On home football game nights, Steve Baker holds down what may be the best seat in Elkhorn Stadium.
Not because he's the superintendent of the small town-turned-suburban Elkhorn school district.
Instead, Baker gets the center seat in the press box — with its picturesque view of sparkling Youngman Lake and Omaha's twinkling skyline — because for 26 years he's been the guy behind the microphone, the guy announcing starting lineups and season stats, the guy calling carries and tackles and downs.
In fact, the former band director hasn't missed a home game in 39 years. For most of his time announcing games, it was just Elkhorn High. But when the district opened its second high school in 2010, he added Elkhorn South's games to his schedule.
Now he and his veteran team — retired teachers Kim Baumert, Baker's spotter with more than 30 years in the press box, and Jim Carter, who has 48 years on the clock — are heading into the superintendent-announcer's toughest game of the year Friday: Elkhorn High vs. Elkhorn South.
Anybody who's been to a high school football game knows that the home field announcer often expresses a bit more, shall we say, enthusiasm for the home team than for the visiting one. Some might even call them homers.
So Baker's challenge is to call a balanced game that favors neither one school nor the other. The high schools share a home stadium, so they take turns being the home team in the annual matchup. This year, it's Elkhorn High's turn.
“This will be the fourth time we've played that game,” Baker said. “I enjoy them all, but if I ever get laryngitis, that's the one to get it for.”
By all accounts, he strikes the right balance.
“Absolutely. Down the middle,” said Mark Wortman, Elkhorn High's football coach. “He's a true, loyal fan of both schools.”
John Marasco, president of Elkhorn's school board, said board members discussed when they appointed Baker superintendent in 2008 whether they wanted him to continue to call football games.
They decided having the superintendent involved in the community helps promote the schools.
“He's become kind of an institution,” Marasco said. “People look forward to having him do the games, and he does a great job.”
Said Mark Kalvoda, Elkhorn South's principal: “It's kind of a small town thing that he's been able to maintain. The superintendent is looking for opportunities to be involved in kids' lives and not just bricks and mortar and that kind of stuff.”
And it's fun. “I enjoy it,” Baker said. “That's probably the No. 1 reason. It's giving back something and hopefully making it special for the players and the parents.”
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For last week's matchup between Elkhorn South and Mount Michael, Baker arrives, as usual, about an hour and a half before kickoff, just as early arriving students are setting up to tailgate in the parking lot.
He's already done his homework, carrying a binder full of stats and an opening script.
This script is different from most. Elkhorn South students want to honor Nate LaFave, a Mount Michael student killed in a recent car accident, with a moment of silence before the game. Later, Baker will announce that the dance team will donate its share of proceeds from the night's raffle to the family.
Before game time, he checks how to pronounce the names of the Mount Michael players. Since they have already played Elkhorn this season, he's ahead of the game.
Carter, who taught 29 years in the Elkhorn district, heads down to the field to get the names of the officials.
Personal connections with people involved in the games make the announcing gig special, Baker said. Carter, 80, was a student-teacher in Baker's hometown of Holdrege. There, Baker competed in three sports against Wortman, who grew up in Lexington. They've been friends ever since. One assistant coach at Elkhorn High was Baker's roommate in college and the best man at his wedding. Another was a band student of Baker's who also played football for Wortman. Carter's three children also studied music with Baker, and his daughter teaches special education for the district.
The time in the box also helps Baker connect with students. He knew more of them when his son, Nick, now a college sophomore, was in high school. But when Elkhorn High student council members gave a presentation at recent school board meeting a couple of weeks before, Baker recognized one football player from the names he'd read the week before.
“Put your number in front of me, and I know who you are,” he said. “It makes them feel good.”
Soon he announces the coin toss, welcomes visitors and reminds everyone about good sportsmanship. With 11 minutes before kickoff, the band takes the field. The crowd observes the moment of silence, the band plays the national anthem. A picture-perfect full moon rises through misty clouds.
Baker runs through the starting lineups. The press box also becomes a kind of community bulletin board. Baker reads the results of recent boys tennis and girls golf matches. Students ask him to announce that the football team is passing buckets, trying to raise $1,000 for the family of a woman who has breast cancer.
At the previous game with Mount Michael, one of their officials asked Baker to read their cross-country meet results. He did. The Mount Michael official later sent a note to Elkhorn High Principal Dan Radicia saying what a nice guy the announcer was, not knowing he'd been talking to the district's superintendent.
Then it's game on. Baker raises his binoculars. He's doing double duty tonight without Baumert, who is traveling to watch his youngest daughter play volleyball for the University of Georgia. Baumert, who retired after teaching 31 years with the district, fell from a scaffolding in 2010 and now uses a wheelchair. He spots tackles while Baker keeps his eye on the ball.
“We're watching after each other,” Baker said. “We've done it long enough.”
He calls carries, tackles and passes. Carter watches where the ball goes down.
After a few more plays, Baker's voice rises. “Pass intercepted by No. 1, Behrens. TOUCHDOWN, STORM!”
Microphone off, he jokes with Carter. “No one there,” he said of the wide-open field in front of Ben Behrens. “You and I could have run that one in, if you were blocking for me.”
Carter, apparently not interested in a downfield sprint, comes back: “If I could walk.”
The two keep up the off-mike commentary between plays. When the Elkhorn South kicks a 45-yard field goal, Baker announces, “IT IS GOOD!” Off microphone, he notes that it's a big kick for high school.
During the game, Baker gets text messages about the Elkhorn High game and relays the score to the crowd. In the third quarter, the Antlers are tied 10-10 with Gretna, rated No. 1 in Class B. Later, he texts back, looking for an update. He gets the final: Gretna 17, Elkhorn 10.
But at Elkhorn Stadium, Elkhorn South wins handily, 45-12. Baker's calls of “TOUCHDOWN, STORM” for Elkhorn South far outnumber his more muted “touchdown” announcements for Mount Michael.
Baker said some staff members used to tell him about another announcer in another city who was considerably more animated. That's not really his style.
His biggest worry is that he'll call the wrong team during those Elkhorn-Elkhorn South matchups, like a parent saying the wrong child's name. He's only done it once, when his son was a senior in the Elkhorn South marching band. That band was on the field when he announced, “Let's have another round of applause for the Elkhorn High marching band!”
His wardrobe is another thing to consider. Normally, he wears the color of the Elkhorn team on the field — the Storm's blue-and-gold or the Antlers' red-and-white. When they're playing each other, he picks a neutral color.
For Friday's game, both schools are planning a pink-out for breast cancer. “I'm thinking I'm home free,” he said. “I've got a pink shirt.”
As for how long he'll keep announcing, that's another question.
“I don't know the answer to that,” he said. “I enjoy doing it. I'd probably be at the game no matter what. So why not be inside where I can turn on the heat to watch the game?”