, too. "Take a look at this," he chuckles, handing over his phone. It's a screenshot of one letter he wrote in eighth or ninth grade. The theme? All of the girls in school are flocking Baker's way, and he has no clue what to do. He tells Robert that they're "coming like flies finding food on the ground" but that he'll try his best to stay focused on school, on football. He warned Robert the first of many times that he's getting "hella fast," promising to "smash you in a race."
And every single letter written ended with the same four words: I love you Bro.
When Robert was moved in 2014 to Larch Corrections Center, a laxer facility in Yacolt, Washington, he made Baker put his money where his mouth is. By then, Baker was a hotshot starting safety at the University of Washington, but Robert challenged him to a race anyway—in front of everybody. Inmates. Guards. Family. They'd settle their debate once and for all. Oh, Baker's rocking his new black and yellow Spizike Jordans? No problem. Robert took his shoes off to run barefoot.
Robert was eager to prove to everyone on site he was still the boss. They'd race 30 yards.
Just as Baker expected, Robert rocketed off to a fast start. Using his two hands on a table, nudging one a good four inches ahead of the other, Baker re-enacts the race.
"He was up here, and I was just catching him...catching him..."
"...but he got me."
Naturally, everyone went bonkers.
The guards even liked Robert, referring to him by his name instead of his inmate number. Strolling down memory lane here at Earls Kitchen + Bar, Baker glows. He pulls up a YouTube video of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, performing a chilling Haka war dance. Once, Robert and those fellow inmates performed this same ritual for friends and family at Larch. Shirtless, in green lavalava skirts, they smacked their forearms, crouched low, swayed side to side and let out rebel yells in unison.
"Everyone together!" Baker says. "It was all in sync. Picture all the inmates—white people, black people, face tats. It was kind of scary!"
The closer Robert's release date came, the more "Budda Baker" became a household name. A purple-and-gold blur leading the Huskies to a 9-0 start in 2016. It's no coincidence that Baker always played better on national TV, too. He knew that Robert could get ESPN in prison and that he'd have everyone there cheering him on.
Simply imagining that scene took his game to a new level.
Any games Robert couldn't see were, of course, dissected in play-by-play detail over the phone.
And then, finally, in early November 2016, Robert was a free man, out a year early through a work-release program. The first game he caught live just so happened to be UW's first loss of the season. "I'm bad luck!" he wailed.
If so, it didn't scare the NFL away. Following the 2016 season, Baker was drafted 36th overall by the Cardinals. He worked his way into the lineup and often resembled a human missile in totaling 74 combined tackles with seven pass breakups.
His confidence soared. Big bro was with him, in person, for the ride.
No more letters. No more phone calls. Just this April, Robert joined Baker and Baker's girlfriend for a game night. He hooted and hollered throughout a spirited game of "Heads Up!" on their phones—clearly happy, clearly content.
To Baker's knowledge, his brother was finished with gangs for good. He started busing tables at a Bellevue restaurant, became a youth football coach and, best of all, was a father again to his own three kids.
"And then," Baker says, "it's like, 'Damn. You weren't even out for that long.
The intersection of NW 49th St. and 17th Ave. NW in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle sure looks innocent enough. There's a hipster in a Toadies shirt on one sidewalk. A family on the other. Nearby, there's a Trader Joe's, an LA Fitness, yet another Starbucks being built and even a luxury apartment complex under construction.
During the day, months later, it's impossible to tell that this is where Robert Baker was gunned down.
Yet it was here, as the bars closed at 1:45 a.m. on April 22, that officers found Baker fighting for his life with one gunshot wound to the chest.
He was 29 years old.
Calling this a "targeted and premeditated killing," per court documents, prosecutors charged Gates with first-degree murder. No motive is clear. Robert had spent the night at Cedar Room and, per one friend, didn't have any problems with anyone while at the club. Still, surveillance indicated that Gates and Baker recognized each other inside the club around 12:45 a.m. Gates then left the club and waited until Baker did the same.
Baker and a friend went to the friend's vehicle outside, where Baker allegedly asked for a handgun inside the vehicle. It was then—walking south, toward the bar—that Baker was shot in the chest and fell to the sidewalk. Surveillance and a cell phone video shot by a Lyft driver allegedly caught Gates firing at Baker from across the street. Baker attempted to take cover behind a parked car but was still stricken by that bullet to the chest. He tried to rise with his gun but never fired.
Gates is accused of firing 10 shots.
Another video captured Gates within two minutes of the shooting holding hands with a woman. At one point, he began to skip. That woman would not identify a shooter to police, and Gates told police he knew nothing about the shooting.
Gates has a rap sheet himself. In 2011, he robbed a clerk at a service station and, according to prosecutors, held a gun to his face, pulled the trigger and the magazine of the gun fell out, thus saving that clerk's life. Gates was sentenced to 31 months. In 2015, Gates was arrested with a loaded pistol. Then, out on bond, he was arrested in possession of a shotgun, crack cocaine and Xanax pills.
He was convicted and released from prison in 2017.
Which all leaves the Baker family asking...Why?
As far as Michelle Baker knows, Gates has refused to speak. She asked the homicide investigator to see if Gates ever crossed paths with her son in prison. Maybe they clashed then. Maybe there were demons in Robert's life he couldn't escape. Mom dreads the next court date, set for Aug. 2. She prays this one goes better than the last, when she "wanted to die," when Gates showed no remorse and the bail was set at $2 million. This is all so painful.
"God knows that I have to forgive him," Mom says. "But this is hard."
Multiple times in conversation, Michelle Baker breaks down into tears over the reality Robert is gone. All the joy her family felt when he was released from prison was instantly drained. All that's left is an emptiness in her heart and a helplessness in her voice.
Despite all the evidence, the Bakers were told this trial could linger for a year. Maybe two.
"I'm not healed yet," Mom says, voice skipping a beat. "I'm trying to heal. I'm trying my best to heal. But this is truly hard."
Because, above all, she does not want Budda to feel like he needs to shoulder the burden of looking after herself and her 13-year-old daughter and the three children Robert leaves behind. Mom's health remains erratic. In June, she was rushed to the hospital and hooked up to a slew of IVs when her pain medication wasn't working. She discovered her kidneys nearly shut down as a result of severe dehydration and that she may need dialysis at some point.
She takes 15 pills in the morning, eight pills at 3 p.m. and seven at night to get by. Now, she's finally taking Baker's advice to drink water daily, too.
Baker wishes he could be there every second of every day for everyone—he calls his mother "the strongest woman I know"—but he also knew he needed to return to Arizona.
Flying south to OTAs and minicamp physically airlifted Baker out of his "dark place." As if hearing Robert barking in his ear, as if reading one of Robert's letters, Baker stepped on the scale, saw he weighed a meager 176 pounds and realized, yes, he needed to eat and study and move on. But mentally, Baker took a different path. Whereas so many other pros would likely suppress such a memory deep into the corners of their mind, Baker was always someone who used sad moments to supercharge him in the past.
So Baker decided this (extremely) sad moment would supercharge him today.
He'll think about the night his brother died. The fact that his brother, in his mind, had zero business being shot and killed. He'll think about the dozens of strangers who hit him up on social media with stories of Robert's random acts of kindness. And he'll get mad that Robert isn't still here.
He'll unleash those feelings.
"I know what he would want right now," Baker says, "and I'm not taking my eyes off that."
Of course, this is a fine line to straddle. Baker can't go too far. His mother, for one, has no concerns at all, saying Baker "will be living every play for his brother."
A celebration of Robert's life in June helped. On what would've been Robert's 30th birthday, the family gathered in "Rest in Paradise" T-shirts that featured a photo of Robert smiling. As Baker watched Robert's kids blow out the 30 candles on a cake, his healing process sped up.
This was something small but something he'll remember forever.
Baker genuinely believes he's taking Robert with him everywhere. Into the weight room. He's been yelling, "Let's go! Help me out!" every time he feels his body weakening with barbells in his hands. And every time, he manages to pump out one more rep. Onto the field. Every day of OTAs and minicamp, Baker stepped onto the field, tapped his helmet, pointed to the sky and said, "Let's have a good day today," before stretching. During 11-on-11 sessions, Baker even found himself talking to his brother out loud before the snap.
Now, one more scenario awaits.
"I just can't wait for a game," Baker says. "People are going to be like, Who is this '36' kid?"
Even Baker doesn't truly know the answer to that question. Not yet.
What he does know is the Cardinals are a lot better than they're getting credit for. Jimmy G! The Dream Team Rams! The Seahawks! Arizona is the consensus division doormat. But the way Baker looks at it, they just went 8-8 with second- and third-string running backs and quarterbacks.
Now, they get David Johnson back. Now, they have Sam Bradford ("When he's on the field, he's one of the best QBs," Baker says) and Josh Rosen ("He's already veteran-minded"). To Baker, everyone's doubting the Cardinals exactly as they doubted his Huskies in college.
So he'll gladly let history repeat itself and serve as the face of another uprising.
If so, no one around the league will be surprised to see Baker in that role. The Cardinals let the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu, go this offseason, in large part to roll out a red carpet for Baker. As one NFC scout assures, "F--k yeah," Baker can be one of the best safeties in the league. Because of his passion. Because he plays so much bigger than his size.
"The dude is twitched up, man," the scout says. "He closes so much ground in a hurry, but he's going to hit you. His upside? He's only going to get better and better and better. ... He's explosive, twitchy, going to get there in a f--king hurry."
Former Packers safety and Hall of Fame semifinalist LeRoy Butler looks at Baker and sees the next generation of his own All-Pro style. "You have to be unconscious, in here with your blinders on, laser focused on this to impact the game," Butler says. "That's what I see in him. I want to impact the game.
"I definitely think he got some of my DNA."
This is a twitchy dude who inadvertently tore a teammate's ACL in Year 1. A dude who once bench-pressed an offensive tackle with such force that the tackle shouted after the play, "Damn! You're strong!" Against the Giants, he laughs, a fullback bounced right off him.
Baker hasn't grown an inch since eighth grade—he's always needed to play with abandon. It's no shock he grew up idolizing Allen Iverson. His recklessness, his will.
And under new head coach Steve Wilks, Baker's now in a scheme that'll green-light all AI-like abandon boiling inside of him. He expects to be shooting gaps in full attack mode.
Perfect for someone seeking vengeance.
For someone still sad, still pissed.
Baker repeats that his emotional recovery is not over. Nobody on the Cardinals roster, to his knowledge, can relate. His best friend, Myles Jack, told him that his Jaguars teammate, Telvin Smith, experienced the same pain. Smith's brother was killed, too. When the time's right, Baker may give Smith a call, but for now it's full steam ahead. He has no plans to open up publicly about his brother's death again. He wants to get this off his chest and move on to Sundays.
Because every Sunday, it'll be clear how this tragedy affects him.
"I don't expect to play a certain way or play better. I just know I'm going to," Baker says. "I knew I was going to show out this year. That happened, and that's more fuel to the fire.
"I'm ready to be labeled one of the best."
The way Baker sees it, Robert will be on the field with him.
The two of them decided that, together, soon after Robert's death.
Before a gravestone was even put in, Baker visited the cemetery to talk to his brother. He knew exactly where the body was, right near his grandparents' tombstones. And for a good 30 minutes, Baker spoke out loud. And cried. And cried. All emotions poured out of him once more. Then, rather than gather up those emotions, stuff them into a chest, lock the chest and chuck it into the Pacific Ocean, he did the opposite.
He chose to strap on his chin strap and let these raw emotions drive him.
He has no idea how much destruction he'll leave in his wake. No clue what this extra push from Robert will lead to. He only knows he cannot wait to find out.
"I'm dedicating the season to him," he says, catching himself. "It's bigger than that. I'm dedicating every season to him."
Baker keeps staring ahead, through a window, outside to nobody in particular.
Turn your head to stare with him and you can practically see Robert there, smiling right back at him.
"I know that he'll be able to watch every single game now."
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.