Fred Baxter was focused enough to read the bottom line of an eye chart blindfolded.
Selected by the Jets in the fifth round of the 1993 NFL Draft out of Auburn, the tight end couldn’t have headed for New York much quicker, and also as odd as it sounds, much slower.
“I had to be in New York the next day,” Baxter said. “So, I packed my clothes and one of the guys that worked with my agent, he flew to Alabama, and we drove to New York that night.”
After traveling the 1,077 miles from his hometown of Brundidge, Alabama, to the Jets’ training facility at Hofstra University, Baxter stayed put.
“Well, I really didn’t see New York for six months. I stayed in the dorm. I was in the ‘Neverlands.’ Never north and never south,” Baxter said. “Just in the dorm, to the practice facility, to the dining hall, back to my room. I was learning my playbook because I wasn’t going back home. I was going to make the team.”
Which he did. Playing primarily on special teams, Baxter also made his mark early in his career as a solid blocker.
Over the course of Baxter’s first three seasons, the Jets had just as many head coaches: Bruce Coslet, Pete Carroll and Rich Kotite. Adapting to the different staffs, however, didn’t faze him.
“I came from a football school. I loved football. I didn’t care who coached me,” Baxter said. “I knew how to play. I knew the fundamentals. I could adapt to anything. Any coaching style, anything they wanted me to do.
“Coach Coslet, he was a tight end, so I automatically related to him. And he related to me. He gave me a shot and I didn’t want to let him down.”
The Jets made another change in 1997 when they hired future Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells. Baxter’s focus remained 20/20.
“Every year, I had to make the team because they were bringing in tight ends,” Baxter said. “That was their mindset, their team. Coach Parcells, he brought (former Giants All-Pro tight end) Mark Bavaro in. Mark Bavaro became my mentor. He came to coach (third-year veteran) Kyle Brady on things, but he gravitated to me for some reason. I didn’t care who they drafted and who they brought in. They were not going to beat me out.”
In Parcells’ second season, New York went 12-4, its best record since the 1968 campaign when they won Super Bowl III, and met the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. What was the key to the team’s success that year?
“It was just discipline and coaching. It was the fine print, the details. Making sure you’re accountable and knowing your role,” Baxter said. “Parcells changed my whole… You talk about mindset as a professional, when Parcells came, that’s when I turned the corner and became a professional. The whole mindset, the whole approach to the game changed for me. It was just discipline, getting back to the fundamentals. Being accountable.”
With the Jets for eight of his 10 seasons in the NFL – Baxter also played for Chicago and New England during its Super Bowl XXXVIII season – regardless of the records, each season was the same for him.
“Every year, I had to analyze the team and find a role that nobody wanted to play, and get good at it,” Baxter said. “And they couldn’t do nothing about it, so they had to use me. So, I played special teams. I played offense. I played defense. Whatever they wanted me to do, to show worth and show value to the team, that’s what I’d do.”
Baxter is now a youth minister and golf coach at the Camden (NJ) Health & Athletic Association.
“It's a non-profit organization that funds all the athletic equipment and insurance. All of the administrative work for the youth organizations in Camden,” Baxter said. “It’s part of an enterprise. We’re working with sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders. And we’re creating a golf club that instills core values, healthy habits, entrepreneurships, non-traditional mindsets.”
What does Baxter enjoy most about working with the kids?
“The development and realizing their full potential. And making sure that they use their God-given ability to get them to actually go to college for free. Those that want to go,” he said. “And the ones that don’t want to go, we put them to work, find them jobs, get them trained. Have them in a good mindset where they can go anywhere and be successful.
“It’s just a gift that the good Lord has given me to share with others. I still have opportunities to do more. I don’t worry about possessions. I don’t care about wins and losses. I just want to get the job done and try to do what God taught me to do.”
Making his home in Moorestown, NJ, with his wife, Lisa, whom he says he is the personal Uber driver for, the Baxters have two children. Brittany and Kellan Weathers, who will be a freshman defensive end at Arkansas Baptist Junior College this fall.