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Jets’ Baxter Plays, Practices at Full Speed

NEWSDAY

As they brushed past each other in the New York Jets’ locker room the other day after practice, linebacker Bobby Houston said to fullback Brad Baxter, “Hey, man, you didn’t have to do that.” Houston, like several Jets defenders before him, was upset by Baxter’s aggressive play in practice.

“That was a cut-block,” Baxter said to Houston, who knew perfectly well what it was and didn’t appreciate it. To an outsider, Baxter explained, “I try to give the defense a good picture in practice.”

It’s no fun to take on Baxter in practice, but come game day, teammates and coaches cringe with pleasure at the shots he lays on the opposition. After the Jets beat Miami, center Jim Sweeney spoke of how Baxter fired up the offensive line with the bell-ringing blocks he put on the Dolphins.

Coach Bruce Coslet had a tape of Baxter’s greatest hits from that game spliced together so he could show it to the Jets the night before they played Cleveland. When the tape was over, Coslet turned to Baxter and said, “Don’t let me down by backsliding now.” He didn’t.

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Baxter led the Jets in rushing against the Browns, and he showed he can hit just as hard with the ball in his hands as he does without it. “There was one play where Cleveland had a safety real close to the line,” said pro personnel director Jim Royer, who signed Baxter to the Jets’ practice squad two years ago. “We had no one to block him. Baxter decks the guy in the hole. He didn’t need a blocker.”

Royer loves the guy, not just because he signed Baxter, but because he plays football the way it’s supposed to be played. The Jets had no idea Baxter would turn into such a good blocker when they signed him for their developmental squad after the Minnesota Vikings cut the 11th-round pick.

“There’s not a better blocking fullback in the NFL,” Royer said. “Plus, he can run and catch.”

Not even Baxter knew he could block until he got to the NFL. As a high school tailback in Slocomb, Ala., he said he rushed for 4,200 yards and scored 40 touchdowns. He turned down Auburn to attend Alabama State, where he scored 30 TDs and rushed for 3,728 yards to break the Southwestern Athletic Conference record held by Walter Payton. Baxter held the record for just a few hours before it waw broken by current New York Giants’ running back Lewis Tillman of Jackson State.

The first time anyone asked Baxter to block was in the Blue-Gray all-star game when he wound up blocking much of the time for Tillman. Baxter caught on quickly. At 6-1 and 235 pounds with 4.62-second speed in the 40-yard dash, he packs a punch.

“It’s not a hard job,” he said. "(The defender) is coming at you. All you’ve got to do is hit the target, and it’s not a small target. I know I’m playing offense, but I feel I’m in charge. Believe me, the other guy is going to feel it as much as I am, and maybe he won’t come as hard the next time.”

During his year on the practice squad, a lot of Jets met Baxter the hard way. “You don’t go full steam and make the varsity look bad, but when Baxter ran, guys were bouncing off him like billiard balls, including Marty Lyons,” Royer said, referring to the longtime defensive lineman who retired after last season. “The veterans picked up the tempo, but Baxter never slowed down. He took some hellacious shots, put the ball down and ran the next play.”

Baxter was there to win a job, so he approached practice like a game even though it made him unpopular with the vets. “Guys told me I was beating them up before the game,” he recalled. “Marty would yell, ‘Hit him, hit him. He’ll slow down.’ Joe Walton said, ‘Tackle him. Take him to the ground.’ It was (full-speed contact) on me. The harder they hit me, the harder I played.”

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When Coslet replaced Walton as the Jets’ coach last year, Baxter was borderline to make the team. But once he started leveling people in practice, he made fullback Roger Vick, a first-round draft choice in 1987, expendable. Vick was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, and Baxter went on to become the Jets’ second-leading rusher with 124 carries for 539 yards.

Blair Thomas is the Jets’ featured back, but Baxter loves his job as the lead blocker and short-yardage specialist. His agent gave Baxter a nickname that fits -- “Hit and Run” -- and Baxter sometimes wears a T-shirt with the nickname on the front and a license plate on the back with his name on it. At the bottom of the plate is the word “Transporter.”

“It’s saying, ‘Catch the license plate of that truck,”’ Baxter said.

That’s appropriate, too, because Baxter’s father, Herman, was a long-haul truck driver who usually transported livestock for more than 30 years until he recently retired at the urging of his wife, Bessie. Herman Baxter supported his five children -- three girls and two boys -- that way, but he told his oldest son, Brad, there were better things to do in life.

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“We had everything we needed, but we always knew what it was like to work,” Baxter said. “My parents said, ‘If you play football, be the best. Don’t just be there.’ I had more pressure from my mom and dad than anyone, especially when I got older.”

Baxter’s playing style is a reflection of his hard-working values. But while Baxter hits opponents as hard as a wrecking ball, there’s one thing he wants to make perfectly clear about the way he plays. “It’s clean, hard licks,” he said. “I’m not a dirty player. I don’t hit anybody when they’re not looking. I can face you up and get the job done that way.”

He means it. Baxter doesn’t have a reverse gear. When the weather gets colder and the games get tougher down the stretch, Coslet plans to run him even more to let defenders feel Baxter’s sting.

As Coslet said, “He’s a tough SOB. You want to go down an alley with him.”

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