Ravens' Baxter played hurt last season

OWINGS MILLS — The human body is a remarkably flexible structure, but it's not a rubber band.

Last season, Baltimore Ravens cornerback Gary Baxter felt as if his midsection was being ripped apart. The Texas native started every game even though he had aggravated an abdominal hernia incurred during childhood to the point where his stomach was leaking fluid.

"I'm not going to get too graphic, but the hernia did do some things that raise the eyebrows," said Baxter, who finished the season with 106 tackles and three interceptions. "Last year, I felt like my top half was one piece and my bottom was another piece and I was trying not to pull myself apart.

"I felt like I was going to blow a gasket it hurt so much, but I got through it and now I'm feeling strong again."

Baxter underwent surgery in February and was limited to individual drills during minicamps. Entering his fourth NFL season, Baxter anticipates operating at full-speed by the start of training camp at McDaniel College and predicts he'll be stronger and faster after addressing this medical ailment.

"I didn't know I could feel this good," Baxter said. "It's going to be in the back of my mind a little bit when I get out there, but I feel a lot better than last season when I was about 70 percent."

During the Ravens' AFC wild-card playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans in January, Baxter appeared to be in severe discomfort while trying unsuccessfully to adjust to an underthrown Steve McNair pass that Justin McCareins turned into a 49-yard touchdown pass.

Ravens trainer Bill Tessendorf said the team is confident precautions taken because of the backpedaling, sprinting and twisting required at cornerback will allow Baxter to return to full strength.

"He's going to get some discomfort in there because of the tearing down of scar tissue," Tessendorf said. "He's got some sutures in there that are stabilizing the mesh. Gary is starting to get proud of his six-pack abs. He told me felt great and might even be faster now. We'll see."

In December, eight Ravens were picked for the Pro Bowl, a franchise record.

When Ravens coach Brian Billick informed the team who was named to the AFC squad, Baxter congratulated his all-star teammates, including safety Ed Reed and cornerback Chris McAlister.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan noticed the hurt in Baxter's eyes when he didn't hear his name called.

"I put my arm around Gary's shoulder and I told him, ‘Your time will come,'" Nolan said. "And it will. He has all the talent and toughness that you need to be one of the best cornerbacks in the league."

Baxter hasn't forgotten that moment. "That meant a lot to me, that the coaches see that I want it really bad," Baxter said.

Baxter began last season starting at free safety before injuries to veteran defensive back Corey Fuller prompted the coaching staff to line up Baxter opposite McAlister for the majority of the second half of the season. Now, the plan is to leave Baxter at cornerback and shift Fuller to safety.

The former second-round draft pick from Baylor recorded three sacks and 12 pass deflections one year after tallying 90 tackles with 20 pass deflections during his first season as a starter.

Despite the pain in his gut, of course.

"That doesn't surprise me about Gary," Billick said. "He's a tough guy and it was a very painful injury, although not dangerous."

Baxter attended the Pro Bowl as a guest of Reed and McAlister, going to the parties, soaking up the scenery accorded to the NFL glitterati. It only amplified his desire to be officially invited by the league next time.

No longer hindered by the hernia or the decision to deploy him at cornerback are two factors Baxter points toward as he hopes for a banner season.

"I was happy that my guys made the Pro Bowl, but it put a lot of wood on the fire," said Baxter, who's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the season. "When I was at the Pro Bowl, I told myself, ‘This is where I want to be next year.' It made me very hungry."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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