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Facing down his critics

His eyes focused straight ahead, Willis McGahee is running.

That might not sound significant, but you have to realize that the past few years, McGahee spent March traveling - Korea, Switzerland, Italy - and waited until mid-April before beginning his offseason conditioning. "This year [is] different," he says.So here is McGahee, in March, circling the track at Northwestern High in Liberty City. If you focus on the right arm swinging frantically at his side, the two images blur together, flickering like something in a flip book. But if you could somehow slow down this scene and zoom in, you'd notice how different the alternating images really are.

On his right forearm, a tattoo of a theater mask, its clownish features stretched into a huge grin. "The good," McGahee reads, drawing a finger over the script lettering. And on the other side of his arm, another mask, one that looks much more devious and diabolical. "The bad."

And this is the enigma of McGahee, running straight ahead and into the future, two radically different possibilities advertised in ink on either side of his arm. For him, artistic adornment is just a peek into his playful personality, not a moral verdict, an athletic judgment or a true illustration of character.

But for the Ravens, a team wagering $40 million that McGahee can carry them deeper into the playoff promised land, the masks are a looming question mark: When McGahee stops running - when he arrives in Baltimore with expectations that for now dwarf his accomplishments - which will the Ravens get?

The good or the bad?

Happy to leave

Last season ended and McGahee left Buffalo, N.Y., immediately. "I couldn't wait to get out of there," the running back says. He rushed home to Miami and left his visiting mother in Buffalo to tie up loose ends. McGahee had no doubt that his time with the Bills was over, even though another year remained on his contract.

Ten weeks later, his agent called and told McGahee a trade to Baltimore was complete. "I was yelling and [stuff], running through the whole house, screaming, `Yes! Yes!'" he says. "It was such a relief."

If joining the Ravens is really a new chapter, as McGahee calls it, then reviewing the past couple of chapters - first in Miami, where he was born and raised and attended college, and then Buffalo, where he was drafted to play in 2003 - presents an awkward contradiction of character. It sounds almost like identity theft. The McGahee they embrace in Miami is not the one they describe in Buffalo.

Buffalo News columnist Bob DiCesare likened the recent trade to "purging the rot" and wrote in January that McGahee was "embarrassing the franchise and the community at every turn."

"McGahee has worn out his welcome in this town," DiCesare wrote, using far friendlier language than many Bills fans.

"That's just crazy to me," says McGahee's former high school coach, Tim "Ice" Harris. "Based on the time I spent with him, it's difficult for me to understand why they'd think that."

And says Don Soldinger, his position coach at the University of Miami: "Those things people talk about him, I never saw any of that."

In Miami, they remember the hardest-working player they'd ever seen, a young man who never found himself in trouble, always spoke respectfully and understood his role perfectly. In Buffalo, however, they speak of a player with poor work ethic, who fathered three children out of wedlock in less than two years and publicly suggested the Bills abandon Buffalo and move to Canada.

"I've grown a whole lot," McGahee says. "It doesn't feel like it's been five years since college. Coming from Miami, I was used to partying, going out, just having something to do every night. Restaurants, whatever. Going to Buffalo, it was like hitting a brick wall. Like, `Damn!' Can't go out, can't do nothing. There's an Applebee's, a TGI Friday's, and they just got a Dave & Busters. They got that, and I'm like, `What the?' And, you know, the women ...

"You see, when I was in college that's what I used to thrive off of," the 25-year-old says. "The better you do, the more fame you get. So you know, it was like, I was used to that. And then you get to Buffalo and no matter how you do, it's the same. It's no big city. You know what I did every day? I came home and played video games."

His disenchantment seeped onto the football field. He was running behind a poor offensive line, with an inexperienced quarterback and an ineffective passing game. Opposing defenses would take advantage and build an impenetrable wall of eight or nine defenders. The result: After scoring 13 touchdowns in 2004, McGahee combined for just 11 the next two seasons. And after running for 1,247 yards in 2005, he finished last season with 990. Last season he had just four runs of 20 or more yards.

"He played hard for us and he did a nice job for us," Bills coach Dick Jauron said. "Once again, it just comes back to the fact you look at the whole thing and look at the overview and feel like [the trade] is the best thing for us."

Though McGahee wasn't surrounded by the best talent in Buffalo, motivation seems to have been a problem at times. He'll readily admit that he didn't step into a leadership role, even though Bills coaches asked him to be more vocal.

"I'm shy, to tell you the truth," McGahee says. "I'm not really the type of person to be all yelling, `We need to do this, we need to do that.' I went to the University of Miami. We know how to play. You don't need to yell at me to tell me to do something. Just tell me, and I'll go ahead and do it.

"I wasn't, I guess, a team leader. But if you aren't happy, you're just going to do your own job and don't worry about nothing else. They asked. But that isn't like me to be trying to get other grown men fired up. They know what they got to do."

McGahee says that he knows he's joining a Ravens locker room that has many natural leaders and says he hopes to be able to focus more on his role in the offense.

Those who know McGahee best say he's not just a different player than he was coming out of college, but a different man. Robert Bailey is a fellow former Hurricane who played for six NFL teams in 11 seasons, including the 2000 Ravens. "When he first got in the league, he was like a puppy," says Bailey, who does some work for McGahee's agent, Drew Rosenhaus. "Now he wants be one of the big dogs and he knows that means he has to act like a big dog."

His paternity problems have become a punch line on blogs and message boards, but McGahee doesn't pay any attention to it. "They're on the outside looking in," he says. "They don't know me or my kids."

In January, Chiniqua Smith, a 26-year-old schoolteacher, told The Miami Herald that McGahee is a "great person at heart. Once he gets his act together and finally decides to be a man and step up to the plate, he'll be a wonderful person.

"You cannot hold a gun to someone's head and say, `Come see your son' or `Spend time with your son,' " she said. "You can't do it, and I'm not going to try."

The words stung McGahee's family then, and they still sting. It was a sensational and unfair portrayal, they say, of McGahee as a dad.

What no one denies is this: three women, three children. In less than two years.

It sounds a bit shocking, but McGahee tries to make one thing clear: "I take care of my kids," he says. He pays for them. He visits with them. They're a part of his family, he says, even if they weren't planned.

"The three of my boys I preached, no outside kids," says Jannie Jones, McGahee's mother. "You don't want anyone raising your children like I had to raise you guys - they all had different fathers. I said you want to be in the home with your children, so don't have any kids until you're married. Well, you know how it went. ... Willis started college, he listened and nothing happened. But the minute it was the NFL, I didn't have any control. And he is such a - how can I say this? - he trusts people. And girls would tell him, `I use birth control pills' and this and that.

"But I don't blame them as much as I blame him. Because I told him, `Protect yourself.' The NFL teaches that [at rookie orientation]. I told him, `Protect yourself, don't believe what they tell you.' But ... "

McGahee didn't grow up with a full-time father figure. He saw his birth father, also named Willis, only occasionally, had two older brothers (though one, Kishara Anderson, died of colon cancer in 1992), and knew plenty of football and track coaches. But the example of parenthood was set by Jannie Jones.

"We never had a problem with Willis," says Soldinger, the former Miami assistant, "but if you ever did, you knew to go right to Willis' mom."

Jones raised three boys alone, driving buses for Miami-Dade Transit. She worked many nights but still found time to watch her sons' football games. She moved McGahee to Central High for his senior year, which put him on Florida's football map, and then hand-picked the University of Miami. And when McGahee was frustrated with his playing time there and wanted to transfer, it was Jones who put her foot down.

And now, she's again giving her son a lesson in parenthood.

"I had a heart-to-heart with him after the first [child], after the second one and after the third one," Jones says. "And I told him, no more. Because I'm the one that has to deal with all this. Anything goes wrong, `Momma, this and that, could you, would you.'

"Willis isn't ready for a wife. He's not even ready for kids. But he does spend time with them. I call him, `Willis, the kids are over here,' and he comes."

The Play

Eugene Poole can count on one hand how many times he's seen The Play. "I know it's all over the Internet," says Poole, McGahee's brother, "but I just can't really watch it."

The Play stands as one of the most grotesque sports injuries caught on camera and still defines McGahee as much as any on-field accomplishment. In the fourth quarter of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, McGahee took a forearm to the knee and his leg bent the wrong way. He tore a good chunk of the alphabet - his ACL, MCL and PCL - essentially all of the connective tissue in his knee.

With his football future in question, McGahee's rehabilitation shocked even the optimists. Five months later, he put on a display for pro scouts, squatting 225 pounds and running without a limp. Most agree that he's different now, but what's still debated is just how good of a runner emerged from that operating table.

"He's changed his running style entirely since college. At Miami, they overpowered people and he was a speed guy who just had to hit the hole and run away from people," says Mark Kelso, the Bills' radio analyst who played with the team from 1986 to 1993. "But after the knee injury, he had to change his style quite a bit and he went through some growing pains. Now it's a matter of [him] knowing how and when to hit the hole."

The 1 1/2 years between his final college game and his first professional one make it easy for McGahee to dismiss his critics, especially those who question his work ethic.

"They don't know what I've been through," McGahee says. "They weren't there when I was rehabbing every day of the week, six hours a day. They're on the outside looking in. So they can have their opinions. I don't care what they think."

It's that period that McGahee's family feels is most telling about what kind of competitor McGahee is. He was staying with his grandmother at the time, but practically living at the small gym his brother ran in Opa-Locka, Fla.

"It was just a regular place, people from the neighborhood," said Poole, 35, who devised a workout scheme that had McGahee pulling trucks and carrying tree trunks. "There was a lot of trash-talking, people pushing each other. You couldn't slack because you'd get called on it. That's how you motivate Willis."

Kelso says McGahee's work ethic was drawn into question when he refused to attend voluntary offseason workouts with the Bills, preferring to train in Miami. Coaches pleaded, but he wouldn`t budge.

"It's not that I didn't want to work out," says McGahee, who's planning on attending the Ravens' voluntary workouts this spring. "I just didn't want to do it in Buffalo."

Poole says you have to make it clear to his brother exactly what he's working for. When he was rehabbing his knee, Poole repeatedly reminded McGahee that many doubted he'd play football again. And now, when the brothers lift weights and talk about a new chapter, Poole barks at McGahee: "The Bills think they got the best end of the deal! They say you're a worn-out product! They say you got nothing!"

"The Buffalo fans have motivated him," Poole says. "And I'm definitely using it."

`Off the charts'

A red carpet basically ran from Soldinger's University of Miami office to the NFL. In 16 seasons, he sent nearly a dozen running backs to the league - names such as Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Frank Gore. He says that McGahee is physically the most gifted of the bunch. "He's off the charts," Soldinger says. "He could run, he's super strong, super fast. And a great kid."

And if anyone ever suggests that McGahee's not the best, he'll work to prove them wrong. "He's an alpha male, for sure," Soldinger says. "He wants to be the man."

But to help him get to that point, to make McGahee flexible, a coach apparently has to be flexible, too. McGahee doesn't always respond to simple orders.

"He's the type of guy who always has to have things his own way, always thinks he has everything covered," Soldinger said. "But as long as you take him through it, explain it to him, that's how you handle him. He's funny in that regards. We butted heads some until he realized I knew what I was talking about."

When McGahee was younger and his mother was working nights, he and his brothers spent a lot of their time with their grandmother, Thelma Jones. She says she could always see the competitive drive in McGahee, whether it was playing video games or racing neighborhood children in the street.

"He had his way of doing things," she says. "Once he set his mind to do something, he was going to do it that way. He sometimes doesn't like to be told by some people what to do. I know Willis has to have a challenge. That's what makes him move."

It's why he realized the limitations in Buffalo and also why he says he'll thrive in Baltimore. McGahee needs a goal, but he also needs to be invested in that goal.

"He always needed to know what he was working for," said Harris, who coached McGahee at Central High and is now the head coach at Miami's Booker T. Washington High. "I remember when we'd be lifting, and he'd sit back and watch. He'd wait for the highest bench and then - wham - beat it. Then he'd wait for the highest clean and then - wham - beat it. He's motivated by beating other people."

And proving others wrong. There's a tattoo on the left side of his neck that illustrates that. He got the ink after recovering from the knee injury. "Guess who's back," the script lettering reads.

Looking back on the past few years, McGahee says he already regards his time with the Bills as more of a bridge, taking him from an injury that threatened his career to Baltimore.

He has announced a few times that he thinks he's one of the best running backs in the NFL, and he really believes it. But McGahee also realizes he hasn't proved it yet.

"I always knew from the beginning I could do a lot more," he says. "I just didn't know I had to go somewhere else to do it."

Starting out right

Just four days after the trade, after agreeing to a contract that makes him one of the game's five highest-paid running backs, McGahee works his way around the track at Northwestern High. Derek Ford, McGahee's running coach for more than a decade, holds a stopwatch and calls out a time whenever McGahee trots by.

"I want to make sure I get off on the right foot in Baltimore," McGahee says. "Everything is new. New coaching staff, new teammates. It's like being drafted all over again."

It won't be hard to distance himself from Buffalo. He says anything he owns with the Bills logo will be either given away or thrown away. "We Ravens now," he says.

There are no clouds in the sky, but a light drizzle falls, mixing in with the sweat that coats McGahee's shirtless frame. Tattoo ink decorates his neck, shoulders and arms, and that flickering image of theater masks on his arm shines under the moisture.

The good? Or the bad? Miami knows one, Buffalo thinks it knows another.

But in Baltimore, there will be no masks, and McGahee says, no lingering doubts as to just who he really is.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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