By Jon Marks: CNJ Correspondent
PHILADELPHIA — On Labor Day, Hank Baskett worked. And also packed.
He worked for his new employer, the Philadelphia Eagles, having learned over the weekend — while he turned his cell phone off to take a nap — he had beaten the odds and made Andy Reid’s 53-man roster.
Hank Baskett, the pride of Clovis, spent Labor Day — which also happened to be his 24th birthday — packing to leave his temporary headquarters in a local hotel for something more permanent.
Just one of the perks when you’re an honest to goodness pro football player.
“It’s awesome,” said Baskett, who’ll make his pro debut Sunday in Houston, a game where he’ll have a 30-person rooting section in the stands that will include his parents, who’ll make the 1,360-mile roundtrip from Clovis.
“Talking to my parents eight weeks ago, I was just trying to find a team,” said Baskett, an undrafted free agent from New Mexico who was traded from Minnesota to Philly before the start of training camp. “I was just looking to get on the practice squad. For camp to go the way it did, then starting a couple of games and to make it through the final cut, it’s an awesome feeling.”
With Todd Pinkston making a slow recovery from a torn Achilles’ tendon that had wiped out his 2005 season, Baskett started the Eagles’ five preseason games along with second-year man Reggie Brown in Reid’s complicated West Coast offense.
Now his job description has changed after the Birds acquired five-year veteran receiver Donte Stallworth, released Pinkston, and also jettisoned veteran receivers Jabar Gaffney and Darnerien McCants. No longer the starter, Baskett isn’t quite sure what his role will be by the time he takes the field at Reliant Stadium Sunday.
But as far as he’s concerned, as long as he’s out there, it really doesn’t matter.
“My stomach was in knots this week after the way everything went down,” said Baskett, who caught four passes for 51 yards — including a 33-yarder that made the ESPN Top 10 plays of the day, playing primarily with Donovan McNabb and the rest of the first unit. “You see what can happen.
“But I can see bringing him (Stallworth) in as a huge thing,” Baskett said. “He’s a veteran. He has experience. We have a young group here and no matter how much talent you have you have to have some experience.”
According to Reid, who’s been high on Baskett from the beginning, the plan is to throw each of his receivers — Brown, Stallworth, Greg Lewis, Baskett and fellow rookie Anthony Avant into the mix from the start.
“Like Donovan said the other day when Donte came in here, you can never have too much of a good thing,” said the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Baskett, who could wind up in the slot when the Eagles go to one of their many three-receiver sets. “As long as everyone is making plays it just feels so good.”
Here only a week, already Stallworth has been impressed by what he’s seen of Baskett, a training camp hit with the Eagles from Day 1.
“He’s a hard worker; a big physical guy,” said Stallworth of his new teammate. “He can run by you if you just think he’s big and slow.
“He’s got long strides and good hands. He definitely is going to be a fixture in this league for a while as he continues to grow and get better.”
While the compliments are nice, if there’s one thing Baskett has already learned in this league it’s not to rest on his laurels. Once they kick things off Sunday in Houston none of what he’s done to this point will mean a thing.
“I was telling my dad the other day, ‘I can’t believe it. I made my first NFL team,’” Baskett said. “Now I can’t let making it (the team) be it.”
“People said there was a strong chance I was going to be here. But I found out at the draft nothing’s guaranteed.”
Baskett went undrafted despite being projected to go in the mid-to-late rounds.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet. I think it’s really going hit me when I get to line up for that first Sunday.”
Especially since so many folks back home are watching his every move, almost living vicariously through his exploits.
“My dad said it’s meant a lot to everybody back home,” said Baskett, who went against the grain growing up, rooting for the Marcus Allen/Bo Jackson Raiders in the heart of Cowboys’ country.
One thing it’s meant is the Eagles have about 40,000 new fans.
“My hometown is Cowboys, Cowboys, Cowboys,” Baskett said. “When I hear some of the most diehard Cowboys fans are going to be rooting for the Eagles, it’s surprising.”
No more surprising, though, than the path that has taken Baskett this far. While he hopes Sunday is only the beginning, no matter what happens from here it’s already been quite a ride for the kid from Clovis, who’s doing his best to take it all in stride.
“It’s definitely different coming in here today,” said Baskett of his first practice as making the team. “A little more quiet in here, because some of the faces you’ve seen the past couple of weeks aren’t here.
“Just another day of work right now. But a special day.”