Browns CB Baxter returns after career-threatening knee injuries

BEREA, Ohio (AP) -Told his football playing days were over, Gary Baxter returned to the field.

Not to watch. To practice.

Comebacks in the NFL don't get any more remarkable.

Cleveland's cornerback, who tore patellar tendons in both knees while breaking up a pass in a game last October, defied doctor's dreary predictions and rejoined the Browns at training camp on Monday.

"I've been building this bridge for a long time, and I finally got to cross it," a smiling Baxter said after practice. "I was told that I probably wasn't going to walk. Playing wasn't even an option this year.

"Me being on this field today is history."

Needing an aluminum walker to get around less than six months ago, Baxter strolled out of the team's facility at 5:33 p.m. and jogged onto the field to warm applause before getting hugs from a few teammates.

"This wasn't even in the doctor's plans," he said. "This wasn't even in the book. You ask any orthopedic surgeon with the type of injury I had would I be here today? And they would say, 'No."'

Baxter will start out in individual drills before being eased into team activities. He was able to do some running and cutting during the Browns' two-hour workout. As long as he keeps progressing, Baxter will slowly build up with the intention of playing in Cleveland's season opener on Sept. 9.

That's a lofty goal, but after what he has overcome, nothing seems impossible.

"This is uncharted water and I'm going to write the script," Baxter said. "If the book is to be written, I'm going to write it."

He stood on the sideline in his No. 23 jersey, shorts and a baseball cap for the Browns' morning practice, the club's fifth workout since camp opened. The team later activated him from the physically-unable-to-perform list, clearing the way for the 28-year-old to take part in the evening practice and resume his career.

Almost from the time he got hurt, Baxter believed he would make it back.

During the lonely hours lying in his hospital room, he never lost hope. And through grueling rehab sessions that tested his pain threshold and courage, Baxter never once lost sight of his goal.

"Gary has worked really hard," Browns coach Romeo Crennel said. "His mission was to prove everybody wrong when they told him that he wouldn't be able to make it back. He said, 'I'm going to show them,' and that's been his focus.

"That's been his aim ever since the injury occurred. He's been working extremely hard - fanatically - to try and get back. I think that the fact that we are even talking about him being able to practice says a lot about his resolve."

The only NFL player known to have suffered injuries similar to Baxter's was former Chicago Bears wide receiver Wendell Davis, who was never the same and didn't make it back as a productive player.

"There's not much of a track record for a guy returning from this type of injury," Crennel said. "For a guy to have two of them and be able to return in somewhat of a timely manner is pretty amazing. He's got good genes."

And, perhaps, finally some good luck.

Baxter signed a six-year, $30 million free agent contract deal with the Browns before the 2005 season. His signing was trumpeted by general manager Phil Savage, who had worked with Baxter in Baltimore.

Baxter made 44 consecutive starts with the Ravens before a concussion knocked him out of the '05 opener and he suffered a season-ending chest injury in Cleveland's sixth game. He vowed to come back stronger in '06 and he made two starts before missing three games with a pectoral injury.

Then, in an Oct. 22 game against Denver, Baxter blew out both knees while trying to knock down Jake Plummer's pass to Broncos wide receiver Javon Walker near the goal line.

A little more than two months later, Baxter, who didn't leave the hospital until Christmas Eve, hobbled into the team's media center and promised to make history as the first player to overcome the devastating injury.

He's a few steps closer.

"All I did every day was rehab," he said. "I had no life, still don't have one and it's because I've been rehabbing. I have come a mighty, mighty long way and I still feel I have a mighty, mighty long way to go."

Baxter said he never once considered quitting.

"I've stayed true to my guns ever since Day One," he said. "Even when I was in my hospital bed with my game pants on and everybody kept saying, 'It's over, it's over.' I kept saying, 'I'll be back.' I'm going to make everyone a believer.

"I've got nothing but heart."

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