Count me among the many disbelievers, the nay-sayers, the large group of fans and media who thought there was no way in the world that Gary Baxter would be back on the football field this or any other year. And, whether they admit it or not, there had to be a large contingent of Baxter's teammates and coaches who likewise thought Baxter's playing days were over.
And yet there he was, in uniform and working out with his fellow Browns players as they prepare for the 2007 season. He's still somewhat limited as to what he can do, but the mere fact the veteran defensive back is back on the field nine months after being carted off on the dreaded meat wagon is a miracle.
Some of the credit certainly goes to modern medicine, the ability of doctors to repair two patella tendon injuries, both of which Baxter suffered on one play while playing against Denver last Oct. 22
But most of the accolades actually go to Baxter, who, while sitting in a wheel chair, boldly predicted late last year that he would be back … soon. "I've been bold enough to say it when I first got out of the hospital," Baxter said. "I told you guys that I was going to be back."
If Baxter was bragging, he had every right to. In the future, even if he never again becomes a full-time player, I will know him as "The Miracle Man."
It's not unusual to hear athletes make outlandish claims like Baxter did as he sat in his wheelchair They say they are going to beat the odds and make a full recovery from their devastating injury, be it micro-fracture surgery, Tommy John Surgery, a torn ACL, etc.
But this wasn't just some run of the mill injury. This was the granddaddy of them all. Two broken kneecaps! "I was told that I probably wasn't even going to walk," Baxter said when asked if he had been told he would never play football again. "Playing wasn't even supposed to be an option this year."
Or any other, for that matter.
The injury itself is rare … the successful return rate is non-existent. The one former NFL player known to have a similar injury, Chicago's Wendell Davis, never played again.
But that didn't deter the 28-year-old product of Baylor University. In fact, it was one of his many forms of motivation.
Since getting out of the hospital, Baxter has given every ounce of his energy to prove his cynics wrong.
"All I did was rehab every day," he said. "I had no life. I still have no life."
No vacations … no weekends off … no wasted hours playing those addicting computer games.
Baxter had one thing on his mind … to prove everyone, including his doctors, wrong and return to play football at its highest level.
As he addressed the media following his first day on the practice field, Baxter proudly looked out and said, "It's a huge day for me. I've been building a bridge for a long time now. Today was the day when I had to finally go and cross it and I felt excellent out there.
"It's just one of those things that it took a lot of hard work for me to get here and it's going to take hard work to continue to stay on the path and make it back for the first game."
Baxter said the actual practice was a "cakewalk" compared to the six hours of rehab he endured on a daily basis the past six and one-half months.
It's because of that non-stop rehab that Baxter has put himself in a position where at some point this year he might indeed be able to contribute to the Browns' fortunes.
However, don't be surprised if his days as a cornerback are over. Or at least put on hold. The cutting involved with playing that position might be too much, at least this coming year. That would likely mean a more realistic goal for Baxter in 2007 would be to become a backup safety who can be used in some of the Browns' nickel and dime packages.
If all goes well there, then maybe by next year he'll again be able to compete for a starting cornerback job.
It was on Dec. 23 of last year that he first stood up following the surgery. "December 24 was when I was able to get out," he said. "I've come a long, long way and I still feel like I got a mighty long way to go.
"I'm a perfectionist. I'm going to continue to work hard and pray. I'm just going to close my eyes and enjoy the ride. I'm going to let you guys (the media) enjoy history, too, while I'm on this bandwagon.'
And if occasionally he looks at his coaches, his teammates, his doctors, his family, his fans and the media and says, "I told you so," you look him in the eyes and say, "Yes you did, Gary Baxter, and we're proud of you and the fact you were right."