NFL Injury Comebacks: Willis McGahee

The National Football League (NFL) has featured a plethora of incredibly talented players throughout the history of the league. Some players, however, face challenging NFL odds of success after suffering serious injuries as the amazing effort required to return to the field brings no guarantee that they will return to their prior level of play.

One player that fits this description is running back Willis McGahee, who overcame obstacles and made a complete recovery from a serious injury before even starting his successful pro career. 

Who Is Willis McGahee?  

Although Willis McGahee spent a fair portion of his pro career injured, or fighting through the remnants of previous injuries, he was not deterred one bit.

McGahee was easy to root for as a young superstar due to his determination, sheer skill, and dominance on the field. Standing at 6’1” and weighing 225 pounds at the University of Miami, McGahee had the strength and size to break tackles at will with speed to match.

Put simply, his combination of strength, power, finesse, speed, and size was incredibly rare. Add to that an innate ability to find motivation even in the toughest situations and you have the recipe for success in the NFL.

College Career

McGahee played his college ball at the University of Miami. After redshirting in 2000 and getting his feet wet in 2001, he had his breakout season in 2002, running for 1,753 yards and 28 touchdowns. He was named a consensus All-American and finished fourth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy. 

McGahee was in line to be a top-5 pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, but sustained his career-changing injury in the 2003 National Championship game at the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. In the fourth quarter, took a big hit after catching a screen pass, tearing the MCL, PCL, and ACL in his left knee. The injury required several surgeries to repair and extensive rehabilitation.

Buffalo Bills (2003 - 2006)

Due to his upside potential, McGahee was drafted by the Buffalo Bills as the 23rd pick in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft. However, he had to sit out the entire 2003 season to continue rehabilitation for his knee.

Once McGahee was able to get on the field, he had a major impact. It turned out that the gruesome leg injury he sustained in the national title game was truly a blessing in disguise, as it forced him to change his running style. From 2004-2006, McGahee rushed for 3,365 yards and 24 touchdowns, along with 68 catches for 503 receiving yards.

Baltimore Ravens (2007 - 2010)

McGahee was traded to Baltimore prior to the 2007 season. He continued his success with the Ravens, rushing for 1,207 yards in 2007 and being named to his first Pro Bowl. 

In the 2008 season, he suffered various injuries during the season that limited his production, but helped lead the Ravens to the playoffs as part of a three-headed backfield. McGahee scored two touchdowns in the AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh, but left the field on a stretcher after a huge hit from safety Ryan Clark. Fortunately, the big hit did not cause a serious injury. 

McGahee came back with a respectable performance in 2009. Despite coming off the bench most of the season, he became the leading scorer for the Ravens with 12 rushing touchdowns and 2 receiving touchdowns.

Denver Broncos ( 2011 - 2012)

After signing with Denver in 2011, McGahee had a rebound year with 1,199 yards and 5 touchdowns (4 rushing, 1 receiving), fighting through a hamstring injury during the latter part of the season. He was also named a team captain late in the season, which speaks volumes about the respect other players had for him.  The Broncos made the playoffs and beat the Steelers in the Wild Card round on a Tim Tebow TD pass to Demaryius Thomas in overtime, but lost to the Patriots in the divisional round.

McGahee began the 2012 season as the Broncos starting running back. Unfortunately, his season was cut short in Week 11 after taking a helmet to his right knee, resulting in a torn MCL and compression fracture. He was placed on injured reserve and waived prior to the 2013 season.

Cleveland Browns (2013)

Despite potential injury concerns, the Browns signed McGahee to fill a hole at their running back position. McGahee played respectably, appearing in 12 games and running for 377 yards and two touchdowns. 

Career Summary

Despite sustaining such a complicated injury right before his pro career started, and various injuries during his career, McGahee managed to have a solid 10-year NFL career with 8,474 yards rushing, 1,339 yards receiving, and 70 touchdowns in total. 

McGahee retired in 2013 after his contract ended with the Cleveland Browns. In 2016, he was inducted into the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame

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