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.