Back on track, McGahee is running again

With knee injury a thing of the past, Buffalo back finally looks like old self

Pro Football

October 21, 2004|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

The old Willis McGahee showed up last Sunday afternoon. He ran hard inside for tough yards, and outran defenders. He ran through some tacklers, and stiff-armed others. When it came to crunch time, McGahee twice delivered big plays in the fourth quarter, securing the Buffalo Bills' first win of the season.

Yes, that's the old McGahee. There is also the vivid picture of him crying and being carted off the field at the Fiesta Bowl in January 2003 with three torn ligaments in his left knee.

"It felt good because I had been waiting to get out there to play and show them what I could do," said McGahee after gaining 111 yards on 26 carries in his pro debut as a starter last weekend in the Bills' 20-13 win over the Miami Dolphins. "I knew this day would come, but I didn't know when and where."

McGahee is still in the dark. Buffalo coach Mike Mularkey said yesterday if starting running back Travis Henry's foot injury is healed, Henry will start against the Ravens on Sunday. If not, it's McGahee again. As of yesterday afternoon, Henry was listed as questionable.

Either way, McGahee, 23, has become a more immediate part of the Bills' future.

"McGahee is talented, hitting the hole just as hard as Travis Henry," said Ravens cornerback Gary Baxter. "The only difference between the two is that Henry has more experience. They both run tough. Buffalo has two great backs, a nice one-two punch, and it's going to be a challenge for us."

It's too premature to predict greatness for McGahee, but if he continues to improve, he would become one of the league's greatest comeback stories. In the closing minutes of the Fiesta Bowl, as his Miami Hurricanes battled Ohio State in the national championship game, McGahee tore his anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments.

Only the ACL had to be reconstructed - using McGahee's own patellar tendon - because that tear was near the center of the ligament. The PCL and MCL tears were at the end of the ligaments, so each was sutured back to bone into its normal anatomical position.

The injury cost McGahee millions. Once projected as a top five pick in the 2003 draft, McGahee slipped to No. 23 in the first round to the Bills, who were criticized for the pick.

Meanwhile, McGahee knew very little about Buffalo.

"My first thought was, where is Buffalo?" said McGahee. "People said it was in New York, so I knew I was going to a big city. There hasn't been as many big snowstorms like I thought it would be. It's been mediocre. It's been all right.

"But the most important thing for me was rehab. I was never, ever going to give up. Once you give up, it's over."

No one ever thought McGahee would quit. At Miami, he had become one of the team's hardest workers, once putting on a harness and pulling a pickup truck. The mental toughness was there, too. McGahee was 9 when he had to overcome the death of his close friend and older brother, Kishara, 17, from colon cancer.

One day after the knee surgery, McGahee was doing leg lifts in his bed. That was soon followed by aquatheraphy in the pool, then workouts on the trampoline and treadmill.

Only days before the draft, agent Drew Rosenhaus scheduled a workout for scouts in which McGahee jogged 50-yard sprints at three-quarters speed, caught 50 passes, backpedaled and bench-pressed 225 pounds 26 times.

"I worked out seven days a week, twice a day," said McGahee. "I didn't have school, so I had time. I had to get my knee back right, and I had my doctors and the family pushing me."

Actually, the Bills gave McGahee a year to rehabilitate. They put him on the non-football injury list to start the 2003 season, and put him on the active roster in November only so he could practice with the team. But Buffalo was in no hurry to get him on the field. The Bills had Henry, who rushed for 1,438 yards in 2002, and 1,356 yards last season.

Buffalo used McGahee sparingly during the first four games of this season as he rushed only 19 times for 70 yards. He was basically the third-down back until Henry had to sit out the Miami game with a foot injury.

Then some of the old McGahee emerged running with some of the authority he had at Miami, where he rushed for 2,067 career yards in only 21 games. He also scored 31 touchdowns, which ranks fifth on the school's all-time list.

He might be the spark Buffalo's offense, ranked No. 27, needs. For years, the 5-foot-9, 215-pound Henry has been criticized for not being able to get tough yards when needed. McGahee, 6-0 and 228 pounds, set up a fourth-quarter field goal last week with a tough, short run, and then helped Buffalo run out the clock with a 31-yard gain with under two minutes remaining in the game.

"He made a lot of yards after first contact. He is a big, strong runner like Travis," said Mularkey. "It was nice having him play a game like that after a few years, and to see him chugging like that in the fourth quarter."

Mularkey, though, would not endorse McGahee as the starter, not yet anyway. And McGahee says he doesn't mind for now. He was patient at Miami playing behind Clinton Portis and Frank Gore.

"I won't be disappointed if I don't start. That was explained to me when I first came in," said McGahee. "I just have to play my role, back him up when he gets tired, go in and relieve him."

That's the role now. It might change soon. Very soon.

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (3-2) vs. Buffalo Bills (1-4)

Site: M&T Bank Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 6

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