WVU football: Former Oklahoma State star not kept down for long
NEW YORK - Andrew McGee has had that unmistakable realization and the unshakable pain when he knew his career in football was finished.
Both times he was wrong and on Saturday the first-year graduate assistant will coach West Virginia's cornerbacks in the Pinstripe Bowl against Syracuse. Now, the 25-year-old former all-conference cornerback at Oklahoma State can't imagine a life outside of the game.
"This opportunity of coaching has blown my mind as far as the platform to impact on a daily basis," McGee said. "That's what I feel like my calling is. I do desire to be a coach because I think that's my purpose. I think that's my calling, to be a coach. I couldn't picture me doing anything else at this point."
Yet McGee never saw this coming. He had just about given up on football last year after football gave up on him. He worked his way back from a broken neck to get a shot as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears after the lockout ended.
Two days after they signed him, the Bears red-flagged McGee for an injury and had to cut him. A wrist he broke a year earlier kept him from passing a physical.
"I didn't even want to watch ESPN because I'd been living football for so long and the reality hit me, 'Well, that probably means I'm done with football now,' " he said.
The shock was doubly numbing because he had always conquered injuries. This was different, but he quickly understood it was time for another challenge, one he found with a phone call from Joe DeForest, who was the newly hired WVU defensive coordinator. He'd been the safeties coach at Oklahoma State when McGee was a cornerback there.
DeForest was looking for help and remembered the work McGee did as a student volunteer when the Cowboys won the Big 12 in 2011.
"I would be a fool to not recognize how blessed I was during my career," McGee said. "I'm definitely content with just being able to finish my senior year. Just being able to come back from what happened to me was huge, so I was thankful I was able to do that.
"I did sit around for a little while praying and wondering where to go and how to go about it, but when Coach DeForest called me, I realized I'd have a great opportunity to impact lives."
THIS HAS BEEN a bad season to be a cornerback at WVU. The Mountaineers rank No. 119 in passing defense and gave up 45 pass plays of 25 yards or more. Six players started at cornerback and the cumulative struggles in coverage and tackling forced Coach Dana Holgorsen to fire Daron Roberts, who Holgorsen called a "great friend, great person and great football coach."
McGee knows it's been hard on players, but he knows why, too. WVU changed from a 3-3-5 to a 3-4 this season. DeForest, demoted to safeties coach this month, was in his first year as a defensive coordinator. Roberts was a receivers coach in 2011 before being moved to cornerbacks this season.
"It's always tough when you've been through different defenses and you have to understand different terminology or different ways of coaching," McGee said. "I know that from my time going from junior college to Division I football. It's a big change and when you bring in different coaches, it can be hard to learn the information. And they were learning to play in a new conference, too. All those things played a part in it."
McGee has tried to make it a little easier for the players off the field, behind the scenes and away from the spotlight that always shines on a major college football program. Nowhere is that light brighter than it is on the cornerbacks.
"McGee is the type of person who all he wants is what's best for you," junior cornerback Brodrick Jenkins said. "He wants you to grow into a man and not stay a boy. Anytime he can, he wants to help you. He wants to help show you the way to be a great man. He's a great person and he shows it. He doesn't just talk about it. That's what I really appreciate about him."
The life of a graduate assistant is high on demands and low on rewards. The payoff is the experience and the best ones make the most of the situation.
"He's in here probably at 5 o'clock every morning and he stays until late at night and you can tell," Jenkins said.
McGee knows his position and can teach the craft, but he knows that's not nearly enough. He wants to know his players, to understand their thoughts. He wants to help players navigate obstructions that he knows are inevitable. McGee wouldn't be where he is now if not for his own hardships, the ones he's shared with his pupils as teaching points that serve life more than football.
"He told me he felt like that all happened for a reason and I can really see how that has helped him because of the man he is," Jenkins said. "He's one man I really look up to because of the way he goes throughout life and the things he believes in. I feel like I should try to imitate him."
McGee would be proud to hear that, but he'd give Jenkins one tip: Stay healthy.
AS A PLAYER, he had arthroscopic surgery on both knees, one in junior college and one at Oklahoma State. That one made him miss a game. He broke both wrists, but came back better both times. One in high school needed an operation, but he made it to junior college and signed with Oklahoma State in 2009.
He broke the other wrist his second year and needed a second surgery, but played with a cast and tied for the Big 12 lead in 2010 with five interceptions.
That wasn't even the most amazing recuperation. McGee broke two vertebrae in November 2009 in a road game against Oklahoma.
"This is going to be kind of funny," he said. "I was running down the field on a punt return and it was Ryan Broyles. We're good friends and I joke with him about his knee problems, but his knee actually broke my neck.
"He was trying to hurdle me. I was diving at him. It was a freak deal, but when his knee hit me, I was knocked out."
McGee and the coaches figured his career was over. He was lucky to avoid surgery, but he wore a neck brace for four months. In March 2010, he was stunned when his doctor told him the bones were healing really well and he'd be able to play the following season. McGee missed spring practice, but was cleared for full participation that July.
He played very well with the broken wrist and he understood the free agent deal with the Bears was beyond any expectations he could have had, not only back when he was wearing the neck brace, but also when he suffered a herniated disc in his back days before the NFL Draft combine.
What he couldn't grasp was how he could do so much, come so far and play so well after such serious surgeries only to find out he wasn't able to play any longer. How could he feel so good, so able, and not pass a physical?
He'd spent countless hours rehabbing injuries and pushing his body to get back to and beyond where it was before, all so he could play football. What would he do without it?
"It wasn't easy," he said. "What I've tried to do as best as I can is explain to these players here they're going to be in the situations I was in where I had opportunities and I had those dreams, but football isn't everything. You have to prepare for life. Life happens and if you're not prepared, it can hurt you."
MCGEE WAS appointed the position coach for the bowl game, which kicks off from Yankee Stadium at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN. A full-time replacement will be hired after the season, when McGee will go back to the G.A. role and resume work toward his master's in communications.
In between, the Mountaineers have no doubt McGee will do exactly what the situation prescribes.
"He's a soldier," defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "He's going to do exactly what we ask him to do. He's got an extremely bright future in front of him and he not only brings experience playing the position and understanding technique, but he's been to battle and played against the Big 12 Conference receivers and against BCS caliber receivers."
McGee plans to get his master's next year and wants to continue coaching. He said his preparation for the Pinstripe Bowl is just that and that he's not using this as an audition for his next job. The entire experience with the Mountaineers is his job interview for whatever happens after it.
"Taking this job, I looked at it as an interview," he said. "That's how I wanted to use it to build me up. I understand that you're kind of on a platform a little bit more, but this has always been an interview for me.
"Whatever opportunities there are, it's a chance to be seen and a chance to stand out and do all those things. That's how I took it. I look at it like a whole opportunity as far as me being here as a G.A. or whatever role they have for me. It's always an interview because this is what I want to do."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.