Toasting McGahee's big return

The Baltimore Sun

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- This was not your typical Phillips-Juraska family reunion.

How many reunions do you know that feature a football jersey being burned to a crisp?

Then again, the return of running back Willis McGahee yesterday to Ralph Wilson Stadium in a Ravens uniform had that kind of tone.

In Lot 2, an old No. 21 jersey was spread out on the ground, with a piece of wood acting as a hanger.

"Willis on a stick," said Matt Phillips, who grew up in Parkville and organized the trip up from Baltimore with his wife, the former Kathy Juraska, his sister Jacky, and their father, Jack.

Phillips, who works for a Homeland Security firm in Northern Virginia, was wearing the jersey of injured Ravens quarterback Steve McNair. His sister was wearing that of her favorite Raven, injured tight end Todd Heap.

They thought better than bringing a No. 23 Ravens jersey to Buffalo, at least if they didn't want to get injured.

Or worse.

"We didn't want to get burned in effigy," said Jack Phillips, who works for Toyota in Bel Air.

When Matt and Kathy Phillips met, she told him she was a Bills fan.

"I told her that as long as she wasn't a Steelers fan or a Yankees fan, it's not a deal-breaker," Matt Phillips recalled.

"He didn't know about the Yankees until a long time later," Jim Juraska said with a laugh.

Juraska, a long-suffering Bills fan from nearby Tonawanda said he had mixed emotions about seeing McGahee leave, even though the trade brought current Bills starting quarterback Trent Edwards with a third-round draft choice.

"They invested a lot in him, with the first-round pick, especially with his knee being the way it was," Juraska said. "The capacity for him to get better and better was there."

The attention McGahee's return generated in the local media this week "detracted from their quarterback situation," Juraska said. "The less they focus on the Bills and their quarterback woes and the more they focus on the Ravens and McGahee, the healthier they are. After the game, it won't matter."

It certainly mattered yesterday to Lauren Gaffney, who was part of the Lot 2 tailgating party and donated her old McGahee jersey to the impromptu on-the-cement barbecue.

It also mattered to Ben and Valerie Vetter, who recently moved back to the area after living in Baltimore for 10 years. Valerie Vetter wore one of her old McGahee jerseys and stenciled "McGahee is a jerk" on the back in silver. What she stenciled on the front could not be printed in a family newspaper.

But it wasn't anything new. Wearing the jersey of ex-Bills has become a habit.

"It seems like every jersey we buy ... we have to trade out," Ben Vetter said.

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