MIAMI—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."