BOGACZYK: Baxter, Heater Build More than Trust at Corner
The Word on the Herd-Dec. 24, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Marshall cornerback Keith Baxter will play his final college football game in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
There was a time, however, when he wondered if he’d even get there.
Against Connecticut (6-6) at Tropicana Field on Saturday, where the Herd (9-3) is trying to get is to 10 victories for a third straight season -- becoming the first team in Conference USA’s 20-season history to achieve that feat.
Baxter, a redshirt senior, will be a significant part of that effort as a cover corner, making his 26th career start. He came into the MU program in 2011 in a recruiting class that included fellow south Floridians Rakeem Cato and Tommy Shuler. They finished that season in “The Trop” with a Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl win over FIU.
Baxter dressed for that game but didn’t play, sitting with the first of multiple shoulder injuries that dinged his career. It wasn’t until the following winter, however, when the Homestead, Fla., resident questioned his future in a program where his father – Keith Baxter Sr. – once starred at wide receiver.
That’s all history, however.
Before Heater did that, he dived into a few moments of significant praise for Baxter, who in the assistant coach’s mind had earned it the hard way since the coordinator came to the program in January 2013.
“Back in 2013, he suspended me from the team for about a week, two weeks, gave me some time to really think about things,” Baxter said of Heater. “And he told me to get my act together, and I started stepping up, trying to become a better person, a better player.
“He just told me to go to work, and that’s what I did.”
Baxter underwent surgery twice for two labrum tears in his right shoulder, missing the 2013 season and later gaining a medical hardship ruling that gave him a 2015 opportunity. Heater said Baxter eventually became the kind of player and leader the Herd wanted.
“I obviously didn’t know Keith and when I first got here, I heard stories,” Heater said. “He’d probably be the first to admit it didn’t go so well for him, so it was really about trying to build trust over a period of time. The thing that really helped was he sat that one year because of injury and he kind of watched guys get better because they took coaching and bought into what we were doing. I think that really had an impact.
“I’ve heard Keith say that it had a real impact on him … to quit resisting, quit fighting, just trust what’s going on and maybe I can get closer to where I want to be. I think that happened and he became much more of a mature guy and a leader in our room. He acted the right way and said the right things and kind of helped me with some of the younger guys, because he’s been through so much of it.”
So, did Baxter envision a future with the Herd under the veteran position coach and coordinator?
“No, I thought my career was over, to be honest,” the 6-foot, 193-pound Baxter said. “I thought it was done, because that was the conversation -- that I would be evaluated, and it went on for about a month. And I was kind of like worried that I wasn’t going to play football again.
“It was off-the-field things … me not taking care of my business, not getting to places on time, not doing the right thing. Coach Heater didn’t like my demeanor, so he took care of it.”
Baxter, 23, graduated last May with a degree in Health Sciences. He’s started every game this season and played 473 snaps entering the bowl. He also became the vocal leader Heater wanted to go with redshirt junior corner Corey Tindal.
Baxter nodded his head when asked about that part of his game.
“I was just trying to tell Skip (Rowe), Rodney (Allen) and those young corners we have to do things right,” Baxter said. “Because when I was a young player, I didn’t do things right. Don’t go through that. “I was just trying to coach those guys up, get those guys to do the right things. I want to see those guys succeed, and I was just trying to help out.”
Baxter enters his final Herd game with two interceptions and 14 pass breakups to go with 64 tackles in a career in which he’s bounced back from injury multiple times. He’s also contributed on special teams.
“Right now, it’s just kind of bittersweet,” said Baxter, whose five Herd teams are 44-21 with one game remaining. “I’m going to miss these times, being around my teammates, the coaches and Marshall, the university.
“We came a long ways from the 5-7 and 6-6 and now we’re winning 10-plus games a year, so I’m going to miss what this place offered to me. It’s special what happened.
“It’s kind of funny because I remember when Coach (Doc Holliday) first recruited me. I was like, ‘Man, what is this place?’ He came into my living room and told me – guys like Cato and some guys from the past – he told us it was going to take some time, but you guys have to stay dedicated and work hard and that’s what we did.
“We lost some people along the way and it’s just bittersweet … We did what his vision was for us five years ago. I’m going to miss being part of this.”
Heater is finishing his 40th season as a college assistant coach. Marshall is his 12th stop in a success-stuffed career that includes three national championships. He said Baxter will be gone, but not forgotten.
“Absolutely, he set a tone for the younger guys,” Heater said. “I think he did a lot of things I didn’t even see, in terms of talking to guys and just telling them, kind of ‘Don’t be the way I was. Save yourself the trouble.’ I think that happened, even though I didn’t see it.
“I just felt like off the field, he did a great job with the other guys, saying the right things. There’s a trust there now. It’s hard for some guys to trust – and it can be for a lot of the right reasons. They have trouble trusting, and at some point you kind of have to give it up. And just say I’m going to believe it, trust it and quit resisting it. And it happened for Keith.
“It’s what you hope happens for every guy. Wherever they start, you hope they leave here a better person than what they came in as -- and Keith has come about as far as any guy I’ve ever had.”