Joe Mahoney/Associated Press file photo
Joe Mahoney/Associated Press file photo
ENGLEWOOD – Willis McGahee wasn’t supposed to make it to the NFL, much less pinball his way through defenses for a decade.
So said the naysayers after he tore three ligaments in his left knee in his final college game at Miami and again and again as he piled on the yards and years.
McGahee still is proving the doubters wrong 10 years later. He just recorded his 32nd 100-yard rushing game, more than any active NFL running back and one for each candle that will soon decorate his birthday cake, plus a spare for good measure.
“My whole career people said I’m slow, I’m old, I can’t do this or I can’t do that. I use that for fuel,” McGahee said. “You tell me I can’t do something, my goal is to prove you wrong.”
McGahee joked this week that he quit counting at age 29.
Thirty-something tailbacks are rare in a league that spits out ballcarriers after just more than two seasons on average, and rarer still are those as productive as McGahee after 30 trips around the sun.
McGahee only is the 29th running back in league history to top 1,000 yards in his 30s, and if he does it again this season he’ll join just a dozen others – half of whom are in the Hall of Fame – who’ve accomplished the feat multiple times.
Since he first donned the orange and navy uniform in 2011, McGahee has topped 100 yards rushing nine times, tied with Houston’s Arian Foster – who is five years his junior – for the most in the league.
McGahee sat out his first NFL season in Buffalo before a solid career with the Bills and Baltimore Ravens, where he was Ray Rice’s backup, thus saving wear and tear on his body, which paid off in a big way in Denver last season.
He helped the Broncos lead the league in rushing by gaining 1,199 yards and earning his second Pro Bowl appearance, a testament to how well he adapted to quarterback Tim Tebow and coach John Fox dusting off the old read-option at midseason.
This year, it’s Peyton Manning stuffing the ball into McGahee’s belly or throwing it in between the 2 and the 3 on his chest, and he’s even more productive, averaging 81.25 yards rushing a game, up from 79.9 a year ago. He’s already scored three touchdowns, one shy of his total from last year, and he also caught a 2-point conversion.
Bill Belichick, whose New England Patriots will host the Broncos on Sunday in a pivotal game between 2-2 teams, certainly sees the McGahee of old.
“Real talented player coming out of Miami. Big, strong, fast guy that has good run instincts and is tough. I think you still see those qualities,” Belichick said. “You see him running over people and breaking tackles. He has good run vision and can find the holes and has good patience, knows how to use his blocking when he gets in the open field or when guys start to tackle him, he does a good job of breaking tackles, getting his pads down, running with power.
“And he’s elusive in the secondary. So, he continues to perform well. I have a lot of respect for Willis.”
So does Broncos running backs coach Eric Studesville. He was McGahee’s position coach in Buffalo from 2004-06 and was instrumental in bringing him to Denver last year.
Studesville said he sees an even better running back in Denver than he had in Buffalo.
“The core things that he is and had at that time he still has now: a tremendous work ethic, a tremendous passion for the game, incredibly competitive personality,” Studesville said. “And all those things haven’t diminished with time. They’ve stayed the same.”
What is different, Studesville said, is his leadership, as evidenced by his teammates voting him a captain this season.
“He’s much more vocal; he’s much more out front,” Studesville said. “When I had him in Buffalo, he just kind of came and worked every day. It’s difficult for a young player to be a leader, but he’s not a young player anymore. He’s developed leadership qualities that have been good for us.”
That’s taken time for McGahee, a gregarious personality, sure, but one who prefers to lead by example.
“I’m one of those guys, if you ask for the help, I’ll give it you. But if you don’t, I won’t,” McGahee said. “You know, certain running backs don’t want to get help from another running back that’s in front of them. They try to do it on their own. That’s what I did. So, you can’t take it to heart if they don’t ask.”
Ronnie Hillman, a rookie from San Diego State in the mold of Darren Sproles who is learning that at this level the holes close lickety-split, certainly isn’t shy about hitting him up for advice.
“He’ll tell me what I’m doing wrong or how to look at this play the right way,” said Hillman, who also learns plenty by just watching McGahee go to work: “You get the same result out of him every day. Just watching him go to work every day, you see why he’s a 10-year vet.”
With an average pro career of about 2˝ years, most running backs don’t stick around the league long enough to become locker room leaders like McGahee has.
“It’s a testament to the physical condition that he’s in, and I think there’s a burning desire to compete that’s inside there, too,” Studesville said. “He loves this game.”
That passion rubs off.
“He makes coaching fun,” Studesville said. “Because he’s what you want. He’s what you want as far as a guy that gives it to you physically all the time and mentally, too. I love coaching this guy.”
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press file photo