It was less than a year ago that Bruce Gibbs first met Najee Ali Baker at a Winston-Salem State University football practice.
Baker was new to the team and Gibbs asked him if he, too, was from Brooklyn, N.Y. Baker responded affirmatively and simply: “Word.”
It was a simple exchange that cemented their friendship as teammates and brothers, Gibbs said, his voice breaking as he spoke at Baker’s memorial service Wednesday.
“We clicked ever since. In a short period of time, I felt like I’d known him my whole life,” said Gibbs, a defensive back at WSSU. “He had a contagious presence. ... He personified the word ‘cool.’ He was just a cool, cool guy.”
Gibbs was one of many teammates, students and staff gathered at WSSU’s Dillard Auditorium Wednesday to honor Baker’s memory.
Baker, 21, was shot to death Jan. 20 after a fight broke out at a party hosted by the Delta Sigma Theta sorority on Wake Forest University’s campus.
Gibbs said, as a fellow New York native, Baker’s inherently tough nature could be mistaken as brash, but that wasn’t him at all.
“On many instances, I found myself studying how well he carried himself as a man. His values were loyalty, trust and respect,” Gibbs said. “Najee, you will always be family, you will always be my brother. Just like many others do, I love you big bro, and you will always be with us.”
A joint vigil between Wake Forest and WSSU was held on WSSU’s campus last week following the killing.
Malik Patience Smith, 16, who appeared in court Friday, is accused of holding the crowd of partygoers at bay with a gun, while another man, identified as Jakier “Poppa” Austin, 21, allegedly shot Baker just after 1 a.m.
“The worst thing was I was there and I couldn’t do anything,” said Vikaya Powell, a student and equipment manager for the football team. “It hurts so bad because we lost a family member.”
Police are still searching for Austin — a former WSSU student who is charged with murder and possession of a firearm on educational property — and urge people with information on his whereabouts to come forward, Capt. Steven Tollie said.
Powell said she couldn’t understand the senseless violence surrounding the death of her friend. She woke up the next morning thinking — and hoping — it was all a bad dream.
“He was so inspirational. He came to school to change and had so many aspirations and goals,” Powell said. “He wanted to change the world in his own way.”
The attendees were invited on stage to share memories of Baker.
Baker transferred to WSSU from Dean College in Franklin, Mass., in 2017 and was a walk-on defensive lineman on the football team.
He was pursuing a major in physical education and dreamed of working with children, his friends said.
“This is gut-wrenching,” said Tonia Walker, the university’s director of athletics. “A leaf from the Ram family tree has drifted away and left us all with an indescribable void.”
A photo of Baker in his red Rams jersey was propped up on stage, adorned with white flowers, at the hour-long memorial Wednesday. Sniffles punctured the moment of silence as tissues were passed around.
Friends said they always knew to look for him at the last computer on the left-hand side of the lab in study hall and would remember Baker for his smile.
“If there’s something I think we can all take from Najee, it would be his hustle and striving to be the best you can be on and off the field,” said Head Football Coach Kienus Boulware. “He wasn’t the biggest or fastest or meanest player, but he had heart.”
Boulware said the loss of Baker, who had two younger brothers, is one of the worst things a coach can endure.
He used to call Baker “New York” as a nickname after his home state and respected Baker for his positive attitude.
“I can’t tell you his favorite color, his favorite food or his favorite movie,” Boulware said. “But I can tell you he loved football, he loved his family. I can tell you he was gone too soon.”