By Marty Farmer
Instincts and improvisation kick in once he's broken through the line of scrimmage, typically eluding or overpowering multiple defenders. Deeper into the secondary now, the spectacle really begins as his breathtaking 4.4 40-yard dash speed hits top gear instantly all the way into the end zone. Like Vin Diesel's 1970 Dodge Charger in The Fast and The Furious movies, all the helpless defense sees of OPRF senior running back Jamal Baggett is his tail lights.
Baggett owns distinction as THE prolific playmaker on a squad loaded with big play guys like Lloyd Yates, Simmie Cobbs, Mike Hayden and Antonio Cannon.
"I love the open field, I feel at home in the open field," Baggett said about his signature breakaway runs. "My teammates do a great job blocking for me. I just read my blocks, stay patient, hit the hole hard and [then] fly."
Interestingly enough, the most entertaining aspect of Baggett's long sprints to paydirt might be found in the stands of Oak Park Stadium. When Baggett breaks loose for a score, his older brother, Michael (a former OPRF football star/Class of 1993) on occasion can be seen running along the concourse of Oak Park Stadium, sometimes even all the way down the ramp to the field.
"When Jamal is running free, I actually feel it," Michael Brown said. "When he's playing on the field, I feel like I am there with him. I wore No. 33 and he wears No. 3 as my younger brother. We have a very special connection. He's my best friend."
This season, Baggett and the rest of the Huskies have instilled a feeling of pride throughout the OPRF football program, school and community.
OPRF is off to a 4-0 start, brimming with confidence after last week's inspiring 16-10 overtime win against Downers Grove North.
Baggett has played a major role on both sides of the ball during the Huskies' resurgence under third-year head coach John Hoerster.
"Jamal is a rare talent, who has the combination of size, speed and athleticism," Hoerster said. "Jamal is a player with the potential of going the distance any time he touches the ball, as well as being a guy we can count on to make plays on the defensive side of the ball as well. I know he is a guy who will make a play when it counts, and a leader who can be a coach on the field."
The senior has rushed for 306 yards and three touchdowns on just 27 carries for a gaudy average of 11.1 yards per carry. Defensively, Baggett is a lockdown cornerback with three interceptions which he's returned for 118 yards total.
A three-year varsity starter, Baggett has assumed a leadership role as well, along with veterans like Andre Lee and Emonte Logan.
"I just try to rally the guys together," he said. "I told my teammates that we only have nine games guaranteed, so we have to earn the rest."
In the spring, Baggett will rejoin the OPRF track team. Last year, the Huskies' 4 x 200-meter relay team of Baggett, Lionel Towns, Desmond Bird-Murphy and Tariq Taylor took second in the state with a time of 1:28.78. Everybody returns but Taylor this season for another run at an elusive state title.
"I'm a two-time all-state track athlete and I plan on making it three years this spring," Baggett said. "I've been running track since sixth grade. [OPRF coach] Tim Hasso is a great coach who took me under his wing. I recommend track for any football player because it keeps you in top shape for summer football camp."
Recruited as "hybrid" defensive back/safety, Baggett currently holds 10 scholarships offers from Division I football programs, with likely more on the way. New Mexico just offered a few weeks ago.
"I'm looking for a school with great academics and where I'll feel at home," Baggett said. "First, we have some business to take care of this season. We have one goal and that's to win every game we play."
The lofty aspiration of an undefeated season carries a particularly special meaning for Baggett and Brown.
In 1992, Brown rushed for over 1,200 yards as an all-conference running back/defensive back with the Huskies. Led by Chris Gall, Ramone Jones, Jeff McDonald and Brown, OPRF went 8-1 during the regular season before losing in the second round of the playoffs to Downers Grove North. Similar to Hoerster, Jack McInerney did a masterful job coaching that special '92 edition of Huskies football.
On Friday (Oct. 4) at 7:30 p.m., the Huskies (4-0) will host Class 7A defending state champion Glenbard West (3-1), marking the 20-year anniversary of Brown's homecoming game against the Hilltoppers.
"20 years ago, we beat Glenbard West in Glen Ellyn and spoiled their homecoming," Brown said, "It's ironic [now] Glenbard West is coming to Oak Park Stadium for our homecoming game. Glenbard West has been the class of the conference lately, and also back when I played, but I believe OPRF can beat them this year."
Regardless of how the remaining games unfold for the Huskies this year, the unbreakable bond between Baggett and Brown along with their mother, Faylin Baggett, will remain long after this potentially remarkable season has passed.
"Our mom was born in Jamaica and moved to Chicago," Brown said. "She moved our family to Oak Park and raised us in such a positive, diverse community that prioritizes education.
Brown added about his relationship with his brother: "Jamal and I talk every day. I think it's very important that student-athletes have positive influences in their lives. I tell Jamal to be the best person he can be within the community because that's a reflection on him and the Baggett family."
In the short term, the best friends/brothers are savoring the Huskies' special season.
"We're just enjoying the moment," Brown said. "Jamal is going to move on to bigger and better things. It's going to be very emotional and I'll definitely cry when he goes off to college."
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