NFL: It's not gravel, but Baxter digs new job

2011-07-27T00:00:00Z 2012-11-30T13:48:44Z NFL: It's not gravel, but Baxter digs new jobRyan Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 27, 2011 12:00 am  • 

With the NFL's players locked out and his pro prospects in limbo, Colin Baxter grabbed a shovel and went to work.

The former Arizona Wildcats center dug gravel and renovated his in-laws' Scottsdale backyard in exchange for free rent. It was sweaty, honest work.

"I was trying to stay in shape," he said, "and trying to stay focused."

Tuesday, Baxter was promoted.

Baxter signed with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent, ending four months of frustration and speculation. He drove to San Diego all day and will be in uniform when the Chargers open training camp this morning.

Baxter was one of a handful of former Wildcats who found NFL homes on Tuesday, the first full day undrafted players could sign with NFL teams.

Tailback Nicolas Grigsby signed a deal with the Miami Dolphins, defensive tackle Lolomana Mikaele signed with the Cincinnati Bengals, and wide receiver/kick returner Travis Cobb found a home with the Chicago Bears.

Center Kris O'Dowd, a Salpointe Catholic High School product who played collegiately at USC, signed with the Arizona Cardinals.

Baxter may have been the most relieved.

Thought to be among the nation's top college centers, Baxter saw his NFL draft stock fall after suffering a knee injury midway through his senior season. He recovered from surgery in time to work out for NFL scouts at the UA's annual pro timing day but was not drafted.

This time around, the Wildcats' center was in demand.

The Saints, Ravens, Dolphins, Bills, Cardinals and Chargers all showed interest once the lockout was lifted. Baxter chose the Chargers over the Cardinals, in part because of his respect for offensive line coach Hal Hunter. He will reconnect in San Diego with cornerback Antoine Cason, a onetime UA standout who now starts for the Chargers; the two share an agent, Ron Slavin of BTI Sports Advisers.

"It's a great place to be. I think I'm going to have a great opportunity there with their needs," Baxter said. "It was actually a pretty easy choice."

Grigsby's decision was a bit tougher. The former UA running back weighed offers from both the Dolphins and the Rams before choosing Miami. He flew to Florida on Monday night with a resolve to both make the team and stick long-term.

"On the plane here, I was thinking, 'Damn, I'm about to be in an NFL organization,'" he said. "This is a business. You have to keep your job. You have to earn it. It's not like college … in the NFL, you've got to contribute, or you're not going to be here anymore."

Grigsby used the lockout as an opportunity to get bigger. He weighs 206 pounds now - 14 pounds more than he weighed at the UA and enough, he said, to be viewed as an every-down back.

"I'm not a third-down back anymore," he said. "They said they want to have me on every down."

O'Dowd said he talked to "about a dozen teams" before choosing the Cardinals. He'll report to camp Friday in Flagstaff with hopes of impressing his new coaches.

"I've been preparing myself for the last three, four months, and I'm really ready to go," he said. "I knew things would catch fire like it did (Monday), and things are going to speed up even more."

The recently signed rookies have a tough road ahead. In a matter of weeks, they must learn new schemes, prove themselves on and off the field and - most importantly - earn roster spots.

Baxter and his former UA teammates aren't complaining. After months of idle time, their NFL opportunities have arrived.

"It hasn't really sunk in yet," Baxter said. "Once I get out there, get to the facility and get my nose in the playbook, it'll probably hit me."

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