The tears did not escape former Ravens running back Willis McGahee’s eyes, but it was a close one, he said after he announced his retirement as a Raven on Friday.
The two-time Pro Bowler’s original plan was to “wing it,” but as he stood there listening to Ravens coach John Harbaugh speak, it struck him how grateful he was.
McGahee, who spent four of his 10 NFL seasons with the Ravens, had to pause as he faced Harbaugh to thank him for molding him into the person and player he is.
After spending time with the Denver Broncos, the Cleveland Browns and the Buffalo Bills, McGahee chose to retire as a Raven because of his connection with the organization.
“I chose Baltimore to be my home because it was more family-like,” McGahee said. He attributed that to Harbaugh, who he said came in and was like a dad to the players, from the way he pushed them to show up early to the bed checks at night.
McGahee, 37, especially remembers the bed checks.
“He came in my room plenty of times,” McGahee said, laughing. “I know he didn’t check everybody’s rooms, but he checked my room for sure.”
McGahee said Harbaugh taught him the phrase, “Put it on my back, Coach. I can take the load.”
Harbaugh arrived in 2008, the year after McGahee signed with the Ravens and had his first Pro Bowl season.
Harbaugh said when he had the opportunity to coach for Baltimore, he checked out the roster to see who was on the team.
“There were iconic players,” Harbaugh said. “And I checked the offense, who’s the running back? It’s Willis McGahee.”
Harbaugh took the opportunity and turned it into the family McGahee chose to retire with, over his three other teams, including the Bills, with whom he started his career and played three seasons.
Harbaugh said he valued the time he got to watch the way McGahee worked and interacted with other players.
“The best part about it was handing him the ball,” Harbaugh said.
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McGahee rushed for 2,802 yards and 31 touchdowns with the Ravens, which ranks third in franchise history behind Jamal Lewis and Ray Rice.
There’s one run Harbaugh said he would never forget — McGahee’s run in Texas Stadium on the final game before it closed.
McGahee’s 77-yard touchdown, followed by Le’Ron McClain’s 82-yard touchdown, ruined the Dallas Cowboys’ finale in what had been their home stadium since 1971.
When McGahee was handed the ball on that play, he told himself all he had to do was get past the line of scrimmage. After he slipped between two blocks, he saw Zach Thomas and just thought “no way in hell he’s going to tackle me.”
He got by him, and as he made it into the end zone, McGahee turned and flexed at all the Cowboys legends watching.
The missing part of the story, McGahee said, was he was supposed to be the running back on McClain’s run, which led to the 33-24 win, but he said, “Nah, I got a good average. Let Le’Ron take it.”
“And I’ll be damned. His run was longer than mine,” McGahee laughed.