Job as a Red Raider manager is a ‘one-in-a-million chance.’
Losing his eyesight suddenly reshaped Colin Baxter's personality ever so slightly. One way that's true is that the Texas Tech University senior doesn't meander around what he's trying to say.
Nope, Baxter has learned to get straight to the point, especially when it comes to a friendship he has formed with Red Raiders' men's basketball coach Chris Beard in the wake of a life-changing health battle.
“Coach Beard means the world to me,” said Baxter, who lost his eyesight to a pineal brain tumor in October 2016. “He saved my life. If not for Coach Beard, I would've fallen through the cracks. If not for him, I may not have ever come back here to finish.”
What Baxter intends to finish is his Texas Tech degree, a challenge that a lot of students might have waved a white flag at once fate delivered the gut-punch Baxter absorbed.
When dizziness escalated to blurry vision and then very little sight at all two years ago, Baxter's life went through a rapid transformation.
The tumor was diagnosed, a 14-plus hour surgery that University Medical Center neurosurgeon Dr. Genevieve LaPointe hoped would salvage some vision did not work and when the Alba, Texas, native woke up two days later on Oct. 19, he was completely blind and has been ever since.
On one of those first few nights as Baxter was coming to grips with his new reality, Beard – at UMC to visit a friend – asked a nurse if he could step in and say hello.
“He came into my room to introduce himself and told me he had heard my story and what I was going through,” Baxter said.
“I was shocked that he took the time to come and see me.”
His mom, Kathleen Gilliland, was by her son's side and remembers the night well.
“He walked in and had this commanding presence,” she said of Beard. “They talked for a while and, before he left, Coach Beard told Colin, ‘You're going to get better and you're going to finish your degree. What can I do to help you do that?'”
To be clear, this wasn't a big-time coach simply offering up empty promises.
Beard, the father of three daughters, said he felt in his heart and soul what Baxter and his mom were going through. He has remained engaged with the family, to the point where he calls the now 22-year-old Baxter a close friend.
“That first night I met him, he was really quiet,” Beard said. “But even in those extreme adverse conditions when he wasn't doing well at all, he had an awareness of our team. He asked about Norense Odiase because he knew him from class. That was a scary situation for Colin and his mom, and I really felt for them.
“We've truly become good friends. He's one of the toughest people I've ever met. You can't make this story of his up. It's not a Hallmark movie.”
As a friendship blossomed, and Beard left no doubt he was in Baxter's corner, windows of opportunity began to open.
The biggest instance was when Beard offered Baxter a spot as a volunteer manager with the basketball team, which required him to get back on campus.
If Baxter needed any additional incentive to return to Lubbock after nearly two years of therapy, rehab and learning how to live with blindness, he got it from Beard.
“When he offered me the chance to come and work with the team, that was like a one-in-a-million chance,” Baxter said. “I was so happy to have that opportunity.”
Not that Beard regards his offer as charity. He said he considers Baxter a key part of the team as a right-hand man to trainer Chris Williams.
“They put me to work,” said Baxter, who is accompanied by his guide dog Chase, a yellow Labrador retriever. Beard joked that Chase even has a couch in the basketball offices to lounge on when he gets tired. “I'm exhausted by the time I get home.”
Without Beard saying a word, Baxter also supplies reciprocal motivation.
Baxter's refusal to quit, his persistence to get back to campus and complete a degree and not let a lifelong dream fall by the wayside – those are straight out of a coach's motivational handbook.
“I absolutely love him being around the team,” Beard said. “He spoke to our guys recently, and I guarantee you nobody held court like he did. He had all the eyes on him and those guys were completely quiet and respectful.
“I've never met anyone tougher than Colin. He has this incredible positive outlook and not in a fake away. The way he chooses to live his life is incredible to me.”opportunity began to open.
Not without some help along the way, much of which Baxter says came from Beard.
After a recent visit with Beard to football coach Kliff Kingsbury's office, Baxter proclaimed himself “the luckiest man alive.”
Gilliland has taken stock of Beard's efforts as well.
“One of the first things Coach Beard did was send an IT guy to the hospital to set up Colin's iPad so could listen to the Tech games,” Gilliland said. “He was so thrilled about that.
“It's so nice to have someone take an interest in Colin. Nice to have somebody who didn't forget and has kept in contact.”
Beard does just that, checking in with Baxter at least two or three times a day besides practice. Texas Tech managers, coaches or players are sent to pick Baxter and Chase up if they need rides.
When told of Baxter's belief that the coach saved his life, Beard paused – emotion evident in his eyes.
“When you hear something like that, it's special,” Beard said. “You never seek anything out like that. I just want to make sure we help people who need it. Colin doesn't want anybody to feel sorry for him. He just wants to accomplish whatever he can, regardless of what hand he's been dealt. He's just a special person to me.”