Willis McGahee’s career almost ended in 2003, when he suffered what is arguably the worst knee injury in football history during the fourth quarter of the National Championship game while playing for the Miami Hurricanes. Once considered a top five pick in the NFL draft, he was eventually drafted to the Buffalo Bills at #23. Even still, there were some pundits who thought he may have been picked too high; many believing he would never be the same again. Against all odds, McGahee played very well from 2004 through 2006 for the Bills, rushing for over 1,000 yards in the first two seasons, but was traded after suffering another knee injury. For the second time in his career, he responded to a knee injury by exceeding expectations, rushing for over 1,200 yards in 2007 for the Baltimore Ravens and making his first Pro Bowl appearance. He was let go after the 2010 season due to salary cap restrictions. He responded to yet another setback by running for over 1,000 yards in his first season with the Denver Broncos.
Before the 2012 season, Tom Ryan had the opportunity to speak with Willis McGahee about his love of the game, and how he was able to overcome so much adversity to enjoy a successful NFL career.
Q When did your love for the game of football begin?
My love for the game began when I was younger, playing football in the streets with my older brothers. I have always played with the older guys. I think that’s how I got better.
Q Last year, you gained nearly 1,200 yards with Tim Tebow as your quarterback. How will Peyton Manning change the Broncos running game, and how excited are you to have a future Hall of Famer as your quarterback this year?
He will change our running game just by getting that ninth and tenth guy out of the box. Last year, we faced a lot of defenses consisting of nine and ten guys in the box, and there wasn’t much we could do with it. But Peyton, who is a whole different quarterback, has completely changed the offense and taken it to a whole new level.
Q What did you think about the Saints’ bounty system for taking out players? Have you ever heard of anything like this before?
All I ever really heard about it was on TV on the news—there’s nothing much I can do about it, and therefore I really don’t pay much attention to it.
Q What is the most difficult team you have faced in your career?
When I was with the Baltimore Ravens, facing the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a real tough battle; those two organizations are always going at it. Regardless of the situation, it’s gonna be a dog fight, and there’s a lot of hard hitting going on.
Q How do you prepare for a game both mentally and physically?
Mentally, I always create a playlist I have to listen to in order to get me ready.
Q What are some of the artists or groups you listen to?
Some of my favorites are Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z and Kanye West.
Q There have been some major rule changes in the NFL to protect against concussions. Do you think these new rules will be effective?
I think the new rules will be effective. They are trying to protect us more than they ever have before, and I think it’s going to help players last a lot longer; at least longer than the old average of 3-5 years.
Q How many times have you had a concussion? Are you worried about the long term effects?
I’ve had concussions twice in ten years. So, knock on wood, hopefully it stays like that. I am not really worried about it though, in the long run.
Q You came back from a serious knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl, as well as some injuries in Buffalo when playing for the Bills. How difficult was it to come back from those injuries and have two Pro Bowl seasons, one in 2007 and another in 2011?
It was challenging, as far as trying to get back to my regular form and compete again. You always have people telling you that you’re not going to be the same. That helped even more though. I wanted to prove people wrong. It kept me going, kept me motivated. Not only that, I had my family for support and faith in God. So you know, the sky’s the limit for me.
Q Where do you like to go for vacation?
I’m a California guy. I like to go there with my friends and just hang out on the strip. I just like the atmosphere out there.
Q What are your favorite TV shows, movies, books?
Favorite movie is Coming to America, with Eddie Murphy. Books I like are American Gangster and Greed.
Q Anything you are reading right now?
My playbook. [Laughs]
Q Who is the person who helped you the most in your football career?
My mom. She was always there for me, always going to my games, telling me if I wanted to be the best, I had to act like the best. She was always just motivating me. She gets all the credit.
Q What was the most important lesson you learned growing up?
My mom always told me not to have any friends, and I think she was right. You have them for a minute, but once you’re down they leave you. And once you’re up they come running back to you. I live by that motto.
Q So you rely more on yourself?
I rely on myself and my mom, that’s about it. Everybody else…I’m not an everybody else guy.
Q What do you want people to say about you when your career is over?
They don’t have to say anything about me, to tell you the truth. My motivation comes from within. I guess I would want them to say that I was determined and that I never gave up. That’s about it.
Q What’s the most important lesson you learned from the game of football?
You can’t really control what’s going on around you, but you can control your own destiny. That’s the one thing I really learned. I can’t worry about if the offensive line is going to do this, or if the defense is going to do that. You just have to worry about yourself.
Q What do you like about the city of Denver?
The people are very nice. They support the Broncos. Whether they are down or up, the fans are always going to be there. There is never a dull day in Denver.
Q Have you ever had a chance to enjoy some of Denver’s nightlife?
I’ve been out during preseason. Not during the regular season. I try to stay focused during the regular season, but I’ve been out.
Q So you have had some fun?
Yeah, I’ve had some fun downtown. I just moved downtown actually. Right next to Coors Field.
Q Where do you live in the off-season, and what do you like to do?
I live in Miami. I was born and raised in Miami, so that’s where I stay. I like to jet-ski a lot.
Q How long have you been jet-skiing?
About 10 years. I started when I got into the league.
Q Tell me about your transition in 2011 coming to the Denver Broncos after playing several years for both the Buffalo Bills and the Baltimore Ravens?
The transition was pretty easy. I had already moved from Buffalo to Baltimore, and when I came here, I already knew a couple players on the team. So that just made it easier.
Q You grew up in Miami and then started at running back in college for the Miami Hurricanes. You were drafted by the Buffalo Bills. Was it difficult making the transition from a warm weather city like Miami to a cold weather city like Buffalo?
It was difficult. I had never really been outside of Miami other than for college visits, so when they told me I was going to Buffalo, I was like ‘Where’s Buffalo?’ and they said it was in New York. So I’m thinking I’m going to New York City. I didn’t know any better. I got there, and it wasn’t New York City. It was a lot of open fields, and there were no big buildings [Laughs]. It was shell shock for me, but I adapted pretty quick.
Q You just received an award for Humanitarian of the Year. Tell us about it.
It was a blessing. I had been helping out underprivileged families and kids in Baltimore. I was doing toy drives, giving away turkeys and book bags. That’s one thing I like doing—helping kids and their families out. I’m not really the person that wants to put it on TV like, ‘Oh I’m doing this or that’, I like to kind of keep it behind closed doors.
Q How does your training differ at the higher altitude in Denver? Does it help you when you are playing at home?
It is very different, training in Florida and in Denver. In Florida, you need to worry about the humidity, but I have been coping with that for my entire life. When I came to Denver the air is a little thinner up here. I’m running one or two plays and I’m taking a knee like I’m dirt tired. I didn’t know what was going on at first; no one explained to me the difference that the altitude made. I worked even harder though, and now when I go down to Florida, I don’t get tired. That’s the good thing about working out here in Denver. I find it to be a blessing.
Q What did you think when coach John Fox made you a captain last year, after Kyle Orton was released?
I thought it was kind of funny, and assumed it was because I am one of the oldest guys on the offensive side. It was cool. I had fun with it, but that’s not really me. I’m not one of those guys that likes to be in the front of it. I’d rather be in the back and just chill. I like it when the eyes aren’t on me, and the good thing is we’ve got Peyton now, and he is going to be the team captain. I’m not worried about it.
Q Pork? That’s where you get your protein?
Pork. I love pork [Laughs]. They say that’s backwards, but it helps me out, and I can’t complain about it.
Q What’s the fire that burns inside of you that allows you to keep getting up after all the hard hits that a running back takes?
I don’t really take a pounding. It might look like I take a pounding, but I really don’t. I protect myself; I lift weights properly. Nine times out of 10, I really don’t feel it unless it’s an ankle injury or something like that. I really don’t take a pounding; I give one.
Q How many more years do you plan on playing in the NFL?
Q Time to win another Super Bowl?
Time to win one Super Bowl. Next one would be the first for me.
Q During the season, who do you like to hang out with on the Broncos?
Elvis Dumervil, Ty Warren, Champ Bailey, and Jeremiah Johnson.
Q Do you keep in touch with any of the players or coaches from the Hurricanes?
Oh yeah. I keep in touch with Andrew Swayze; he was our strength coach. I still train with him when I go down to Miami sometimes. DJ Williams—we played on the same team. Vince Wilfork, Jonathan Vilma, Mike Rump and Phillip Buchanon. I keep in touch with a great group of guys.
Q What are your favorite activities off the field?
Bowling and paintball. I am pretty good at paintball.
Q What kind of car do you currently drive, and what is your favorite car you have ever owned?
I drive a Ford F350 diesel. Favorite is my Porsche Cayenne.
Q NFL players are obsessed with all kinds of watches, diamonds, studs and all sorts of bling. Are you also obsessed, and what is your favorite piece of bling?
I used to be obsessed with bling when I first came to the NFL, but now I just have a pair of studs.
Q Are you a clothes horse? Do you like to get dressed up to the nines?
I’m simple. I like Mac jeans and Urban Outfitters shirts. And some Chuck Taylors.
Q What is your most prized possession?
Q Are you still having fun playing football after all these years?
Yeah, I’m having fun. I always have fun. If I wasn’t having fun, I wouldn’t be playing. That’s how I live life. Have fun, worry about the other things later.