|Browns' Gary Baxter defies long odds in comeback from devastating knee injuries|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 23 August 2007 10:07|
And as he lay in bed last October still wearing his game pants on the first night of a two-month stay, Baxter was unable to move his legs after freakishly tearing both patellar tendons on the same play. He closed his tear-filled eyes and let his mind race ahead.
He envisioned a comeback unlike any before.
He wasn't going out like this. Not now. Not without a fight.
Spewing test results and history, medical experts warned Baxter that he might have permanent damage and could have trouble walking. For now, they'd fit him for a wheelchair. Later, in-house nursing would be provided.
Worse, they said his playing career was over and suiting up again for the Cleveland Browns wasn't possible.
Players rarely returned from one patellar injury. But two? And to play again in an NFL game? Sorry.
That would take, well, a medical miracle.
``I wouldn't call it a miracle,'' said Baxter, who defied astronomical odds and returned to the practice field with the Browns last month. ``It's a blessing. I wanted to be an inspiration to people. I've been a man on a mission.''
And he hasn't stopped.
Baxter, written off by almost everyone, including a few close teammates, plans to play in Cleveland's opener on Sept. 9 against Pittsburgh.
``I know it,'' he said. ``I've already played out 2007 in my mind, and that's where I'm going to be.''
Few doubt him anymore.
Only hours after he tore his patellar tendons - which connect the shin bones and knee caps - while defending a pass against Denver wide receiver Javon Walker in an Oct. 22 game, Baxter dedicated himself.
Once his room at the Cleveland Clinic had emptied that Sunday night, Baxter looked at the word ``Warrior'' inked on his right wrist and made a personal pledge.
``I said, 'Well, I guess I have to live up to what my tattoo says,''' he said. ``And that's the way it has been. At first it was baby steps, beyond baby steps. I decided it was all chips in, I'm going to fight this battle.''
He wasn't going it alone.
Baxter relied on his strong faith to get him through the tough days and agonizing rehab sessions. He was comforted by his favorite Bible passage, which says in part: `` ... when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.''
``If this is how God is going to teach me patience,'' Baxter said, ``then what a great lesson.''
Baxter sensed right away that something greater might be guiding him.
On Oct. 24, two days after crumpling in a heap near the goal line, Baxter was wheeled into the operating room for a scheduled 7 a.m. surgery. Exactly one year earlier, he had had surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle.
``Same hospital, same room, same doctor, same staff that prepared me, same time,'' Baxter said. ``I was like, 'Whoa, this is pretty deep.'''
Browns team physician Dr. Anthony Miniaci successfully fixed Baxter's tendons, which had ruptured cleanly. That was the easy part. For most of the next two months, Baxter was confined to his hospital bed, where the simplest daily tasks became major obstacles.
He needed help - with everything. His mother made sure he got it.
Faye Baxter was sitting in a suite in Cleveland Browns Stadium when her son crashed to the turf in pain. She watched him roll around, but stayed put.
``Gary always told me that as long as the cart didn't come out to get him, then it wasn't serious,'' she said from her home in Tyler, Texas. ``When they brought the cart out I headed downstairs.''
Broncos safety John Lynch knew Baxter was in bad shape.
``When he did that we all just got on our knees and started saying prayers for the guy,'' Lynch said. ``It was gruesome and you could see where he blew both knees and you're not even thinking about the guy's career at that point, you're just worried about him being able to walk.''
Once she reached the locker room area, Faye Baxter learned that her No. 24 wasn't doing well.
``All I heard was that he would never walk again,'' she said. ``I passed out.''
After Baxter's surgery, Faye went home to retrieve more clothes, took a leave of absence from her job and moved into her son's hospital room. For weeks, she slept on a small cot next to his bed.
Faye Baxter recalled times when seeing her son suffer was too much to bear.
``I would go out in the hallway and cry,'' she said.
During the day, Baxter kept his upper body strong by curling dumbbells. At night, he mentally charted his comeback. He thought about good and bad days to come. He jotted down notes. He visualized snapping on his helmet, dropping into coverage and batting down a pass intended for some receiver who dared test him.
He could still play the game in his brain.
He couldn't walk.
``Hard times,'' Baxter said. ``When they were sizing me up for a wheelchair, I broke down. But I never gave up the idea that I was never going to play again.''
Weeks after surgery, Baxter's first challenge was to stand. He had been horizontal for so long that he had to be careful not to sit up too fast for fear of a blood clot rushing to his heart.
Soon he was upright with an aluminum walker and shuffling his feet along the floor. He progressed quickly and was discharged on Christmas Eve.
Two months later, about the time doctors predicted he would start walking, Baxter was running. On July 30, he pushed open the back doors of the Browns' training headquarters and jogged onto the field to join his teammates at practice.
He was back.
``I told him, 'Man I doubted you,''' Browns linebacker Andra Davis said. ``When I went and saw him in the hospital that first day I was so down. I knew that was it for him. But G.B. proved me wrong. Anything he says he can do, I'll believe him.''
Wendell Davis, a former wide receiver with the Chicago Bears, was the only NFL player known to have torn both patellar tendons at the same time. Davis got back on the practice field in two years and spent one season with Indianapolis but never played in another game.
Baxter's goal is to resume his career.
``History is something that's never been done before,'' he said. ``That's what I'm doing.''
His heartwarming story, however, could be chilled.
Soreness in his knees has limited him to individual drills this week, and Baxter will not play in Saturday's exhibition at Denver. The Browns will conclude their preseason next week at home.
Baxter called playing in the preseason ``pointless'' but the Browns want to see him do more.
``We have to see him in as much of a competitive situation as we can get him in,'' coach Romeo Crennel said. ``He's been out here at practice, and he's been on the show (scout) team. But we need to see him against the good guys.''
The Browns have options with Baxter, who signed a six-year, $30 million free agent contract in 2005.
They could place him on injured reserve, which would sideline him for the season but allow him more time to heal. They could carry him on their 53-man roster and evaluate his progress. They could release him.
Baxter understands his comeback has reached a crucial juncture.
``I know this is a business,'' Baxter said, ``and it can be cold. But I'm in a unique situation. All I know is I want to be an inspiration to people who think that when everything is hopeless and it's too late and you can't go no more, there's still hope.
``How it plays out? One day at a time. Baby steps.''
AP Sports Writer Arnie Stapleton in Denver contributed to this report.