A healthy Baylis is full of thanks

November 24, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Thanksgiving? Jearld Baylis could celebrate it every day.

The highest-paid defensive player in the CFL grew up poor in Mississippi, and that's not the half of it.

Baylis retired because of a wrist injury in 1990, thinking he would never play again.

He became dangerously ill after his comeback in '91, developing gangrene when his doctors failed to diagnose appendicitis.

And just this summer, he learned that he's missing an anterior cruciate ligament -- the Jeffrey Hammonds injury -- and will require knee surgery after the Grey Cup.

"I know I'm blessed," the CFLs' nose guard says. "No question about it."

The best Thanksgiving stories come from those with special reason to be grateful. Baylis, 32, fits that description several times over.

He grew up in Jackson, Miss., in a house where the rent was $27 per month, a house that needed to be evacuated for several weeks each spring when it was flooded by a nearby river.

He spent four months working as a part-time janitor in a glove factory and fishing for his family's dinner after the USFL folded in 1986.

And he was in a life-threatening situation when doctors performed exploratory surgery to remove kidney stones in '91 -- and discovered his rotted appendix instead.

Now, Baylis is in position to win his first Grey Cup, and earning $95,000 in his ninth CFL season. To think, he was out of football only four years ago, working as an assistant coach at the University of Buffalo.

Baylis retired at 28 after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured left wrist. His doctor inserted a screw in the wrist, and told him it had only a 20 percent chance of healing.

A devout Christian, Baylis viewed the diagnosis as a message.

"I really wasn't upset at all," he said. "As far as I was concerned, that was the way it was supposed to be. I didn't go through any with drawal. I was content."

He took the job at Buffalo, and loved it. Several high schools offered him coaching positions. His new career was off to a terrific start.

And then, suddenly, his wrist healed.

Baylis was still under contract to the B.C. Lions, the team the CFLs will face Sunday. He was one of seven players acquired from Toronto for quarterback Matt Dunigan at the end of the '89 season.

"It was weird," Baylis recalls. "The coaches in Vancouver were still asking me to come play. And the coaches in Hamilton were asking because they wanted to make a trade. I said, 'No, no, no, I'm done.'

"It was a miracle-type thing. I went like over a year where I didn't have any healing. Then, all of a sudden, I went for a checkup, and boom, the thing was healed -- and healed completely. The doctors were dumbfounded."

Just like that, Baylis was back.

But the worst was yet to come.

Ever hear of an NFL player developing gangrene? Of course not. But Baylis' appendicitis went undetected -- the fault of doctors in Canada and Bellingham, Wash.

Baylis became ill midway through his first season in B.C. At first, it was only a stomach ache. Then, a 104-degree fever, constant )) vomiting, the works.

His wife, Lucy, wondered immediately if he had appendicitis -- the same thing had happened to her sister.

"Nah, you're crazy," Baylis told her. "I'm just sick."

Just sick.

Lucy says he was "close to death."

More than one doctor said Baylis was suffering from kidney stones. He spent the week drinking Gatorade and cranberry juice, trying to flush his system.

"Jearld, you're not going to play, are you?" Lucy asked.

Stupid question.

Baylis accompanied the team to Winnipeg.

And played the entire game.

"At some point during the game, I started feeling a lot better," Baylis recalls. "That's actually when [the appendix] ruptured.

"After the game, I still couldn't eat anything. I went up to my room, and couldn't even make it. Before I sat down on my bed, I started going into spasms, head to toe. It was so bad, I had a little fracture in one of my ribs."

The next day, he returned to the hospital in Bellingham. That's when the doctors went looking for kidney stones -- and found a pus pocket as big as a grapefruit on his appendix.

"I don't trust doctors -- I read my medical books more than I read my Bible," says Lucy, who also serves as Baylis' agent. "When that doctor came out of that surgery and told me he had gangrene, I was ready to kill somebody."

Baylis' recovery was expected to take 12 weeks, but he returned in only six.

B.C. tried to cut his pay for the missed time. Lucy helped him get his money, but another dispute arose over playing time, and that one led to his release.

He signed as a free agent under Don Matthews in Saskatchewan, became all-Western Conference in 1992, then CFL Defensive Player of the Year in '93. A happy and healthy ending, right? Not exactly.

It was in Saskatchewan where Baylis injured his anterior-cruciate ligament, not that it bothers him much today. Weightlifting keeps his knees strong. Baylis squats up to 1,000 pounds.

Regardless, he'll undergo reconstructive surgery Dec. 14. But first, there is the Grey Cup. Baylis lost as a member of Toronto in 1987 -- 38-36 to Edmonton, at B.C. Place. A victory Sunday and his career will have come full circle.

Growing up in Mississippi, his mother was so strict, she permitted him to eat candy, ice cream and cake only on holidays. Baylis went on to earn a dual degree in special education and sports administration at Southern Mississippi. Now, he and Lucy operate a T-shirt business.

"Everything that has happened is so special, you almost can't put it into words," he says.

He knows one that will suffice.


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