By: Bob Carskadon (@BobCarskadon)
Back in April, Baker Swedenburg walked out of Davis Wade Stadium for the final time of the spring, the annual Maroon-White Spring Game having ended, offering an at-least-temporary reprieve from football for Mississippi State’s senior punter.
Getting in the car, relaxing at home, Swedenburg was content. Happy, even excited.
Not for the end of football, though, but for the beginning of something else. Within 24 hours, his life would change permanently. A dream of happiness and love was soon to be realized.
He was going to propose to his girlfriend, ask her to be his wife and run side-by-side with each other until, as the vow so solemnly swears, death do them part.
Nearly three years earlier, Swedenburg, the vetted punter for Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs, met the new long-snapper, someone he would be required to build chemistry with, on the field at the very least. Then, as specialists often do, they bonded, spending so much of their time together at practice, in meetings and in the locker room.
Kickers, and those involved in the play, won’t hesitate to share the difference between them and any other position. If a lineman misses a block, it’s one play out of 75 and people’s eyes are often elsewhere anyway. If a punt is shanked or a field goal missed, every eye sees it; every mouth is quick to criticize. They may not be seen often, but when they are, the pressure on kickers is palpable.
Perhaps that’s why specialists often have so much, well, personality and uniqueness. They have to cope somehow. And going through things like that together is more than enough to create ties beyond simply the name on the front of their jerseys.
So Swedenburg and his snapper, Winston Chapman, developed a relationship, turning to friendship and on its way to becoming family, though they’re as good as now.
After MSU played Alabama in Starkville in 2011, Chapman emerged from the locker room, arms loaded down with his gameday suit, his bag and the rest of his belongings. His mother and sister were waiting on him and after a quick hug the group went to go meet family friends at their tailgate.
Halfway there, mom realizes she left her purse at the football facility. Winston offers to go back with her to get it and sister Claire takes all of Winston’s gear in her arms and goes to find the tent. She knows the couple running the tailgate, good friends of her parents, though she’s never met their son, a teammate of Winston’s.
Claire finds them easily, chatting with them before even unloading all of Winston’s things she was dispatched to carry.
“Claire, have you met our son Baker?” the Swedenburg’s asked.
She had not, and arms and hands occupied with her brother’s game day belongings, she couldn’t shake his hand as he approached.
“So when he comes over I say, ‘I would shake your hand but I don’t have any arms,’” Claire recalled with a laugh, hiding her face in embarrassment before resurfacing a moment later. “So then, for some odd reason, I just kind of stuck my head out. I don’t know what I thought was gonna happen.”
“I was immediately attracted to her,” Baker deadpanned.
And that was it for the night. And the entire fall, spring and summer. Just an awkward introduction where she stuck her head out at him.
Baker and Claire didn’t talk after that - though both remembered the meeting clearly - until MSU opened its season at home against Jackson State last fall, nearly one year later.
After the win, Baker went over to Winston’s house to hang out and enjoy the victory.
And there was Claire, wearing an MSU button with her brother’s name on it.
Former Bulldog Cam Lawrence, Winston’s roommate at the time, poked a little fun at her.
“Cam, in front of everybody, and this mortified me, was like, ‘Hey, Baker, why does your girlfriend have on a Winston button?’ I was like, ‘I’m not his girlfriend!’”
It was just a joke, of course, as Lawrence had no reason to suspect anything, nor was there anything to be suspicious of. But, throwaway comment though it may have been, Lawrence turned out to be a prophet.
Baker and Claire hit it off that night and went on their first date one week later after MSU played Auburn in Starkville.
The Bulldogs won, the weather was perfect and they were finally out together, just the two of them, for the very first time. The signs couldn’t have been more positive nor the mood better set.
Then the night started.
“It was a poor first date,” Claire said.
“I tend to not talk a lot when I get hungry,” Baker said, “and I’m very focused, so our first date was literally just me like…” and here Baker just stared ahead, eyes a bit glazed.
“They were out of everything,” Claire said, laughing now. “They were out of whatever he wanted to eat, whatever he wanted to drink, their special wasn’t there, everything he asked for. He didn’t talk until he got food.”
But, eventually, he did get food. He did talk, and so did she. And the more they talked, the more they couldn’t stop.
In their own words, they realized how weird the other was and how perfectly their weirdness fit together.
“His sense of humor, the fact that he didn’t think I was the weirdest person ever for not having arms… He accepted me for all my flaws,” Claire said, looking at him with a smile.
“We’re both just really weird and we happen to have the same wavelength of weirdness,” Baker expounded.
Not that it was terribly surprising. The brother of a special teams guy, Claire was fully prepared for the eccentrics of his teammate.
Oh, yeah. Winston’s teammate. Like center and quarterback, snapper and punter is a relationship which must be strong.
Dating his snapper’s sister, and his friend’s sister beyond that, wasn’t the most logical of propositions for Baker.
What if he made Winston mad and he snapped the ball at his feet in a game, or made him look bad in practice? But, baker thought the risk was worthwhile.
“He asked me one night if it was cool that he talked to my sister,” Winston said.
“I was very professional about it,” Baker chimed in.
“And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine.’ I didn’t care at all,” Winston said, throwing his hands up as if to say, ‘Who cares?’ “I think her being an older sister, it’s different. If she were my younger sister, maybe I’d be protective. But I think it was understood. He was my friend, so I knew he wasn’t gonna do anything.”
That friendship from years together was a blessing for Baker and Claire’s love, even if it’s often more than she can handle.
“They’re kind of obnoxious when they’re together,” she said. “They have all these weird jokes.”
“She hates us on road trips,” baby brother interrupted.
“Winston does this thing where if I like a song he makes up dumb lyrics to it,” Claire went on.
“We’re a singing group,” Baker explained, “the two of us.”
“They love each other,” Claire said before rolling her eyes. “I don’t understand half the things they talk about.”
But she’s right about the love. All three of them care deeply for each other, each in a unique way. Both as a group and individuals, few others mean as much to them as they do, grouped snugly together on a couch in MSU’s new football complex telling the story of how they became so close. Winston and Claire are siblings, of course, but Baker has been like family for some time.
Which takes them back to April, the day after MSU’s spring game, the biggest day of Baker’s life and one he hoped would ensure many even bigger days to come.
He was going to ask Claire to marry him.
Under the guise of wanting some relaxation after a full spring of football, Baker took Claire and a hammock to the nearby Noxubee Wildlife Refuge.
Surrounded by things both natural and beautiful, Baker’s eyes saw nothing but the woman he had fallen in love with, the girl with “no arms” he wanted to spend every moment of his life around.
With a smile on his face, he asked her.
“Will you marry me?”
And now, they will all truly be family.
She said yes.