Matt Drinkall didn’t know what to do.
Brandon Baker, aka Dean McQueen, sat silent and motionless on the other side of his desk staring at Drinkall, who was in just his second week as head football coach at Kansas Wesleyan.
“He’s a very loving and caring guy and my first two weeks on the job he talked to everyone but me,” Drinkall said. “I kind of took offense to it. I was kind of like ‘alright dude, to heck with you. You’re not going to give me any attention, I’m not going to give you any. So, I’m not going to be friends with this guy.'”
The showdown evolved when everyone on his entire staff and Baker’s guardian Matt Myers, a linebacker on the team, left the football offices leaving Drinkall in charge.
In a last ditch attempt to break the stalemate Drinkall offered Baker a soft drink from his small refrigerator.
“His eyes lit up and he was really excited and he’s like ‘yeah!'” Drinkall said. “I said ‘alright, a little life in this guy finally.’ I gave him a pop and he drank the whole thing in like eight seconds. I said, ‘by golly you like these, you want another one?’ He said ‘yeah!’
“‘I’ve got some chocolate-covered pretzels and chips you want some of them?’ – I just started feeding the guy as much as he could possibly get in his body.”
Assistant coach John Michaletti soon appeared in the doorway and was aghast at what was transpiring.
“He was like ‘what are you doing?'” Drinkall said. “I said, ‘this guy loves this stuff’ and Michaletti says ‘he’s diabetic.’ I asked Dean ‘are you diabetic’ and he’s like ‘oh, yeah.’
“I then became the guy in his brain who lets him get away with stuff with he’s not supposed to. From then he and I were pretty close the rest of the way out.”
Baker, a special needs citizen, remained close to Drinkall, Michaletti and every coach, player and many others on the KWU campus over the next eight years. His presence in football’s basement bunker inside the KWU Student Activities Center was constant and expected.
Drinkall, now tight ends coach at Army, and Baker became inseparable.
“I was new to town, single and didn’t have any friends or a girlfriend so I spent a lot of time with Brandon,” he said. “We did everything. We’d go buy books at the mall together, go to the library, go to movies, go pick out DVDs, go to lunch all the time. Outside of work my first three years there I spent the majority of my time with him.”
The football complex hasn’t been as loud or nearly as happy this week following Baker’s death at age 33 Sunday at Salina Regional Health Center.
“Inspiration, love, friendship and a whole bunch of other words – I could go on for the next 24 hours,” current KWU coach Myers Hendrickson said of Baker – his voice cracking, tears welling in his eyes. “I’m just one person and he completely changed my life. He taught me more about life than anybody I’ve been around, and I know he’s done that for countless other people.”
Baker’s impact was indeed immense. He was a familiar figure in the offices, on the practice field at Graves Family Sports Complex and across campus.
He never met a stranger, eagerly greeting and chatting with everyone while. Myers installed a small station in the corner of his office where Baker would watch movies or read. He never appeared to have a bad day even as he dealt with a series of health issues through the years.
“He didn’t care where you were from, your socio-economic background, the color of your skin, whatever – pick anything you could be prejudice about,” Myers said. “Brandon was prejudice about one thing – whether you’re laughing or not. If you’re not he’ll make you laugh.”
“No bad days, that’s one of a million life lessons I’ve taken from Dean,” Hendrickson said. “When he walks down the hallway no matter what he’s going through behind the scenes he’s smiling, he’s happy to see everybody and is full of energy and positivity. That’s something we all can learn from.”
Baker scored an unopposed touchdown at the conclusion of several KWU spring scrimmages through the years, each wildly celebrated by Coyote players and fans in the stands.
Halloween was his favorite holiday, dressing up as an action hero or someone else. Drinkall and his staff followed along.
Drinkall made him Director of Player Morale early on and he’s listed among KWU’s coaches on the team’s website. It was more than a kind gesture.
“Every time Dean was around all the players loved him, all the coaches loved him, he’d see recruits on campus and talk to them and people on campus,” Drinkall said. “He was building all these positive relationships and he certainly wasn’t a player, but he was basically part of our staff.
“I wanted to treat him as such and let everybody know he provided an incredibly valuable component of our team culture. And I think culture beats scheme all the time. He might not have been on the payroll, but he was integral in building our culture and what we stand for and what we believe in and how we operate as anybody.”
Baker was more widely known as Dean.
“Dean McQueen was an iteration from a young man that heard Dean and said ‘yeah, Dean McQueen,'” Myers said. “It was born from the Disney Pixar movie Cars.”
Myers first met Baker when he took a job as Baker’s personal assistant while he attended Salina South High School. Myers was 18 and Baker 19 at the time.
Myers became Baker’s fulltime guardian in 2013. When Myers returned to KWU to finish his degree and play for the Coyotes in 2014 he had to find someone to watch him while he attended class.
“I was operating as a student and asked if Dean could hang out down (in the football offices) for a few hours a day while I go to school,” he said. “And they were like ‘yeah, absolutely.'”
Myers and his wife Sara lived in Memphis from 2009-13 while she attended optometry school. Myers was “running a business out of my garage and trying to figure out life.”
Myers had become close to Baker serving as his assistant, spending time together on weekends and summers. Lonely and missing his friend Myers asked Baker’s mother Cindy if he could drive back to Salina and take him to Memphis for a few weeks. She agreed and the relationship was cemented.
“His mother signed off on everything I wanted to do,” Myers said. “She said ‘Matt, you do what’s needed. I trust you, go.’ And we did it.”
Matt and Sara moved back to Kansas in 2013. Baker was living in a group home in Salina but wasn’t doing well, so Matt sought and gained permission to become his fulltime guardian.
The Myers moved to Manhattan for two years, but Matt continued working at KWU as a volunteer assistant coach during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. He and Baker drove to Salina each day.
In 2018 Sara accepted a job in Salina and Drinkall hired Myers as a fulltime assistant. It was a package deal with Baker, of course.
“You learn you need a lot of people around you all the time, Kansas Wesleyan especially,” Myers said. “No one ever questioned what we were doing, he got to be here all the time. He got to wake up every day and know he was going to Kansas Wesleyan to hang out with the people.
“He loved the people and it was reciprocated, from (President Dr. Matt) Thompson on down. We were allowed to come here and work.”
Myers quickly learned his place in the pecking order at KWU when it came to Baker.
“He’s a brother and an uncle to thousands of people, thousands of kids,” he said. “I was an afterthought when it came to Brandon and everyone else. They were like ‘hey, can you make it to our wedding, we’re having kids, how to do we get Brandon integrated into our lives?’ My job was to facilitate that. I found that out eight years ago.”
“That one-two combo of Dean and Matt Myers, it wears you down after a while but now I’m closer with those guys than I am my own family,” Drinkall said. “I love those guys as much as anyone I’ll love in my entire life.”
“They say a coach can impact tons of people, I think Dean surpassed any coach in any sport just because of his personality and ability to connect,” he said. “He’s a life-changer with people he comes across.
“There’s only one Dean, there’s only going to be one Brandon Baker and I just thank God we got to have him in our lives because he’s taught me more than I could ever teach anybody else. He has made me a better person.”
Drinkall and several former and current coaches gathered in Salina to visit Baker just before he went into the hospital for the final time.
“I told Matt watching Dean that last week was like watching Doc Holliday at the end of Tombstone where he was sick and he shouldn’t have been out and knew there was nothing he could do about it but was like ‘I’ve got to saddle up and go one more time for my boys,'” Drinkall said.
“And Dean was awesome. He was the happiest I’d seen in a long time, he was the most alert, the most active … you saw life surge through him.”
A memorial service for Baker is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday inside Mabee Arena on the KWU campus. A reception will follow.
“Brandon was my partner all the time,” Myers said. “I wasn’t myself without Dean, Dean wasn’t himself without me. He made me a better man, a better husband, a better father. The sad part is Dean gets to go relax and I have to go figure out how to do my job and do this without him. It will be hard.”