GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Dallas Baker had quickly dozed off on the bus, trying to sleep through a night that would haunt him for a year.
The 2004 Florida football team was riding from the airport to UF campus, where a rough road trip would come to an end.
The Gators had lost at Tennessee that night, 30-28, their second straight loss to the Vols. As the bus neared University Avenue, the players frantically woke up Baker.
When he opened his eyes, he looked out the window and saw a large section of the iconic 34th Street Wall in Gainesville painted white with two words in big black letters.
In the eyes of those painters and most of Gator Nation, Baker was single-handedly responsible for the loss in Knoxville.
With 1:13 remaining, Florida led 28-27 and was trying to run out the clock on third down from its own 37-yard line. After the play, Vols cornerback Jonathan Wade swatted at Baker along the Tennessee sideline. Baker slapped him back.
“The ref (Bobby Moreau) was watching both of us,” Baker said. “You’re always told the home team is going to get the call 90 percent of the time, and sure enough that’s what happened. He watched him hit me, I retaliated and he threw the flag.”
Not only did the penalty back up Florida 15 yards, but officials mistakenly stopped the clock with 55 seconds remaining to give the Vols time to set up James Wilhoit’s 50-yard field goal with 6 seconds left. Moreau later admitted he should have called a double foul and was suspended two weeks.
Baker suffered much longer.
On the Monday after the game, he had dozens of letters in the mailbox at his dorm room.
“It was all hate mail,” Baker said. “I remember Lee Corso the next week saying I was a thug and I should get kicked off the team. Those were his exact words.”
Florida hosted Kentucky the following Saturday and Baker got called for offensive holding in the first quarter.
“The fans were booing the call, but I thought they were booing me. I just felt like I kept messing up,” Baker said. “It was a bumpy season for me. I didn’t want to eat. I was losing weight.
“I was almost depressed because I felt like I cost us the SEC championship. I remember it all like it was yesterday.”
Baker didn’t get the monkey off his back until the following year against Tennessee. He hauled in a 23-yard pass on a 3rd-and-19 in the fourth quarter to extend the drive, eventually leading to Chris Hetland hitting a 20-yard field goal to put the game away, 16-7.
“I felt like I was the greatest receiver in the country that day,” Baker said. “That rivalry has made me have downs and ups. So for me, this game means a lot. When we beat them back-to-back years, I finally had my payback.”
In Baker’s return to Knoxville, he caught the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter as Florida pulled out a 21-20 win and went on to win the 2006 national championship. Baker finished with four catches for 54 yards and two touchdowns.
“That game I was just pissed,” Baker said. “When it was over, somebody took a picture of me waving goodbye to all their fans. That was the greatest feeling, just seeing all of them shocked that they blew the lead.”
UF hasn’t lost to the Vols since Baker’s costly slap, and he likes to think he’s had a hand in the 11-game winning streak.
“I started calling it the ‘The Dallas Baker Curse’ a few years ago,” he said laughing. “Tennessee is still paying for that blown call.”
Baker is now the wide receivers coach at Warner University in Lake Wales, Fla. He still hears about the penalty to this day, but it no longer bothers him.
Some good actually came from it his junior year.
“It was a first date and the first thing she brought up was the slap,” Baker said. “She told me, ‘I remember last year walking on campus and I saw a newspaper that said you blew the game against Tennessee.’ I’m like, ‘This is the first thing we’re going to talk about on our date?’
“She started laughing, but that’s how we hit off. We’ve been together ever since and have an 8-year-old daughter. So in a way, I owe Tennessee a lot.”