If South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore is looking for a symbol, Denver Broncos running back Willis McGahee is his man. If Lattimore is looking for some words of sympathy or wisdom from McGahee, he's going to be disappointed.
"What for? So people can feel sorry for you? That don't work," said McGahee, who is roughly two months away from the 10th anniversary of a knee injury that was similarly ugly to the one Lattimore suffered last Saturday.
Lattimore dislocated his knee and suffered ligament damage when he was hit during South Carolina's win over Tennessee. So ends, for now, the career of one of the most promising players in college.
In January 2003 while playing for the University of Miami, McGahee tore three ligaments in his knee during the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. McGahee was projected to be a top five draft pick in the NFL. He still ended up a first-round pick (No. 23 overall) after doing extensive rehab work on the knee and getting an assist from agent Drew Rosenhaus. McGahee didn't actually play again until the 2004 season, but he has had a far more successful career than anyone could have ever imagined.
More successful than even he imagined.
With 554 yards through seven games, McGahee is well on his way to back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons after the age of 30. He would join a very small fraternity to achieve the feat, including Curtis Martin, Tiki Barber, Thomas Jones and John Riggins. Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton, the top two rushers in league history, each did it three consecutive years after their 30th birthdays.
"At first, I said I wanted to make it eight seasons," said McGahee, who discounts some of his accomplishment because he only played part-time in 2009 and 2010 when he was with the Baltimore Ravens. "Then, when I made it eight, I wanted to make 10."
Now that he has made 10, what's the next goal?
"I'm going to play as long as they'll have me. I'm going to write my own history books," he said with a laugh.
[More Marcus Lattimore's injury shows why a four-team college playoff is enough]
But playing this long has been a serious task for McGahee. It's been a combination of physical maintenance and mental approach that started practically the minute after he got hurt.
"I just wanted family around me, no outsiders," McGahee said, explaining that keeping out the sorrow and compassion was critical to his recovery. For him to get better, he needed determination, not compassion. That's why when asked if he would send Lattimore a note of encouragement, McGahee seemed almost insulted by the idea.
"When I got hurt, I didn't want to hear from anybody outside of my family," he said. "The only thing I can do is show him it can be done. Look at me, I did it.
Vick Ballard at Tennessee
For 10 consecutive road games, the Indianapolis Colts tried – and failed – to win away from Lucas Oil Stadium. Thanks to the efforts of running back Vick Ballard, the Colts finally snapped that ugly streak last Sunday
In overtime against AFC South Division rival Tennessee, Ballard caught a pass from rookie quarterback Andrew Luck at the Titans' 21-yard line and took off down the sideline. As defenders closed in on him, the rookie from Mississippi State took to the air, leaping from the 4-yard-line. Cornerback Ryan Mouton hit Ballard's hip, sending Ballard into an upside-down Superman pose as he soared toward the goal line. He held on to the ball – even as free safety Michael Griffin drilled him in midair – keeping it inside the pylon for a thrilling touchdown and a 19-13 win.
Ballard's heroics gave the Colts their first road victory since beating the Raiders in Oakland on Dec. 26, 2010, and it gave the young rebuilding team a surprising 4-3 record -- just two games behind the Houston Texans in the AFC South.
– Eric Ivie
"What was anybody going to say? 'Oh, sorry, you were such a great back, that's too bad.' You don't want to hear people feel sorry for you. I needed to focus on getting back, getting my knee right."
McGahee continues to perform with classic motivation. He loves doubters. He loves to hear people say that he can't or won't do something. In training camp, he joked about his draft status in fantasy football.
"I don't want anybody to pick me in the first or second round. No, don't pick me until like the 30th running back. Then watch me," he said. The same attitude continues as the season unfolds. McGahee remembers what ESPN analyst Skip Bayless said last year when McGahee was on his way to 1,199 yards.
"Bayless said it was all because of Tim Tebow," the running back recalls. "If the defense wasn't paying attention to Tim so much, I wouldn't be doing anything."
McGahee then let out a low, knowing chuckle. He hasn't gotten here by accident; he just overcame one in the process.
"I take care of my legs all the time: squats, leg press, leg extensions. Your legs are your money," he said.
Along the way, he has, for the most part, cut out red meat, soda and sweets. He might have a soda once a month. When his sugar craving gets too strong, he goes straight for the hard stuff:
"Yeah, Nerds," McGahee said, referring to a candy usually reserved for the under-10 set of America. "I might do that once in a great while. I had to cut out Honey Buns, too, for the most part. I used to have one of those every single day when I was at the University of Miami. Every day."
But sometimes things change and the sweets have to go.
Right along with the sorrow.
1. Atlanta Falcons (7-0): When you give up more yards per play (5.7) than you average (5.6), it's hard to keep winning on a consistent basis.
2. New York Giants (6-2): This is the best fourth-quarter team in football, bar none. But is that enough?
3. Chicago Bears (6-1): Pass defense got exposed a bit against Carolina. Very fortunate to win that game.
4. San Francisco 49ers (6-2): Yeah, yeah, QB Alex Smith had a nice game Monday night. But I'm not impressed.
5. Houston Texans (6-1): They should roll to AFC's No. 1 seed, but Denver will be chasing them if there's a hiccup.
28. Cleveland Browns (2-6): Yeah, yeah, they won last week. But beating the Chargers isn't exactly a historic triumph.
29. New Orleans Saints (2-5): Opposing QBs have combined for a 110.6 rating, 9.1 yards per attempt against Saints' D. Wow.
30. Carolina Panthers (1-6): This is not a great team, but it should be way better than this ranking. Just needs some luck.
31. Kansas City Chiefs (1-6): How bad is the minus-18 turnover ratio? Dallas is next at minus-11. KC is almost 70 percent worse.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6): Racing for the No. 1 pick in a year when there's no obvious choice at the top. Ugh.
THIS AND THAT
• How little respect do the undefeated Falcons get? The Falcons are a four-point favorite this week at home against a 3-4 Dallas Cowboys team that has the second-worst turnover ratio in the league. Meanwhile, 5-3 Green Bay is a 10-point favorite over 4-4 Arizona and 6-1 Houston is an 11-point favorite against 3-4 Buffalo. Even 4-4 Seattle is a bigger favorite (five points) against a 5-3 Minnesota team. Sure, when it comes to betting, there are a lot more factors involved, but those are still some truly stunning numbers.
• Wait a second, a New York Jets quarterback is dating a starlet and it's not Mark Sanchez? What the heck is the world coming to? At least it's good to know that Camilla Belle appears to be a girl of virtue. No brazen hussies for Tim Tebow.
• Speaking of Tebow, I always find it amusing when people talk about trading a quarterback in the middle of the season, thinking that guy will turn a team around quickly. If you didn't learn from the Oakland Raiders' trade for Carson Palmer last season, grasp this as quickly as possible: It's nearly impossible to integrate a quarterback into an offense in the middle of a season.
[More: Bucs inject life into trade deadline by dealing Aqib Talib to New England]
• Despite pushing the NFL trade deadline back by two weeks this season (and an additional two days because of Hurricane Sandy), there still wasn't much talk out there. However, there was a reason this season, said one general manager: "Look at the standings this year. Twenty-two of thirty-two teams have between three and five wins. You only have four or five teams that are really out of it right now and I'll bet you the Saints don't even really think they're out of it yet. Nobody is really looking to trade away a player because they still think they have a real shot." That's particularly true in the AFC, where 12 of 16 teams are between three and five wins.
• While the AFC South may have the best team in the conference (Houston) and one of the more compelling stories in football (the rise of the Indianapolis Colts after letting go of Peyton Manning and dealing with the illness of coach Chuck Pagano), there is still a staggering stat to consider: The four teams in the division have been outscored by a total of 127 points this season. The next worst division for being outscored is the AFC West at 75. Only two other divisions (the AFC North and the NFC East) have been outscored for the season.
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