DENVER — It all started nearly 10 years ago when Willis McGahee went crashing to the turf in the Fiesta Bowl.
Since then, he has kept a running tally on how many times he has been written off.
“About eight or nine times,’’ said the Denver Broncos running back. “Since I’ve been coming into the (NFL), I’ve been written off. I’ve been written off ever since that (Fiesta Bowl).’’
That was the Jan. 3, 2003, game in which the then-Miami Hurricanes star tore three ligaments in his left knee in a 31-24 overtime loss to Ohio State for the national title. The injury resulted in McGahee missing all of the 2003 season after being drafted in the first round by the Buffalo Bills.
McGahee soon bounced back with a pair of 1,000-yard rushing seasons and a 990-yard one for the Bills and a 1,200-yard campaign for the Baltimore Ravens. But then it was a return to being written off again.
McGahee looked close to being done when he was a relegated to mostly backup duty for three straight seasons in Baltimore, culminating with a meager 380-yard rushing effort in 2010. McGahee then signed with the Denver Broncos, and many thought he would be playing out the string.
McGahee ran last season for 1,199 yards. That was despite missing one game because of injury and gaining only three yards in the opener, when he was a backup.
So you would think McGahee would have mostly believers now. He doesn’t think so.
“People say I can’t do this because I’m 30 years old,’’ said the Miami native, who turns 31 in October. “It motivates me. It makes me work a little bit harder. That puts fuel to the fire. That keeps me going. People are always doubting me.’’
For the first time since 2008, when he was the Ravens’ top guy before eventually losing time to Ray Rice, McGahee will head into a season as a starting running back. And there’s no reason to think he can’t have another big season.
With Peyton Manning having replaced the often-erratic Tim Tebow as Denver’s starting quarterback, defenses won’t be able to key as much on McGahee as they did last season. He still responded in 2011 with seven 100-yard rushing games.
“I thought he stepped in last year and did a tremendous job,’’ said Broncos coach John Fox. “He’s come (into training camp) in great shape, and I look for him to build on top of that and have a bigger season.’’
McGahee is planning on doing just that, although he’s not going overboard with his goals.
“My thing is to be better than I did last year,’’ said McGahee, whose 7,366 career rushing yards ranks him 49th in NFL history and third among active backs, trailing St. Louis’ Steven Jackson and San Francisco’s Frank Gore, his former Hurricanes teammate. “I had 1,199. I want 1,200.’’
That would give McGahee a third season of 1,200 or batter. He racked up 1,247 for Buffalo in 2005 and 1,207 for the Ravens in 2007.
But after that big 2007 season, John Harbaugh replaced Brian Billick as Baltimore’s coach. And McGahee soon found himself replaced by Rice as the primary back.
McGahee obviously wasn’t enthralled at the time. But looking back, he sees a positive in his 2-1/2 seasons spent in a reserve role. He says it kept tread wear off him.
“I didn’t have to rotate my tires,’’ McGahee said. “I still got the same old tires. I got the same body. I didn’t have that much wear and tear, like every other back has.’’
For that reason, McGahee jokes that, even if his birth certificate reads Oct. 21, 1981, he’s actually in his late 20s. His teammates buy that logic.
“He’s (going to be) 31, but you can’t really tell,’’ said Broncos wide receiver and former Florida star Andre Caldwell. “He looks like a guy coming into the league.’’
Perhaps that why McGahee doesn’t talk about playing until a certain age but uses how many total seasons he seeks to log. He wants to remain in the NFL through 2017.
“I’m going for 15,’’ said McGahee, who counts the injury-missed 2003 season as his first. “That’s the goal.’’
If McGahee does end up lasting that long, the number of times he’s written off could climb well into double figures.