MEMPHIS, TENN. (AP) — It had been seven or eight years since they had last spoken, but when Jose Baxter answered the call from his former Everton teammate Tim Howard to talk about joining Memphis 901 FC, it was like no time had passed at all.
“He swore and said, ‘You haven’t changed, your voice hasn’t changed,’ ” Baxter said. “We laughed a bit, and we went from there.”
Not long after, the English midfielder, still one of the youngest players to ever start or play in a Premier League match, signed with 901 FC and crossed the Atlantic, starting a new chapter in a soccer career that has encompassed high highs and low lows since he signed with one of England’s most storied clubs at age 6.
In the intervening 22 years, Baxter developed his game within the Everton system, broke into the first team and played in Premier League and Europa League matches. After leaving Everton, he played for multiple lower-division English teams, served two suspensions for drug use while at Sheffield United, struggled with his mental health and then began to speak out about it, working to remove the stigma around discussing mental health issues, especially among young players.
Now, at 28, Baxter has matured as a person and a player. He spends his evenings watching Netflix or playing Settlers of Catan with teammates. He fosters open conversations about mental health. He wants to play soccer for as long as he can and build the best life possible for his 2-year-old daughter. But he still wants to win.
“I’m proud to put this jersey on. I’m proud to be here. I haven’t come over for a holiday or to get away from anything back home or to kick back and relax,” he said. “I’ve come here to try and win silverware and try and be successful, to make the club successful.”
That drive is why Howard, 901 FC’s goalkeeper, minority owner and sporting director, brought Baxter to Memphis.
“First and foremost he’s a very good player, he’s a supreme talent, he sees the game better than most players I’ve ever played with,” Howard said. “I want guys who have been in the trenches, who have seen a lot. They’re not just here to make up the numbers and have a good time; they genuinely care about winning.”
‘IT WAS MY DREAM’
Baxter described his first 14 years with Everton — he would sign with the club a second time for the 2017-18 season — as some of the best years of his life and some of the happiest memories he has. One of his first memories of the game is when he was a ball boy.
“I remember Villa Real coming to Goodison Park for a Europa League game and I just remember sitting there watching how good they were and thinking, ‘Wow, is this the level that we need to be at?’ ” Baxter said. “It was my dream to be on that pitch.”
He never doubted he would achieve that dream, like the players he looked up to: Wayne Rooney, who also broke through at Everton; Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard; and Newcastle United great Alan Shearer.
When his teachers asked what he would do if it didn’t work out, he’d reply he would make it work. After he was top goalscorer in a nationwide under-14 tournament, he got a Nike sponsorship. That’s when he really knew, Baxter said.
“It was never like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna do it, let’s kick back.’ It was so hard,” he said. “Training morning, noon and night and then I got my first call up to go and train with the first team at 15.”
It was not immediately a success.
“I was terrible. I was really bad ... that was another time where I thought ‘Wow, is this the level you need to be at?’ ” he said. “Then the start of that next year, when I just turned 16, I went on a preseason tour with them and I held my own a little bit.”
In the opening match of the 2008-09 season, he became the then-second-youngest player to ever make a Premier League appearance — and the youngest Everton player to make a first-team appearance — when he was subbed on in a home match against the Blackburn Rovers.
Howard was in goal that day.
“He’s the second-youngest player to ever play in the Premier League, the world’s greatest league. There are guys at 36, at 26 who can’t do it. He did it at 16,” he said. “I made my debut at 23, and I was out of my depth.”
YOUTH, FAME, FORTUNE
Howard remembers the call with Baxter about him coming to 901 FC the same way as Baxter does. The two of them talked, they laughed, they reconnected immediately. When he heard how interested Baxter was in coming to Memphis, Howard said he was ecstatic.
On the pitch, Howard described the midfielder as a generational talent. Off it, he said he’s someone with a big heart who cares about people, someone who has walked through fire and come out stronger on the other side.
“I think fame and fortune and youth ... I think it’s a terrible mixture,” Howard said. “Every athlete you know is going to be young, rich and famous, and not a lot of them make it through unscathed.”
While the elite development academies associated with professional soccer teams churn out world-class players, they also create a radically different social structure for the kids in them.
“You are in a bubble, you don’t really know the outside world. It’s not real life,” Baxter said. “I was a young kid ... off a council estate, getting really good money, and (my) life was a bit hectic from being in school one minute and playing in the Premier League the next. It was a bit crazy. Then everything bad happened, which is something I’m not proud of, but I learned things off it.”
Baxter experienced many of the same perils of fame and fortune as other young athletes and celebrities and, likewise, those pitfalls were well-chronicled in the media. But he learned about himself, about friends, about who are the right people to let into your life, he said.
He also learned to speak openly about his mental health and how to speak with others about mental health, inside the soccer world and out of it.
“As men, we act a little bit macho. You want to act like there’s nothing wrong and we’re the tough guys, and you can’t see me cry,” he said. “People need to talk, people need to know that it’s OK to not be OK.”
SEASON RESTART, CAREER RESTART
Playing a professional sport is something millions — maybe billions — dream of. Inside the bubble, it isn’t easy, Baxter said.
“Loads of people think that football, well soccer, is glitz and glam, and it’s not really. You don’t see the fact that some of the older lads when I was younger, they got kids and yet they’re in hotels on Christmas Day, playing Boxing Day, playing New Year’s Day,” he said.
When Baxter moved to Memphis, his partner and daughter stayed in the U.K. with plans to visit during stretches with multiple home games in a row. He kept in touch with calls and FaceTime, but it was tough, he said. That was before the pandemic.
During the lockdown, Baxter’s Instagram was full of photos and videos of dinners he cooked and board games he played with teammates as they waited to find out when — and if — they’d play again this season.
On and off the pitch, 901 FC coach Tim Mulqueen described Baxter as a leader, checking in on teammates during the lockdown, training hard during practice and acting as a sounding board for Mulqueen to bounce ideas off of.
“He cares so much about the club, the city, the team, his teammates,” Mulqueen said. “He’s emerged as a leader.”
At an open practice before 901 FC’s first home match since the restart, that was on display. Baxter was in near-constant communication with his teammates as they ran drills and was laughing and chatting with them as soon as practice wrapped. He seemed to talk with everyone on the squad, patting people on the back as they went to get ice packs or joking with them as they played around and took a few final shots before gear had to be packed up.
Before coming to Memphis, Baxter had spent his entire career in England. While many soccer players dream of England, Baxter said he had always wanted to play abroad someday.
By any metric, the game has seen dramatic growth in the U.S. in recent years. That was a factor in his interest in coming to Memphis, Baxter said, and Howard’s vision for the club’s future made him feel 901 FC was the right fit for this point in his career.
Now, after one of the strangest starts to a sports season in living memory, he has the opportunity to make his impact on the club and on the USL Championship.
“I want to be successful with this team, which is why I signed here. I think this team has got a lot of potential to be successful,” Baxter said. “My aim was to come over here and be successful with this team and try to get this team to levels where the owners and the people on the board dream of. I want to be a part of that.”