Sitting in class or walking on campus, Chris Baker is the guilty man.
He is the guilty man in this small town where his name has been in headlines for all the wrong reasons. He is the guilty man to the thousands who don't know him, who have never even taken the time to introduce themselves. He can feel it sometimes in the looks he sees from others; he has already been convicted in their minds. Convicted, he said, for something he did not do.
"When you think of Chris Baker, you probably think of the guy that's been in fights twice," said Baker, the former Penn State defensive tackle. "You probably think of some guy who's been going around beating up innocent people. That's not me; I'm a good guy. I go to church. I like to be around people. I'm not a violent person. I'm a nice person, and people have a different perception. People just think I'm just a big, black thug. And that's not what I'm like."
Baker, who is scheduled to meet today with Penn State Judicial Affairs, has lived suspended between his proclaimed innocence and the pervading perception of his guilt. His situation will take a step forward at today's hearing, where his fate at the university will hang in the balance.
The university, which acts independently of criminal proceedings, has recommended a one-year expulsion, Baker said. Baker said he is confident the hearing today will go smoothly, and he will eventually rejoin the Nittany Lions. If not, he hasn't ruled out transferring.
Baker was arrested twice in 2007 on felony charges in connection with two fights. His name has become almost synonymous with the string of off-the-field trouble that has recently dogged the Penn State program. In addition to the university's hearing, he still faces charges in court and the looming possibility of time in prison.
But those who know Baker have painted a different picture of him, citing his previously clean record, affable personality and history of community service. Baker, his family and his friends have maintained his innocence on all charges and say he has been misidentified in both incidents.
The team has quietly addressed Baker's situation by holding a players-only meeting after the season, at which his troubles were discussed, Baker's mother, Jackie, said. Chris Baker would not comment about what happened in the meeting, but his mother said the players who have not yet admitted their involvement in the fights said they would step up and accept punishment.
If those players do claim responsibility for involvement in the fights, it is unknown whether it would impact Baker's case. Baker's attorney, Karen Muir, declined to talk about the specifics of his case in a telephone interview.
So far, no one has publicly come forward.
"I get upset sometimes because some of them that did participate in the fighting didn't get caught, and none of them has stepped up and manned up to say, 'it was me and not him,' " Baker said in a recent interview at his off-campus apartment. "So it's cool. At the end of the day, it's going to come out."
For now, everybody knows Baker as the football player who police have pegged as an aggressor in two violent altercations.
Most people know that police have said Baker was involved in the April 1 fight at the Meridian II apartment, 646 E. College Ave. Most people know Baker as one of six players arrested on felony charges and that he is the only one still facing criminal charges -- criminal trespass, simple assault, harassment and burglary -- with a March 31 trial date.
Most people are also aware that Baker was then charged with aggravated assault, harassment and stalking, simple assault and disorderly conduct in connection with an Oct. 7 fight at the HUB-Robeson Center. They know that a fight broke out at a fraternity party at the HUB, and police said three eyewitnesses positively identified Baker as "brutally kicking the victim while he was on the ground attempting to hide under a table while being pummeled by approximately 15 people." They know the victim, Varney Capehart, later identified Baker and linebacker Bani Gbadyu to police as the two primary attackers.
But most people don't really know Chris Baker. He said if people knew him, they might not be so quick to judge. He said they would know violence is not in his nature, and that all this trouble is a misrepresentation of his character.
Evidence? He said to take a look at his high school yearbook. One of the most popular kids in his class at Windsor (Conn.) High School, Baker said he won numerous superlative awards from his peers: best smile, life of the party, most school spirit, most athletic.
On top of that, his senior class of nearly 400 students elected him president. The 6-foot-2, 305-pound Baker used to fundraise for his senior prom by organizing bake sales or class parties.
Students and teachers regarded him as a leader in high school. Once during lunch, two girls were in a vicious fight, and a large crowd had gathered to check it out, said his guidance counselor, Cassandra Deedy, in a telephone interview. Baker pushed through the crowd, picked up one girl who had been beaten and carried her to the nurse's office, Deedy said. The fight dispersed.
"Chris was the first one who stepped up to do something to end it because it was not right," Deedy said. "That's the type of kid he is."
Or take the fact that he grew up in the church, shielded by his parents from the streets of nearby Hartford, where Baker said he has seen friends and relatives "fall through the cracks" of society. As a young child, he would stand in front of the congregation and help lead the choir. Baker later became a junior deacon and also sang in the choir at First Baptist Church in Bloomfield, Conn., he said.
By his own admission, Baker enjoys being the center of attention. And his outgoing nature played a role in his arrests because, he said, "I just like to be around people when things happen." He declined to comment specifically about the fights.
Baker has gone on walking through life at Penn State already convicted by some and handled very carefully by the football program.
It is clear that the off-the-field problems have also been difficult on the program. This type of situation leaves the university in a precarious spot: Do you allow the athlete, still innocent by law, to continue playing, or do you preemptively sever ties because of the negative publicity?
Baker said he still wants to remain at Penn State and hopes to rejoin the Lions even though he thinks he has been treated unfairly.
"It's always going to be a distraction because we're Penn State football players, and everything we do is going to be in the limelight and talked about a lot," Baker said. "But I don't think it was fair for me to get kicked off the team because if I'm a distraction, there are a whole lot of people who are a distraction as far as people getting DUIs and other people getting into fights and other stuff that happens. But nobody else has been kicked off the team. I've been kicked off, and I don't think that's fair. But things happen."
Linebacker Navorro Bowman and cornerback Knowledge Timmons have been kicked off the team for their link to the HUB fight. Safety Anthony Scirrotto, who police say helped orchestrate the April 1 Meridian fight, however, received no individual punishment from the team.
Team spokesmen did not return phone messages seeking comment. Reached by phone, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley would not comment on Baker or his punishment.
Even if Penn State has publicly kept itself at arm's length from Baker since his second arrest, defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. has remained close to Baker. Baker said the two still talk frequently, and Johnson will often encourage him to pray and stay faithful. Johnson did not return phone messages about this article.
Baker said he has remained close with teammates and has grown particularly close with wide receiver Derrick Williams. In fact, Jackie Baker said Williams, at one point, called the family's Connecticut home to personally apologize and express sympathy for their situation.
Baker's family and friends believe his case has been handled unfairly by local authorities.
"That district attorney, he don't want the truth," Jackie Baker said. "He wants Chris Baker. He wants my son, Chris Baker."
Centre County District Attorney Michael Madeira declined to comment on the specifics of Baker's cases except to say in a telephone interview that his office handles all of its cases the same way and that all are entitled to a fair trial.
It is at the future trials that Baker is confident he will be vindicated.
"That's really going to be hard because sometimes you have to tell on your teammates, but at the same time, I have my own life to live, and I'm not going to accept punishment for something I didn't do for my teammates," Baker said. "Sometimes I feel like my teammates are sitting back and watching me go through this, and they think nothing is going to happen to them.
"At the end of the day, the people that are sitting back watching me go down the drain are going to be the people in my situation when it's all said and done with."