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Saturday, April 26, 2003
Updated: April 27, 4:44 PM ET
 
Injured RB recovering quickly; could play in '03
Associated Press

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Miami running back Willis McGahee was so stunned when Buffalo picked him 23rd overall that he broke down.

McGahee covered his eyes to hide the tears and was hugged by his family at his agent's home in Miami Beach when the Bills called him Saturday and made him the first running back selected in the NFL draft.

"They caught me off-guard with the pick, but I'm really happy,'' said McGahee, recovering from reconstructive knee surgery. "I actually cried. I didn't want to cry.''

Once projected to be a No. 2 overall pick, McGahee's future was threatened when he tore three ligaments in his left knee in Miami's championship game loss to Ohio State and underwent surgery Jan. 5, two days after the game. There was speculation he would never play again.

While the injury was less severe than initially feared, it required full reconstruction of the anterior cruciate ligament.

"It's been crazy, a roller coaster ride. I just got in the back seat and rolled with it,'' McGahee said. "I'm feeling better now that this day is over with. Nothing was ever guaranteed. Things happen for a reason.

"I'm happy where I'm at right now.''

The 21-year-old sophomore spent recent weeks trying to prove that he was ready to play, including a workout in front of nearly 100 coaches, scouts and reporters on Tuesday.

It's uncertain whether he'll play next season.

"We'll play it by ear,'' said Bills president Tom Donahoe. "We're prepared. If he can't play this year, we're fine.''

McGahee said he wanted to play, but added it was up to the team.

"My job is to prove people wrong, and I'm going to prove them wrong by playing this year,'' McGahee said. "I feel like the world is mine. I'm going to get my legs strong and go out there and get the opportunity to compete.''

He had an impressive season for the Hurricanes, set school records with 1,753 yards and 28 touchdowns.

While the Bills' most immediate needs were defensive linemen, their chances of landing a top prospect grew dim when eight were selected before Buffalo's pick.

Now it's up to the Bills to figure out where McGahee fits in at a position that's headed by Travis Henry, the NFL's fifth-leading rusher last season. Buffalo also signed former Denver running back Olandis Gary this past week.

"The Buffalo Bills are excited about that decision,'' Bills coach Gregg Williams said. "We thought he was one of the top one or two players in the whole draft before he got hurt. His rehab is going real well.

"He's ahead of progress. We thought we had a great young football player with a chance to hit a real home run with him.''

McGahee briefly considered staying at Miami for another season to nurse the knee back to health. Instead, he stuck with his original plan to turn pro and embarked on a rugged rehabilitation program.

The Bills medical staff twice evaluated McGahee.

This isn't the first time the Bills have taken a chance on drafting an injured running back. There were questions regarding Thurman Thomas, who was coming off a knee injury when the Bills selected him with their first pick, 40th overall, in the second round of the 1988 draft.

Thomas, who retired after the 2000 season, played 12 years in Buffalo, during which he broke and challenged several of O.J. Simpson's franchise records. Thomas also became the NFL's first player to lead the league four straight years in total yards.

This is also the second straight year the Bills have created a stir during the two-day draft. Last year, Buffalo gave up its first-round pick in this year's draft to acquire Drew Bledsoe in a trade with New England.

The Bills got back into the first round by acquiring Atlanta's pick in last month's deal that sent receiver Peerless Price to the Falcons.

The Price trade was only one of several significant moves in a busy offseason for the Bills, who added 11 veterans, and appear poised to be AFC East contenders next season.

Buffalo focused on bolstering a patchwork defensive unit that finished 27th in points allowed, 29th in yards rushing per game, and 32nd in takeaways last year. Along with outbidding Cincinnati to land linebacker Takeo Spikes, the Bills also signed free agent linebacker Jeff Posey and defensive tackle Sam Adams.

Offensively, the Bills landed tight end Mark Campbell in a deal with Cleveland, in addition to signing Gary, who's expected to backup starter Henry.