When Willis McGahee arrived on the scene in Baltimore, many fans were excited about the versatility that he might bring to the offensive backfield, something that was missing during the days of Jamal Lewis.
McGahee’s first season with the team in 2007 was a bitterly disappointing one that included a nine game losing streak, an embarrassing loss to what would eventually be a (1-15) Dolphins team and an equally embarrassing (5-11) final record.
McGahee was one of the few bright spots during a very forgettable swan song season for former head coach Brian Billick.
In 2008 the Ravens ushered in the John Harbaugh era and with it the promise of an energized squad less concerned with individual star power and more concerned about sacrificing for the good of the team.
New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron expressed his excitement over coaching McGahee and putting his talents to work in a way that might remind observers of how Cameron once used Ladainian Tomlinson in San Diego.
Unfortunately for McGahee and the Ravens, that never happened.
The talented former Miami Hurricane wasn’t an enthusiastic participant in the team’s offseason conditioning program in ’08 and his level of attendance during organized team activities could hardly be described as stellar. When he reported to training camp he was by his own admission not in the best of shape. Making matters worse, a knee injury prevented him from working his way back into shape.
The player that Cam Cameron wanted to feature was soon the featured attraction in Harbaugh’s doghouse.
Fans labeled him a malcontent and many demanded that he be traded or released.
I never really viewed McGahee as a malcontent in the mold of Chris McAlister. I saw him as misunderstood and I based that opinion on the things he said, the things he didn’t say, the manner in which he carried himself and what I believed to be somewhat of a shy demeanor – hardly your stereotypical persona from the “U.”
In 2009 my opinion of McGahee was validated. He reported to camp in great shape and became a champion of the concept of “team.” He absolutely played like a Raven and walked and talked the company line. He seemed fully rejuvenated and willingly mentored the young player who stole his job – Ray Rice.
Fans who clamored for his exodus only one year earlier now vehemently defend the club’s decision to keep McGahee around despite an uncapped season that would allow the team to sever ties with him without any real measurable financial consequence. His productivity in a supporting role coupled with what fans believed to be a new attitude influenced the 180 degree shift in the court of public opinion.
So what really inspired the turnaround for McGahee?
Did he really change or did the perception of McGahee change?
To find out whom the man behind the Darth Vader-like helmet really is I reached out to the Ravens talented back to satisfy my own curiosities about McGahee and those of fans here in Baltimore.Tony Lombardi (“TL&rdquo: You’ve been a featured back your entire life. Do you prepare any differently mentally and/or physically in a non-featured role?
Willis McGahee (“WM&rdquo
: Not at all…my goal is to always give a hundred percent no matter what…on the field and off.TL: Specifically how might the additions of Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth help the offense?
WM: Anytime you can add quality players like that, especially mixing them in with a guy like Derrick [Mason], it’s only going to help the team get better….the more we can mix it up and confuse defenses, the better. With this running tandem and this receiving corps, opposing defenses will always need to be on their toes. TL: Some coaches will say that they need to find a way to get their best players on the field as often as possible. Could you envision a personnel grouping that includes you and Ray Rice on the field together? What is the plus side of that? The negative side?
WM: That’s definitely a question for the coaches! TL: Much was made about you being in John Harbaugh’s so-called doghouse. Did you ever feel like you where in that doghouse? If so what has changed since then and how is your relationship with him now?
WM: I don’t know what people are talking about when they say Harbaugh’s doghouse…I guess you’d have to ask him if he has one….and if I’m in it. TL: Talk about your relationship with Cam Cameron and RB coach Wilbert Montgomery?
WM: I have a lot of respect for those guys and I try to take as much experience from them as I possibly can. Coach Montgomery was obviously a brilliant RB and I’m fortunate to be able to benefit from his experiences on the field. TL: The offseason is filled with trade rumors and your name has come up often because you are still viewed as a starting running back with gas left in the tank. What does Willis McGahee want for the 2010 season?
WM: Well, I have no doubts I still have gas left in the tank. I’m healthier now than I’ve ever been. I know that inside I am still a starter-quality back without question. I just want to play and help my team get to a Super Bowl in whatever capacity I can. TL: Ravens fans harbor a great hatred for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Do the players feel that too? Do they share the feeling?
WM: The hate between Pittsburgh and Baltimore will always be there on the field where it’s all about winning….but off the field, we all actually get along. TL: If you were commissioner for a day, what would you change about the game?
WM: The touchback rule….if defensive team doesn’t recover a fumble in end zone they shouldn’t get possession of the ball. TL: How closely do you follow the NFL labor discussions and do you think a compromise will be reached between the union and the ownership prior to a 2011 lockout?
WM: That’s really a question for someone like Dominique Foxworth or Matt Stover….I don’t know, I hope it works out. I just want to play football. TL: Forgetting positions for a moment, who is the best pure football player in the NFL?
WM: Current Players? Maybe Peyton Manning. TL: What current Ravens offensive player could be an excellent defender?
WM: Le’ron McClain at LB. TL: What current Ravens defensive player could be an excellent offensive player?
WM: Haloti at fullback or tight end. TL: Rank the fans of Baltimore compared to other cities.
WM: There is no comparison. Pretty sure we have the most loyal, passionate fans….not to mention the loudest for sure.TL: Who is the meanest Raven on the field?
WM: The whole defense. TL: Which Raven is the biggest trash talker, Reed or Suggs?
WM: Trash talker? I guess I would say Suggs….but there’s a difference between being an arrogant trash talker and just having a confident swagger….which both of these guys definitely have. TL: If a fight broke out, which Raven do you most want on your side?
WM: Haloti or Sizzle, either one….as long as I’m not fighting against them, it’s all good! TL: Running backs hit the proverbial wall sooner than most other positions in the NFL and it seems to happen suddenly. What can an every down back do to extend his career and maintain a high level of performance on the field?
WM: Just try and stay as strong as possible even throughout the offseason, nutrition is key…there’s actually a new website where I’ll have my own blog about fitness, health and nutrition…it will be out in a few weeks. TL: Intense workouts increase appetites, how do you avoid pigging out after a big workout?
WM: Who says I avoid it?! Just kidding! After a workout I try to drink a lot of water which rehydrates me and takes the hunger edge off. After that I try to eat a good amount of protein and some whole grain pasta or brown rice to keep my energy levels high and fill me up so I can avoid making poor food choices.TL: What type of cardio workout do you prefer?
WM: I like the elliptical if I’m inside or at the gym…if I’m at home in Florida I like to do things to keep it interesting and mix it up a bit…things that work my muscles in different ways, too….like running sprints in the sand pits. TL: What physical activities would you suggest parents have their children engage in?
WM: Football, of course! Swimming is a great form of exercise and so are some of the “old fashioned” kinds of games I used to play as a kid…tag, a pick-up basketball or baseball game…anything that involves physical activity versus sitting in front of the TV. The great thing about kids is that they don’t make their exercise “structured.” They just have fun. Adults could take a good lesson from that! TL: Speaking of which, let’s tap into the inner child in you. What are your thoughts on the new WiiSport video games?
WM: I like WiiSport games… they can really make you break a sweat! It’s probably not good to make those your core fitness routine 100% but would be a great way to mix it up and add in some variety.TL: What word of advice would you give someone frustrated with their weight loss results?
WM: One word: Persistence. Don’t give up….losing weight slowly is better and a more effective way to keep it off but it can be frustrating at times. Just remember that even if you can’t see the results immediately, you are still making a huge difference in your overall health.TL: Besides a focus on healthier living and encouraging others to do the same, you are pretty busy in the community. Let’s talk about that for a bit and your efforts this past year. What 2009 charity contribution are you most proud of?
WM: Providing almost 500 families with a turkey and all the trimmings for Thanksgiving. Sometimes a family has to choose between a “luxury” like having a nice traditional Thanksgiving dinner or paying their heating bill or making a much needed home repair. I know I can’t save the world, but I’d like to think that I made those choices easier for a few families this Thanksgiving. TL: Is there one unforgettable moment that you experienced during any of your charity events?
WM: I partnered with kids from a local middle school to collect canned food for my Annual Food Drive and told them the class that collected the most food would get a pizza party…one 7th grader said to me that he was going to collect as much as he could…not to win the pizza party but because he saw how I give back to the community and he wants to do the same thing….he gets it! And that makes all the hard work worthwhile. My goal has always been to not only help families and disadvantaged/at-risk youth but to raise awareness and set a good example as well…mission being accomplished! TL: With respect to your charitable work, what is your true mission?
WM: All the support I provide to families (food, toys, educations materials) is temporary but my real mission is to make a more permanent difference by raising awareness in the community about others’ needs and to help empower children and foster their self esteem by letting them know I was just like them when I was a child; that they should never give up on their dreams because if they stay in school and work hard, they have the ability to do anything they want in life. TL: It’s been said that it doesn’t matter what car you drive, how big your house is or your bank account. What matters most in life is if you’ve made a difference in the life of a child. Your thoughts on that…
WM: You know, it’s funny...with my foundation, it all happened kind of by accident. It was something I always wanted to do but then a fan challenged me (on the air!) to do something for the community so that year I held my first toy giveaway for less fortunate kids. To be honest, the morning of the event, I didn’t feel like getting up at the crack of dawn on my day off and driving there but after being there and seeing how those kids reacted…there is just no feeling like it in the world. Since then, giving back has become an absolute passion for me. I am so blessed to be in the position where I can do that.TL: Great stuff Willis! Let’s get back to some lighter football and personal things. If you could play another position what would it be?
WM: The other position I would play is safety or DB just because I have the attitude and the ability to play. TL: What little known fact about Willis McGahee would surprise your fans?
WM: That I’m really shy. TL: What do you consider your most outstanding athletic achievement?
WM: Rehabbing from my knee injury in college and coming back the way I did and leading Miami to an undefeated year in 2002…that was a great year. TL: No one could ever doubt your determination and focus following that horrific injury! What is your most outstanding achievement in life?
WM: My kids are my biggest achievement, then football. TL: After football, what would you like to do and how are you preparing for that?
WM: Definitely want to own my own business…maybe a hotel or nightclub…or both. I’m staying smart with my finances, investing wisely and I try to network with investors and business executives. TL: If you could play another sport which would you choose?
WM: Baseball…just because I've played and should’ve followed through with it in school and been an all around guy.TL: Of all the Ravens players from the “U” which is the smartest?
WM: We are all too smart for our own good (laughing)TL: The best athlete?
WM: Ray LewisTL: Worst golfer?
WM: Why do you keep asking me the worst?! How about the BEST golfer? That would be Ed.TL: Ok, best bowler?
WM: ME! (Ray Lewis would say that it’s him, but nope!)TL: I would ask worst dancer so since you won’t answer that, who’s the best?
WM: Well, me and T-Good are probably tied for the BEST!TL: Fastest?
WM: EdTL: Ok I just have to ask, who’s the worst singer?
WM: The best singer is T-Good…don’t know who the worst would be. He’s the best freestyle rapper too!TL: Shifting gears again, who was your role model growing up?
WM: My mom.TL: What three CDs would I find you listening to in your car?
WM: Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne are three, but I have a ton of all kinds of music on CD/iPod. You’ll never find me without my music. TL: Who or what motivates you?
WM: My family…my mom and my kids…everything I do, I do with them in mind.TL: Any hidden talents you think the world should know about?
WM: I can sing and rap.TL: Players get ready for games in any number of ways but one of the most popular is to see them listening to ipods. Any pre-game rituals for you?
WM: I listen to Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight" …last song I listen to before the game.TL: When your days as a Baltimore Ravens are over, how would most want to be remembered by Ravens fans?
WM: I’d like them to remember me as a quiet, lead by example, humble, hard working guy.
Based upon the following awards that McGahee has quietly received, he’s well on his way to being remembered as he hopes…
Recipient of the “Celebrating Successes for Children” award
Recipient of the Holland 2009 Humanitarian of the Year Award
Received Honorary Resolution from the Howard County Government
Certificate of Special Recognition from United States Senator John Sarbanes
Executive Proclamation from Howard County Executive Proclaiming October 8, 2009 Willis McGahee Day in Howard County
Letter of Recognition from United States Senator Barbara Mikulski
State of Maryland Proclamation from Governor Martin O’Malley
Certificate of Special Recognition on Occasion of 2nd Annual Food Drive from United States Senator Barbara MikulskiClick here to order Willis McGahee's proCane Rookie Card.