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McGahee puts on a show of strength for NFL teams

The former Miami RB tries to prove his surgically repaired knee is worth the draft risk.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 23, 2003

A healthy knee or not a healthy knee? That's the $4-million question.

Just four days from the draft, the surgically repaired left knee of University of Miami running back Willis McGahee continues to intrigue general managers and coaches around the NFL.

In a unique workout Tuesday in Miami, McGahee stunned representatives from eight teams when he went through a series of drills that included running light sprints and catching passes.

"He passed with flying colors," Houston Texans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said. "He did a great job. All the directors of college scouting are sitting back and saying, 'Where do you place this guy on your board?' With the workout he just had, it'll be high."

No one questions McGahee's talent, determination to return or potential to become one of the game's best.

But forgive the NFL, a league heavy into instant gratification, for having a few concerns.

Will McGahee's knee, shattered in the national championship double-overtime loss to Ohio State on Jan. 3, be well enough so that he can play at or close to his collegiate level again?

Should a team risk taking him in the first round and paying him as such, whether or not he plays this season?

In one breathtaking season for the Hurricanes, including a strong performance in the Fiesta Bowl, McGahee rushed for 1,753 yards and 28 touchdowns and caught 27 passes for 355 yards. On a team loaded with elite players, the 21-year-old redshirt sophomore was the most dangerous and most consistent.

But then, after an open-field tackle by Buckeyes safety Will Allen in the fourth quarter, McGahee's future took a detour.

He tore his anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, three of the four that keep the knee together. The only ligament that held was the lateral collateral, which he blew out in 1999 in high school.

Dr. John Uribe, the Hurricanes' team doctor, operated on McGahee's knee. Uribe said he reconstructed the knee and reported no nerve, blood vessel or cartilage damage, important indicators for the length of recovery time.

"I have found that if you restore the anatomy quickly, you have a better chance of a quick recovery," Uribe said. "I don't see any reason why he can't come back this season."

Without knowing the specifics of McGahee's case, the running back's apparent progress is no surprise to other orthopedic surgeons.

"I was in a room with three other orthopedic surgeons watching the game and we all (cringed) at the time of injury," Rays surgeon Koco Eaton said. "It was a devastating one. But people have to understand there's a reason why they are elite athletes. They are bigger, stronger, faster than most good athletes, and they have a tremendous work ethic. They know what it takes to get back. That makes a huge difference."

Eaton said modern advancements in the surgical approach to repairing torn knee ligaments, particularly the problematic PCL, along with highly sophisticated methods of rehab, make McGahee's likely return this season plausible.

"It actually is quite realistic," Eaton said. "It wouldn't shock me if he played this year."

In fact, McGahee's surgery went so smoothly that he was not required to wear a cast and he showed up at the NFL combine (seven weeks later) with no crutches, no limp, not even a Band-Aid on the 7-inch scar now decorating his knee.

"I have not seen that situation before but I think that is a little bit a function of modern medicine," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "I think guys have become confident in sports medicine and what people are able to do to keep players not just healthy but playing at a top level. There's been enough experience now where teams are very comfortable when you look at the MRI, when you examine the knee or the shoulder."

Along the way, McGahee (6 feet, 226 pounds) attacked the rehab with the kind of speed and ferocity he commonly leaves for holes in the opposing defense. He was working out the leg days after the surgery. He soon began running lightly and now is on a five-day-a-week workout schedule. He appears well ahead of the 12-18 month time frame originally given for a full recovery.

"(Doctors) say they've never seen anything like it," said McGahee, who can cash in on a $2.5-million insurance policy if he never plays again. "They're very surprised. I know what I can do, so I'm not worried about it. I'm going full steam ahead."

McGahee and agent Drew Rosenhaus were happy Tuesday to show that elite athletes like McGahee rarely suffer career-ending injuries. Running backs Garrison Hearst (49ers) and Priest Holmes (Chiefs) did well after severe knee injuries.

"There's no question that people are more comfortable that he will be back," said McKay, who believes McGahee could be a first-round pick. "The only thing about it is you cannot say with certainty that he will be back at the same level. ... I remember when Terry Allen came out of Clemson and he was a double-ACL guy. He was an F on everybody's board, from here to wherever. And he played. After his first year I remember talking to a guy who said, 'Ah, one year. He's done next year.' He's still playing. "I just don't think you can ever say that you can guarantee he's going to play at the same level."

It seems equally impossible to predict where.

Mainstream thinking suggests that a team won't likely take a chance on McGahee in the first round if it needed immediate help or if it had only one first-round pick.

The Jets (13th, 22nd), Patriots (14th, 19th) and Saints (17th, 18th), all of whom have two first-round picks, have proven running backs and have more pressing needs.

The Raiders (31st, 32nd) are the only other team with two first-round picks and could make McGahee one of those considering they have Charlie Garner in the fold and won't need McGahee for another year.

The Jets, Saints and Raiders, along with the Texans, Titans, Eagles, Ravens and Steelers were in attendance Tuesday. The Patriots already held a private workout.

"I think we would entertain anyone there (at the last two picks)," Raiders coach Bill Callahan said. "You have to entertain a guy like McGahee. Obviously, he has all the skills that you look for in a complete back."

No worries, McGahee said. For now the only sweating he's doing is in the gym.

"I was curious at first, but I don't want to get too curious because then I'd get my mind set on one thing and it would be something else," he said. "Nobody knows where I'm going, so I'll just sit back and wait."

-- Staff writer Rick Stroud and information from other news organizations contributed to this report.

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