Bills' GM gambles on sports medicine

Published in the August 2003 issue of BioMechanics

By Jordana Bieze


Tom Donahoe, currently one of the most respected general managers in the National Football League, could very well become known as the guy who wasted the first round pick of the 2003 draft. It all comes down to Willis McGahee's reconstructed left knee, and whether that knee will allow the University of Miami running back to return to his pre-injury excellence.

Only the practitioners working with McGahee could predict the likelihood of that outcome. And even they can't be sure.

In selecting McGahee with the 23rd pick of the NFL draft, the Buffalo Bills general manager shocked the rest of the league on a number of levels. For one thing, the Bills already were set at running back with Travis Henry and Orlandis Gary, and were expected to have used the pick to fill one of their glaring defensive holes with one of several quality players still available at that point in the draft.

For another thing, although Donahoe had publicly expressed interest in McGahee before the draft, he had made comments that had suggested the Bills wouldn't be reckless enough to use their sole first-round pick on a kid who would probably need a season to fully rehab the three torn ligaments he suffered in January.

"If you have two picks, you're in a position where you can take him and not expect to get anything out of him this season," Donahoe told Sports Illustrated a week before the draft. "It's hard for a team with one first-rounder to do that. I don't know too many teams that don't need something out of their first-rounder this year."

And although before his injury McGahee had been projected as the second pick of the draft overall, many experts feared the damage would keep him out of the first round altogether. Even McGahee's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, was worried enough that during the early part of the draft he continually called McGahee's cell phone from his own cell phone to give the impression that the running back was in high demand. Practitioners, it appears, aren't the only ones who can be intimidated by the complexities of a multiligament injury.

But after seeing McGahee work out before the draft and consulting with the Bills' medical staff, Donahoe decided the injury wasn't going to keep him from selecting who he felt was the best player available in the draft at that time.

"Our doctors personally examined McGahee two different times," Donahoe told Sports Illustrated. "We had the MRIs, we had the notes from the surgery. We had all the information we felt that we needed to make the decision on him."

The truth is that no practitioner is going to be able to predict with certainty the outcome of an injury as complex as McGahee's (see "Painfully complex: Managing multiligament injuries," page 20). Fifteen years ago, the Bills did get lucky with another running back who had suffered a knee injury in college, but Thurman Thomas had returned for his entire senior season before being drafted. McGahee is a much bigger question mark.

But Donahoe didn't stop gambling with McGahee: Second round pick Chris Kelsay is coming back from a hamstring injury last year, and fifth rounder Ben Sobieski spent two full seasons on the bench with a shoulder injury.

So at least one NFL general manager seems to be giving modern-day sports medicine the benefit of the doubt. If it pays off, Donahoe's reputation will remain intact-and future drafts could get a lot more interesting.


Copyright 2008 Jordana Foster – 24 Kirkland Dr, Stow, MA – Email: – Fax: (815) 346-5239