Willis McGahee would have been one of the first five players chosen in the NFL draft in April and commanded a contract in the tens of millions of dollars, executives from several teams said yesterday. Instead, the knee injury suffered by the University of Miami running back in the Fiesta Bowl last week postponed those hopes.
But when former Miami star running back Melvin Bratton visited McGahee in the hospital yesterday on the day after reconstructive surgery, he told McGahee to be more determined than despondent.
"He's in real good spirits," Bratton said. "He's already moving his leg."
McGahee took out a $2.5 million insurance policy two weeks before he was injured in the Fiesta Bowl and can collect after a year if the injury prevents him from returning to football, a Florida newspaper reported.
Insurance agent Keith Lerner of Gainesville told Florida Today that the policy was signed and put into effect just prior to the national championship game, the newspaper said in a story for today's editions.
If McGahee does not play again, he'll get $2.5 million minus taxes, Lerner said. He said McGahee will be eligible to collect Jan. 3, 2004 -- one year from the date of the injury.
Until the injury, McGahee was expected to declare for the draft this winter. Under NFL rules, McGahee, a redshirt sophomore, could not have been drafted until after he was three years beyond graduating from high school. McGahee's injury, at a time when other pro sports routinely draft players out of high school, isn't likely to change that rule, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.
"We think that's in the best interests of everyone involved, the colleges, the players and the NFL," Aiello said.
"Physically, I think it's the right thing to do," NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw said. "But you could also get hurt in high school ball. Everyone says this [three-year] rule is bad, but this kid could have gotten hurt any step of the way. These kids need an education more than they do football. They are physically not ready to come into the league. Look how tough it is for guys who have played five or six years in the NFL. I'd like to keep the rule just the way it is now."
Said Houston General Manager Charley Casserly: "I think it's a positive rule. I've always felt kids should stay for all their eligibility. It's about maturity -- physically and mentally."
John Butler, general manager of the San Diego Chargers, said he had mixed feelings about the three-year rule. He deals on an almost daily basis with college coaches and their staffs "and a lot of these guys are friends of mine who are trying to make a living. If we take their kids, it gets very hard for them.
"On the other hand, we're in a business now, and if there was a kid you thought could do it, you still can't take him. There are people who believe it's foolish not to take that kid, and that it would hurt your football team if you didn't."
Bratton knows all about how an injury late in a college career can ruin pro dreams. He was Miami's star running back when he tore three knee ligaments in the 1988 Orange Bowl. He was drafted in the sixth round by the Miami Dolphins that year but didn't sign and went back into the draft and was selected in the seventh round by the Denver Broncos the following year. He cobbled together an NFL career but never was the star he was projected to be.
"In my mind, I was the same player," said Bratton, a former scout for the Washington Redskins who runs his own business in Miami. "But really I wasn't. There's always that question: What could I have done if I hadn't gotten hurt?"
Bratton says his injury cost him about $6 million. His former agent, the late Robert Fraley, discussed a possible five-year, $6 million contract with one NFL team before the game in which he got hurt, he said. He ended up receiving a $175,000 signing bonus from the Broncos, inflated because Fraley also represented Dan Reeves, then Denver's coach.
The stakes are even higher for McGahee, given the escalation of NFL players' salaries. Executives from several NFL teams said yesterday that McGahee might have been drafted by the Detroit Lions with the second overall choice or the Houston Texans with the third pick. Some scouts believed he had the potential to emulate another great Miami back's impact as a professional -- Edgerrin James of the Indianapolis Colts.
The second player drafted last April, North Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers, signed a seven-year, $46 million contract with the Carolina Panthers that included a $9.1 million signing bonus and a $4.05 million option bonus in 2003. The third player selected, Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington, signed a six-year, $36.5 million deal with the Lions that included a signing and option bonuses totaling about $15.4 million.
"It cost him $12 [million] or $13 million," the personnel director of one NFL team said of McGahee's injury.
McGahee underwent surgery Sunday in Coral Gables, Fla., to have a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a torn medial collateral ligament repaired. He was hurt when he was hit by Buckeyes defensive back Will Allen after catching a screen pass early in the fourth quarter of Ohio State's 31-24, double-overtime triumph in the national championship game.
Bratton predicted that McGahee, who rushed for a school-record 1,686 yards and 27 touchdowns this season, will fully recover as a player. Sports medicine has come a long way, Bratton said, from when he needed four or five surgeries for his knee injury. The two players had the same surgeon, John Uribe, and Bratton called Uribe "the best there is."
Still, it is a difficult time for McGahee, and it was difficult for Bratton to relive his experiences as he watched on television Friday night.
"I looked at Dr. Uribe's facial expression" when McGahee got hurt, Bratton said. "It was the same facial expression he gave me when I got hurt. I just dropped my head. I knew."