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Ready to Run

After suffering a knee injury 18 months ago, all Bills' running back Willis McGahee wants to do is play ball

June 27, 2004|From Associated Press

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Ever since he was hurt, hardly a day has gone by without someone asking Willis McGahee about his left knee.

The questions have kept coming no matter how many times McGahee has said he'll be fine and playing better than before.

"How many times? I don't even keep track of that, anymore," the Buffalo Bills' running back said. "It's nothing new to me."

Soon, McGahee hopes to put all the questions to rest by showing what he can do on the field. His long wait is nearly over, some 18 months after his college career at Miami ended abruptly when he blew out his knee in the Fiesta Bowl.

He's passed the physicals, done every drill and made it through a month of minicamp practices this spring without a hitch.

"I'm anxious for the first game," McGahee said. "I've got the jitters. I want to play."

All that's left is for him to brace for that first hit, the one that only comes in competition against a fully-padded opponent. It's the kind of jolt that will test his knee's strength -- as much as it will his mind's resolve -- to determine whether he's ready to play football again.

The Bills are off until they report for training camp in suburban Rochester on July 31; their preseason opener is Aug. 15 against Denver.

As a sophomore in 2002, he was the nation's best running back and considered a top-three pick in the 2003 draft after he set Miami records by scoring 28 touchdowns and rushing for 1,753 yards. The national championship game, in which Miami lost to Ohio State, was supposed to be McGahee's send-off.

It instead turned out to become his biggest test. In the second half, and with Miami beginning to rally, McGahee went down following a crushing hit.

Two days later, he had surgery to repair three ligaments, including one that required major reconstruction. A day after that, his rehabilitation began with a few excruciating leg lifts that made him cry out in pain.

By March, McGahee was jogging and in April, the Bills drafted him 23rd overall.

He was the first running back selected but it didn't matter to him whether he was taken in the first or seventh round. All McGahee wanted was a chance. Now he's got a five-year deal that could potentially be worth $15.53 million if he meets all the incentives.

"I'm better than I was last year, no complaints," McGahee said. "No lagging or nothing, full go."

The Bills and rookie coach Mike Mularkey are hoping he can give them a one-two rushing punch with returning starter Travis Henry. It's an opportunity to revive what was an underused running attack last year, and take pressure off quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who struggled in a predictable passing game.

Mularkey made his intentions evident on the first snap of his first minicamp practice in March when he lined up Henry and McGahee in the same backfield.

"You get two quality backs like that, you've got to get them in the game somehow," Mularkey said.

And the coach doesn't appear worried about McGahee's knee, saying, "I purposely don't ask him how he's feeling." Nor is Mularkey concerned about whether he might create a running back controversy.

Henry, coming off consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, initially called it a slap in the face when the Bills drafted McGahee but has since reversed field, saying the two can get along.

McGahee said he and Henry are comfortable with each other.

"It wasn't his fault they drafted me," McGahee said. "Who knows? I'll probably make him better."

Bills president Tom Donahoe has no second thoughts about drafting McGahee, saying he was too good to pass up. Like McGahee and the rest of the team, Donahoe's itching to see how he responds to full contact.

"He's running around like he's not concerned about the knee, but you still have to get knocked around," Donahoe said. "And until that happens, that's probably the last hurdle that he has to get over."

McGahee said he's got nothing to prove to anybody but himself. He's the one who made the decision to turn pro. He's the one who pushed himself to extremes to get to this point.

And yet, McGahee acknowledges he's not certain what to expect. So he's established modest goals to begin with.

"I will accomplish a lot by getting one touchdown. That's good enough for me," he said. "Then I'll know what to expect."

It's been a long time since he has reached the end zone.

"Yeah," McGahee said. "I've got to get back home."

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