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McGahee: Rehabilitation, then what?

In the blink of an eye, Willis McGahee goes from multimillionaire, top 5 NFL draft pick to question mark.

In a split second, McGahee goes from Fiesta Bowl game-breaker to broken-hearted.

In less time than it takes for a Mach 1 McGahee stride, he goes from airborne to immobilized.

University of Miami fans are lamenting the devastating loss to Ohio State in Friday’s Fiesta Bowl. Perspective, please. The real devastation was to McGahee’s knee.

His psyche, too, as he tries to comprehend, as a college sophomore, why he was struck down, just like that, in the biggest game of his young life.

“The sound of the pop of the ligaments – I can hear it as clearly today as I did 15 years ago,” Melvin Bratton said, the former Hurricane running back who wrecked his knee in the Jan. 1, 1988, Orange Bowl. “The look on Dr. (John) Uribe’s face when he held Willis’ leg was the same look I got when he came to my aid.”

For Bratton, Friday’s championship game dissolved into an agonizing case of deja vu with 11 minutes 39 seconds left, when Ohio State free safety Will Allen tackled McGahee low. Allen’s helmet smashed into McGahee’s knee and the effect was like sledgehammer hitting glass.

The way in which McGahee’s knee was bent backward, with his shin dangling at an unnatural angle, was horrific. Reminiscent of Joe Theismann’s snapped leg.

To see McGahee hobble off the field, using medical personnel as crutches, was to see the cruel side of a violent sport. If any kid did not deserve this, it was the sweet, self-described “Mama’s boy” from Miami, the Heisman Trophy finalist who spent his weekend in New York just thankful to stroll the streets of Manhattan and his week in Tempe “just chillin.”

Bratton shuddered. Could this really be happening all over again? The 1987 Hurricanes, just like the 2002 Hurricanes, finished the season undefeated. They played undefeated Oklahoma for the national title. Going into the game, Bratton was projected to be a top 5 NFL draftee. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had the No. 4 pick, had been inquiring about him, just as the Houston Texans, who have the No. 3 pick this year, had been inquiring about McGahee.

Bratton, like McGahee, suffered torn ligaments on a screen pass in the fourth quarter. At least Miami won that game.

But Bratton had little time to savor it. He was admitted to HealthSouth Doctors’ Hospital, just as McGahee was, and operated on by Uribe, just as McGahee was Sunday.

“The days of darkness come after, when all the concern dies down and you’re alone,” Bratton said. “Your mind starts playing tricks on you. You think, `OK, this is too hard, I’m going to quit football and get a regular job.'”

Bratton got drafted in the sixth round by the Dolphins in 1988, but he was still on crutches. He spent the rest of the year rehabilitating. He had three additional operations to remove scar tissue. He was redrafted in 1989 in the seventh round by the Denver Broncos.

“It took me a year and a half to walk straight again and people said I’d never play again,” Bratton said. “But I proved them wrong. I started in the Super Bowl when we lost to San Francisco.”

Will McGahee ever be the same, the runner with Carl Lewis-like speed and Barry Sanders-like agility? Will he get back the acceleration that catapulted him past Ohio State defenders practically tripping over themselves to catch him when he turned the corner on that 9-yard touchdown run? Will he regain the strength that enabled him to clean-lift 350 pounds, which is 50 more than 370-pound offensive lineman Vernon Carey can lift?

McGahee was one of those revelatory running backs. He broke seven school records in his first year as a starter. He had an open field of possibilities in front of him. Now he faces up to a year of rehabilitation on the same knee he injured as a high school senior.

“Physically, I was never the same guy,” Bratton said. “I’d see certain cuts, and my mind told me to do it but my body couldn’t quite respond.”

That’s not what Bratton told McGahee when he called him on his cell phone Saturday as McGahee was boarding the plane in Arizona. Bratton offered much more than sympathy. He offered himself as an example of hope.

“I told Willis there are two big differences in our situations,” said Bratton, a former NFL scout in Dallas who has moved home to Miami to start a memorabilia business. “I was a senior; he’s got eligibility left. He’s got a second chance.”

“And he’s got 15 years of advancement in medicine. The techniques now allow a quicker recovery.”

McGahee wasn’t surprised to hear from Bratton because Bratton has been calling him every Friday all season, just to give advice and encouragement. It’s a Hurricane tradition to nurture the branches of the orange-and-green family tree.