Willis McGahee says he can be another Emmitt Smith

Willis McGahee’s athletic rebirth has bordered on miraculous. Even with the seemingly endless advances in sports medicine, it’s hard to imagine anybody bouncing back so impressively just under four months after his knee was all but dislodged from its moorings.

In reality, there’s still no guarantee that McGahee will play football this season, or in 2004 or ever again, the way he did at the University of Miami, where he ran for 2,067 yards and 31 touchdowns in two seasons. Last season alone he had 1,753 yards rushing, 28 TDs and 355 yards receiving.

Denver’s Terrell Davis and Atlanta’s Jamal Anderson were never the same after their injuries, and the damage to their knees was less severe than the damage to McGahee’s.

They tore their anterior cruciate ligaments, but so did Indianapolis’ Edgerrin James and Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis, both of whom played without problems last season.

The injury didn’t stop Nike and Microsoft – McGahee is fanatical about the Xbox video-game system – from signing the running back to big endorsement deals.

If we judge McGahee based on courage, motivation and just plain old guts, he will make his NFL debut in some form during the 2003 season.

After all, in the minds of all of us watching from afar, he had no football future at all after his left knee caved in when he took a hit from Ohio State’s Will Allen in the Fiesta Bowl in early January. Yet on Saturday, he was drafted with the 23d pick of the first round by the Buffalo Bills, the first running back taken.

McGahee, who cried when the pick was announced, said later on ESPN: “They caught me off guard with the pick, but I’m real happy.”

McGahee’s injury was a gruesome sight. The slow-motion replay was almost too grim to watch. McGahee’s leg was contorted at an impossible angle.

Remember, McGahee has already defied reason by gaining so much in his rehabilitation. His next quest will be to make doubters believe it is realistic for him to play 16 games or parts thereof in 2003.

“Yes, I do really feel that way,” McGahee said last week. “I don’t consider myself an ordinary person. I don’t think a regular person can come back from an injury like this and do the things I did in 15 weeks.”

Consider that he tore his anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, three of the four that hold his left knee together. And the fourth, the lateral collateral, he blew out in 1999 when he was in high school.

It’s ironic that the lateral, the one affected earlier, was the one that held on that fateful night.

McGahee said he had not watched the videotape of the play.

“I don’t watch football,” he said, “and, no, I don’t plan to watch it.”

McGahee knows that even with his comeback, coaches, fellow players, team doctors and fans are pulling for him but are doubtful.

He is, it seems, at war with their doubts, not his own faith.

The running back allowed himself only three days to be depressed after the event. Orthopedic surgeon John Uribe reconstructed the knee two days after the injury. One day after the injury, McGahee did leg lifts with very light weights.

“I was scared at first,” he said after being asked to remember his thoughts as he was hauled off the field on a stretcher, “but the doctor told me I was going to be OK. So I really didn’t worry about it anymore. I had positive thinking. Once I put my mind to something, I go ahead and do it. I go ahead and achieve that goal.”

His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, is giving the same speech. If positive thoughts and talking could solve this, McGahee would be climbing Mount Everest right now.

McGahee worked out in person for several teams on Tuesday and sent tapes of the workout to the rest of the NFL. It was part of his plan to show he was not just draftworthy but worthy of being taken in the first round.

Now he has to complete the hardest of his tasks, and that is to be ready to play football when training camp opens in July. It’s one thing for him to do squats and leg presses. It’s quite another to go back into the very same unarmed combat that laid him low.

What happens when he takes that next big hit? Is he worried?

“No, not really,” McGahee said. “Any football player, when you first start the game off, worries about the first big hit, how it’s going to be. I’m going to have a regular attitude, going into the football game (as if) without the knee injury.”

McGahee said he chose to leave college football despite having two more years of eligibility because he’d done all he sought to do at Miami. He started in two national-title games, won one, and put up some big numbers.

McGahee sees himself, a 6-foot, 223-pound specimen, as a unique running back. He certainly showed impeccable skill and ability to both accelerate out of cuts and be elusive as a Hurricane.

“I think my running style is different from anybody else’s,” McGahee said. “I don’t really compare it to anybody. I do my own thing. I can be anything you want me to be. I’m not a big cutback runner. I’ll probably go straight ahead and make people miss if I have to.”

As a receiver, he has a natural ability to catch the ball but needs to learn to run more structurally sound routes.

“I’m not a Marshall Faulk,” he said, “but I can be an Emmitt Smith.”