BEREA â€” Exactly nine months and eight days after his football career appeared to be over, Gary Baxter returned to the field on Monday night.
The Browns cornerback took part in individual and positional drills in his first practice since tearing both of his patellar tendons, taking a huge step in his remarkable â€” and unprecedented â€” comeback.
â€œIâ€™ve been building the bridge for a long time now. Today was the day I finally had to cross it,â€ a beaming Baxter said following the two-hour training camp session. â€œI did every movement on the field I wanted to and I feel good.
â€œIâ€™ve come a mighty, mighty long way and I know Iâ€™ve still got a long way to go, but Iâ€™m going to enjoy the ride.â€
Baxter destroyed both of his knees on a freak play in the second quarter of the Brownsâ€™ 17-7 home loss to Denver on Oct. 22.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder was covering Broncos wide receiver Javon Walker on a sideline pattern when he planted his left leg and attempted to jump backward off it.
Baxterâ€™s left patellar tendon immediately gave way, then his right one followed as he landed awkwardly on the Cleveland Browns Stadium grass.
He had surgery to repair the cataclysmic damage two days later and promised Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Phil Savage that he would return in 2007. Baxter even changed his uniform number from 24 to 23 to symbolize the fresh start.
â€œEven when I was in a hospital bed with my game pants on, I told them Iâ€™d be back,â€ said Baxter, who was unable to walk for a full month after his operation. â€œI always stayed true to my guns and Iâ€™m gonna keep doing it.
â€œIf thereâ€™s a book to be written, Iâ€™m going to write it. No one has ever done this before, so Iâ€™m going to write the script.â€
The only other NFL player to attempt a comeback from double-patellar reconstructive surgery was Bears wide receiver Wendell Davis, but he never recovered sufficiently to play in a regular-season game.
Baxter, however, says he plans to be in uniform when the Browns open their campaign on Sept. 9 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
â€œI told you guys I was gonna be back for the first game, and it looks pretty good for me to do that,â€ the 28-year-old Texan said. â€œI knew if I killed myself in rehab and did things that I wasnâ€™t supposed to, then it would be a cakewalk out here. This is all about making history. God is great.â€
Baxter passed his team physical this past Friday and was moved onto the Brownsâ€™ active roster Monday. He is in the third season of a six-year, $30 million contract.
The Baylor productâ€™s first two campaigns in Cleveland were largely disappointments because of injuries. Baxter only played in eight games while missing 24 because of a concussion, pectoral problems and the twin knee surgeries.
Prior to joining the Browns, he had appeared in 57 consecutive contests with Baltimore and was developing into one of the leagueâ€™s better corners. Crennel said he would not bet against Baxter getting back to that level at some point.
â€œThe fact weâ€™re even talking about him being able to practice says a lot about his resolve,â€ the coach said. â€œThere havenâ€™t been many injuries like this in the whole league â€” maybe two or three â€” and no one has come back from it.
â€œFor a guy to be able to return in a timely matter is pretty amazing. Heâ€™s got good genes.â€
Baxter also has a good support team guiding him in team doctor Anthony Miniaci and trainer Marty Lauzon, who have been with him from the moment he was carted off the field against the Broncos. He wouldnâ€™t be back in uniform without their help or their blessing.
â€œI donâ€™t have any reins on me, but I am going to listen to my body like Iâ€™ve been doing,â€ said Baxter, who practiced without any protective knee sleeves or braces. â€œWho knows? I could be doing (contact drills) and seven-on-sevens next week. Donâ€™t count me out. I know that none of you are gonna do that anymore.â€
Though the regular season is still six weeks away, Baxter says he is so confident about his future, he already has envisioned where the final chapter of his comeback will play out.
â€œIn Maui, baby,â€ he said, referring to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. â€œIâ€™ll be in Maui.â€