A crowd of reporters stood three deep around one player after the Buffalo Bills held their first practices of training camp Monday.
There were so many questions for Willis McGahee, the star running back who suffered a gruesome knee injury in the biggest game of his college career, on the national stage of the Fiesta Bowl in January 2003. For the first time in a while, he was the center of attention Monday, making his first appearance in a contact practice 19 months after being hurt.
Despite that, the 22-year-old was nonchalant.
"It's no big deal to me," McGahee said of his practices. "I'm just taking it easy. I'm not trying to impress anybody. . . . I'm feeling pretty good right now. I'm overwhelmed" by the media.
As a sophomore two seasons ago, McGahee had one of the best college football seasons ever, rushing for 1,753 yards, scoring 28 touchdowns and leading the Miami Hurricanes to the national championship game in the Fiesta Bowl. Then McGahee tore three ligaments (including the medial collateral and anterior cruciate) in the double-overtime loss to Ohio State, and a likely top-three draft pick looked like he might never play football again.
Two days after the devastating hit, McGahee had surgery, with one ligament requiring major reconstruction. He started rehabilitation later in the week, began jogging in March, and in the days leading up to the April draft, his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, was emphatically telling the world McGahee would be a Pro Bowl player in 2003.
"There were days I wanted to quit," McGahee said. "I was about to give up football. The day I got hurt, it wasn't over, but I knew how it was to rehab and start all over. So I just didn't want to do it anymore."
Despite having Pro Bowl back Travis Henry, Buffalo made a surprise move by drafting McGahee 23rd overall. He eventually made it to the active roster in November but was not in uniform for a game.
On the first day of Bills training camp at St. John Fisher College, McGahee felt little satisfaction answering questions about his comeback and being tackled -- albeit meekly -- for the first time. The gratification will come the first time he reaches the end zone.
When "I score that first touchdown, then I'll be very pleased about how far I've come," he said.
"That's him," said Mike Mularkey, Buffalo's first-year head coach. "I like that. He's not trying to draw attention to himself. Attention is going to him. I don't feel it's affected him at all."
McGahee sports two new tattoos on his neck: The left features two hands praying.
"God's on my side," said McGahee, who is quick to credit prayer for his speedy rehabilitation. "I believed that before that and after" the injury.
The right tattoo reads, "Guess Who's Back?"
"It's me," he said. "It's just a message to people, period. Not just the NFL, people.''
That "shows you he has his confidence back, and he wants to prove something to people," Bills wide receiver Eric Moulds said. "He's one of those guys that came from a big-time program, and I think he knows that he can play. And I think he wants to show people he hasn't lost a step."
McGahee looked strong during seven-on-seven drills Monday, planting his left leg and showcasing enough speed to make spectators wonder what he'll look like in games.
How much McGahee plays remains a mystery. Henry, a potential franchise running back, is signed through 2005.
"It's [Henry's] job to lose," Mularkey said. "He's a very good back."
By all accounts Henry doesn't think he should lose the job. He called the Bills' drafting of McGahee "a slap in the face." Although he said he understood after meeting with the Bills' brass, he told ESPN the Magazine in September: "I'm a franchise back. I don't see myself giving my carries to Willis. Na-uh. We can't both be here. Something's got to happen. Either they trade me or trade him."
Henry denied making those comments and has since said he has no problem with McGahee. Henry declined to comment about McGahee, but they consider themselves to be friends and even regularly compete at PlayStation.
"I whoop up on him," McGahee said. "He's scared of me. That's one thing I think he's intimidated of me in -- PlayStation."
McGahee will get his share of action, possibly spelling Henry, on third downs.
"If we need a spark or something, I know Willis is capable of doing it," Mularkey said. "I foresee him getting some reps. Do I have a number in my head? I don't have a number right now."
Until McGahee takes part in a game, he'll keep getting peppered with questions about his return, and he'll keep shrugging them off.
"If I make a big deal out of it, you'll start expecting me to go out there and pop off 1,500 yards," McGahee said. "And if I don't pop off 1,500 yards, you're going to be mad. So I just tell you I'm looking forward to one touchdown. And if I get two and three, then you'll be happy."
And, for starters, so will he.