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Gameday Online: Mile-High Revival

Posted Nov 22, 2011

From the Nov. 17 Gameday Magazine: In Denver, Willis McGahee has taken a new opportunity and become one of the Broncos' biggest offensive threats.

There was one play in Denver’s win over the Oakland Raiders two Sundays ago that exemplified running back Willis McGahee.

It wasn’t his 60-yard touchdown run, when he outran the entire Oakland secondary to tie the game at 24. It wasn’t his 24-yard touchdown run at the end of the game, when he used his vision to cut back and find a gap on the outside before racing into the end zone untouched.

It was a rather innocuous play that didn’t make many highlight reels.

With 3:09 left in the game, McGahee took a handoff from the Oakland 49-yard line. It was his 17th carry of the long day, many of which ended with hits that would likely leave a map of bruises on his body. He patiently waited for a hole to open up in the line and burst through to the secondary as if it was his first run of the day.
But instead of juking safety Matt Giordano, McGahee — less than two weeks removed from hand surgery — lowered his head and plowed over him for his 136th rushing yard on the afternoon. It will go down as just a 17-yard run on the stat sheet, but in one play, it showed the character, maturity, toughness and revival of the 2007 Pro Bowler.

“I know people look at me and say, ‘He doesn’t have it any more,’” McGahee said after the Oakland game. “That’s for the other 31 teams that said I didn’t have it any more. Hey, I still have it.”

Many teams and people wrote off McGahee after his last three seasons in Baltimore. After compiling three 1,000-yard seasons in his first four years in the league, McGahee combined to rush for 1,600 yards over the next three seasons from 2008-10.
However, McGahee saw it as a blessing. He was able to heal his body during that time and learn from his fellow running backs.

“I look back at it right now and I’m like, ‘Hey, it’s probably the best thing to ever happen to me in my whole career,’” McGahee said. “Sitting back, watching other people run the ball, just getting my mind right, made me mentally stronger and made me a better person.”

After the 2010 season, the Ravens released McGahee and he became a free agent. The Broncos were interested.

Head Coach John Fox saw a player who still had bright years ahead of him, thanks to his time in Baltimore when his body was given a break from the punishing hits an every-down back takes, adding a few years to McGahee’s career. In fact, when wished a happy 30th birthday, McGahee turned and said with a smile, “I’m 28 right now.”

“He did have a lot of hits taken off of him from two years ago, but yet he was a guy that we thought still had value,” Fox said.

As it turned out, Fox didn’t have to do much persuading or selling at all to get McGahee to come to Denver. The Broncos were McGahee’s destination of choice thanks to a man who McGahee says knows him better than any other running backs coach he’s had: Eric Studesville.

McGahee and Studesville worked together in Buffalo during McGahee’s first three active years in the league. He enjoyed being around Studesville both as a coach and person, and was eager to rekindle his career with the man who helped him get his feet churning in the NFL.

“He knows what I can do. He knows what I can’t do,” McGahee said. “He knows the ins and outs of me. He knows me on and off the field. So that’s the mesh we have. He knows how to get the best out of me.”

Studesville said he has great confidence in his pupil and never doubted his ability for a second.

“I have tremendous respect for him as a person and as a player,” Studesville said. “His work ethic, how he competes at everything all the time — I think that gives you a chance to be successful. The fact that I know him is a great compliment from him, but it has probably as much to do with me enjoying working with him as it does him being around me.”

With what he knew from McGahee in his Buffalo days, Studesville is not surprised by the running back’s resurgence and success this season. In eight games played, McGahee has four 100-yard games and is averaging 80 yards per contest, the second-highest in his career.

Not only is he happy to be back with Studesville, but he’s also embracing the famed tradition of the Mile High Salute, which he does after almost every touchdown — home or away.

“A great running back did it,” McGahee said. “That’s part of Denver, Terrell Davis. So hopefully we can try to get a tradition, get it back in.”

The Broncos brought in McGahee to add to the running game, and since then he has become an integral part of the offense.

“I needed an opportunity and they gave me one,” McGahee said. “You don’t get too many. This is like my second opportunity and I’m treating it like my first.”

While he’s showing that he can still be a top back in the NFL, he isn’t bitter about the time he spent on the Baltimore sidelines or the lack of opportunities he’s been given to show he can be an elite every-down back. In fact, it’s the doubters who help him succeed.

“People told me I wasn’t going to be playing football after I got hurt in college,” McGahee said. “So my goal is to try to prove everybody wrong. It’s been like that since Day One. Not too many people have faith in me, which doesn’t really bother me. It actually drives me. I don’t know where I would be right now if people had faith in me. If everybody had faith in me, I’d probably be done playing football right about now. That’s what motivates me to keep going.”

With that motivation, McGahee said he still has good years left in him. With what he’s shown this year, his best may still be yet to come.