The University of Pennsylvania assistant football coach recruiting Terry Baggett knew the prolific running back from Chicago Whitney Young wanted more from college than football when he sat in the family’s living room and delivered his pitch.
The coach made a smart chess move, extolling the virtues of gaining an Ivy League education while playing for the Quakers. But then he made a mistake, adding a throw-away line intended to draw a laugh. He volunteered unnecessary information.
“He said the only education I could get better than an Ivy League school would be at the United States Military Academy, but he added, ‘you don’t want to go there because you’ll have to march all day,’ ” recalled Baggett with a laugh while speaking two days after his second straight 100-yard rushing performance for Army’s football team.
Baggett’s ears perked up at the idea of a challenge bigger than both education and football combined.
“I didn’t know much about the academy at the time,” Baggett said. “My mom looked into it. My step-dad served in the Army (retired first-class sergeant Robert Price) and I asked him about it.”
Baggett sent Army a recruiting letter and highlight tape. He soon received home visits former assistant coach Joe Ross and Army head coach Rich Ellerson. The deal was sealed when he made his official recruiting trip to West Point.
“After I made my visit here and saw the tradition of Army football and what the brotherhood was all about, I liked it,” Baggett said. “The biggest factor in my decision to come here is I wanted to be challenged as a person. To be challenged physically and academically, I could get that anywhere. I wanted to be challenged in everything. How could I pass up this opportunity? That’s why I came here.”
Pennsylvania’s loss was Army’s gain. The only thing that has held back Baggett, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound slotback, at West Point has been injuries.
As freshman in 2011, he made his varsity debut in the fourth game, played in three and started two. His carries were limited to 10 for 53 yards. But the 7-yard touchdown run and 5.3 yards-per-carry average were impressive and a sign of things to come until he suffered a broken bone in his foot. His season ended with six games remaining.
As a sophomore 2012, he started quickly with 100 yards rushing on 13 carries in the season-opening loss at San Diego State. But again the injury bug prematurely ended his season. This time he suffered a broken kneecap against Northern Illinois in the second contest of a 12-game season.
Missing 16 of 24 games in two years with injuries might have had many athletes tip-toeing tentatively when they returned to the lineup, but Baggett has been conscious of playing aggressively. He spent the off-season concentrating on physical conditioning.
“I’ve made sure I take care of my body,” he said. “If I feel anything, I go straight to the trainer. I don’t want any minor aches that will get worse. My body and health are my top priority, but I never let it affect my play. I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. I’ve gotten a lot stronger the last few seasons.”
He’s now five games into the 2013 season with back-to-back 100-yard performances against Louisiana Tech and Wake Forest – the second and third in his career -- in addition to a 96-yard game against Stanford. His Stanford performance is a season high for opponents against the unbeaten No. 5-ranked Cardinal (4-0).
The next best rushing total against Stanford is 50 yards by Marion Grice of No. 22-ranked Arizona State. Grice, one of the top backs in the Pac-12, averaged 2.9 yards on 17 carries. Baggett averaged 9.6 yards on 10 rushes for his total.
“Terry doesn’t surprise us,” Ellerson said. “Every time we’ve seen him touch the ball, he’s been productive. Where I think he’s grown the most this year is as a blocker. He’s become very effective on the front side, which is important because we’re trying to be balanced. All of our backs have to be able to touch the ball and they all have to be efficient with the ball, but they all have to block.”
With senior slotback and two-time 1,000-yard rusher Raymond Maples out of the lineup from an injury suffered in the Stanford game, Baggett has emerged as the team’s leading rusher.
He has 49 carries for 401 yards and two touchdowns. He’s only lost 6 yards. He’s also a threat catching the ball, although to date he has only two receptions for 38 yards.
Similar to the Army coaching staff, none of Baggett’s success surprises his high school, Tim Franken.
“Nobody has the drive that Terry has,” Franken said. “He outworked everybody in in the weight room, on the practice field and the games. He’s not a vocal kid, but when he did say something everyone listened. That’s type of respect he had here.”
Perhaps the best example of his quiet leadership was his role as a team captain on the basketball team, even though he wasn’t a starter. Whitney Young is a national power in high school basketball. Senior center Jahlil Okafor, a 6-foot-10, 270-pounder, is the No. 1-ranked player in the nation by Rivals.com.
Okafor was a freshman on Whitney Young’s varsity when Baggett was a senior team captain. That squad also included Sam Thompson, who is a starting forward on Ohio State’s Big Ten championship basketball team.
“The basketball coach wanted Terry on the team for his leadership,” Franken said. “The kids respected him, and the coach wanted Terry to keep everyone else in line.”
Despite Whitney Young’s reputation as a basketball school and the fact it turns out fewer Division I football prospects, Terry has a younger brother, Miles, who is a 6-1, 210-pound sophomore fullback-linebacker for the school. Army will no doubt offer him a recruiting pitch since Terry has enjoyed success and he was followed to West Point by his younger “big brother” – 6-0, 250-pound freshman offensive lineman Lance Baggett.
“Lance hasn’t played in a varsity game yet, but he’s played in JV games and I hear he’s doing well,” Terry said. “It will be great if we get to play together next year. We went to different high schools, so we haven’t been teammates since about sixth grade."
“Miles is bigger than me and he can move. He likes what I’m doing at Army, but I’m not sure what he wants to do. He also likes basketball and is a good player, too.”
Another family member with an Army offer is Baggett’s cousin, Jamal Baggett, a 5-9, 187-pound running back at Oak Park (Ill.) River Forest. Jamal also has offers from several Mid-American Conference schools as Rivals 2-star prospect.
The list of MAC offers may not sound like much, but it’s more than Terry Baggett had coming out high school. Northwestern, which promotes itself as Chicago’s Big Ten school, took a look at him but never offered.
It’s one of the mysteries of recruiting that even in this sophisticated age of competing Internet recruiting services and highlight tapes readily available in digital form that players such as Baggett still slip through the cracks.
Baggett rushed for 1,933 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior. He won a close voted for over another candidate for the top back in Chicago city schools. Franken said coaches later told him they voted for Baggett because they recognized he had less blocking than his rivals.
“I can’t explain why I didn’t get more looks,” Baggett said “But, honestly, I’m glad I’m here. I’d rather be here than somewhere else.”