By Marcus Hayes, Philadelphia Daily News
Hank Baskett would always push it. He would feel his breath laboring, and know his lips were turning blue, and he would fight through, and he would collapse.
These days, he better appreciates every breath he takes.
Baskett, a 2001 Clovis High graduate, easily recalls the last time he passed out because of his asthma. He was a junior, and it was at football practice. It was a year before he converted to wide receiver, a move that would mean a college scholarship and an NFL contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.
But on Aug. 30, 1999, he was the quarterback at Clovis, and he pushed it too hard at practice, again, and passed out on the field.
Earlier the same day, a half-mile away, asthma killed Sarah Upton.
According to court documents, a substitute gym teacher at Gattis Junior High, forced Upton, a ninth-grader, to continue to run sprints when Upton asked to stop.
Upton went to her next class. She passed out at her desk. School personnel tried to administer her inhaler but did not perform CPR, and failed to call in the emergency for 15 minutes.
And so, she died.
Every day, 11 Americans die of asthma attacks; every year, 4,000.
Baskett speaks passionately about living with asthma. He encourages asthmatics to pursue their interests just like he did … but not like he did.
“I tell kids to be smart with it but don’t let it hold you back,” said Baskett, who would often snag his inhaler for a quick puff as he ran by the bench during basketball games. “Don’t let people say you can’t do something because you have asthma.”
Sometimes, fear of being seen as soft trumped Baskett’s fear of dying.
“The coaches sometimes would tell me to stop but I wouldn’t,” Baskett said. “I didn’t want my coaches or teammates to see me using it as an excuse.”
Bracing for a crushing tackle cannot compare with the helpless terror of your throat muscles in spasm as your life’s breath stops:
“When you wake up at night and you don’t have an inhaler right there, and you don’t have your breathing machine, and your parents have to take you to the hospital because you can’t breathe … When your lungs close — there’s nothing you can do to get air in — it’s very dangerous.”
Upton’s death hammered that home. She was 14, Baskett was 17.
The death, and its surrounding circumstances, rocked Clovis, an Air Force base town of about 33,000 — or, about half the capacity of Lincoln Financial Field.
Eric Roanhaus has coached Clovis to 10 state titles and eight runnerup finishes, but he made sure Baskett always understood that no title was worth dying for.
“Hank,” he told Baskett, “you know when you’ve had enough. If we’re doing 10 sprints, and you can’t go after seven, let me know,” Roanhaus said he told Baskett — and, with a wink, added: “Know this: If you go into distress, I’m not giving you mouth-to-mouth.”
These days, Roanhaus would have to get in line.
Baskett lately has been dating Playboy party girl Kendra Wilkinson, but then, Baskett has long been popular on the party scene of whatever town he’s in.
At least, he was.
“I stopped going out,” this past offseason, he said. “I get my rest. I stopped the partying and drinking and everything.”
In Clovis this offseason he virtually eliminated fats and sugars and lost 15 pounds, all while training like never before, at altitude.
“The altitude helps me with my asthma and everything,” said Baskett. “And if you can run at 4,000 feet it makes it easier to run at 400 feet.”
And if you can run beside Donovan McNabb, you probably will get more chances to run down the field during games. Baskett this year spent a week at McNabb’s workout camp in Arizona — a decision that required a financial commitment Baskett was reluctant to make.
“This is probably one of the biggest investments you’ll make,” his father, Hank Jr., said. With higher-pedigreed targets Reggie Brown, Kevin Curtis, DeSean Jackson and Jason Avant to compete with, Hank Jr. stressed, “Donovan controls your future.”
With Brown and Curtis hurt, after four games, Baskett has 13 catches, three short of his total in 2007; 207 yards, already 65 more than 2007; and a 90-yard touchdown, the fourth TD of his career and the third of at least 85 yards, a mark shared by only six other players.
In a West Coast offense, bombs are gimmicky. Slants and outs feed the machine. With the dangerous but small Jackson blanketed, McNabb fed 6-4, 220-pound Baskett two Sundays ago with eight passes good for 85 yards.
“Donovan trusts him; when the ball is around him he’s going to go up and get it,” said head coach Andy Reid, who called Baskett’s performance a “career” game.
Brown returned from a hamstring injury two weeks ago in a limited role and Curtis might come back next month from his sports hernia, but, Reid promised, “(Baskett) is going to continue to play.”
It took Baskett a while to become a viable NFL target.
He played quarterback until midway through his senior season in high school, when a bad ankle sprain cut his mobility. In two weeks he was able to sprint straight ahead, so Roanhaus and his staff moved him to receiver. New Mexico saw him, liked his athleticism (he holds the New Mexico state high jump record, seven feet, and could reverse-dunk with both hands in eighth grade), signed him, redshirted him, and, by his senior season in 2005, polished him to 67 catches, 1,071 yards and nine touchdowns.
Clovis is bursting with pride at Baskett’s success. The Clovis News Journal runs a small piece called “Baskett Watch” the day before and the day after each of Baskett’s games. It ran an online poll before the last Super Bowl:
“No Cowboys. No Broncos. No Hank Baskett. Do you care about watching the Super Bowl?”
Baskett also is on a billboard across the street from the high school. That’s about as big as you can get there: “It’s like carrying the town on your shoulders,” Baskett said cheerfully.