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."