LeSean McCoy stepped in the batter's box, tapped home plate and prepared to entertain a large crowd that had come to support him. Around 5,000 fans were at a minor league baseball stadium in Rochester, New York, on June 13 to watch a softball game benefiting McCoy’s charity. And the man of the night, the running back Buffalo Bills diehards hope can lead a resurgence, took a huge upper-cut swing and badly missed the slow, underhanded pitch.
Undeterred by the whiff, McCoy waved his left hand, imploring the outfielders to back up. After taking the next pitch, McCoy crushed the ball to deep center field, over the makeshift fence, for a solo home run. As he rounded the bases and touched home plate, he exchanged high-fives and handshakes with several teammates and coach Rex Ryan, all of whom participated in the event. They celebrated the homer as if McCoy had just scored a touchdown.
Thurman Thomas, the star running back on Bills teams that won four consecutive AFC titles from 1990 to 1993, was also nearby. He threw out the first pitch, had an at-bat late in the game and signed numerous autographs for people who remember him from a time that has long since passed. The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since 1999, the longest stretch in the NFL.
And yet, they are confident this could be the year the streak ends, thanks to one of the sport’s best defenses and the addition of McCoy, arguably the franchise’s best runner since Thomas left following the 1999 season. The anticipation is palpable. Two days after the softball game, the Bills announced they had already sold more than 57,500 season tickets, breaking the franchise record set in 1992. McCoy’s presence has helped fuel the excitement.
In March, the Bills acquired McCoy from the Philadelphia Eagles in a trade for linebacker Kiko Alonso, a surprising deal that caught McCoy off guard and left him disillusioned. Within a few days, Thomas reached out to a member of the Pegula family, which owns the team. He wanted McCoy’s cellphone number.
Soon after, Thomas and McCoy exchanged text messages. They have now developed a budding relationship. They have eaten meals together and talked on the phone. For Thomas, who still lives in Buffalo, welcoming McCoy is the least he can do to make him feel comfortable in a town he’s still getting to know.
“Hell, I want him to throw up eight, nine 100-yard rushing games in a row,” Thomas said. “That’s what I want him to do. I want him to come here and score 20 touchdowns and be the leader on the offense.”
McCoy never wanted to be in Buffalo. If it were up to him, he would have remained in Philadelphia and retired as an Eagle, the team he rooted for growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
In December, McCoy became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher in only his sixth season. He was 26 and thought he had several more productive years ahead.
Eagles coach Chip Kelly had other plans. After he gained power in the offseason to make personnel moves, Kelly sent McCoy away in exchange for Alonso, a player he coached at the University of Oregon who missed last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
When the Eagles called Bills general manager Doug Whaley with the trade proposal, Whaley spoke with Ryan, whom the team hired in January. He asked Ryan for his opinion.
“The answer was yes,” Ryan said. “Immediately, it was like, ‘What? Oh, hell yeah. Let’s do it.’”
Since the deal, McCoy has criticized Kelly on a few occasions. Their relationship was never as good as the one McCoy had with former coach Andy Reid, whom the Eagles fired following the 2012 season.
After McCoy’s first official workout with the Bills in April, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I don’t think [Kelly] likes or respects the stars. I’m being honest. I think he likes the fact that it’s ‘Chip Kelly and the Eagles.’” The next month, McCoy told ESPN The Magazine, “There’s a reason he got rid of all the black players—the good ones—like that,” alluding to Kelly parting with him and DeSean Jackson.
“I think that him and Chip Kelly, they just hit a crossroads,” said LeRon McCoy, his older brother, who works for agent Drew Rosenhaus. “LeSean wanted to go one way and Chip wanted to go the other. At the end of the day, I think both guys will be successful. I do think Chip’s going to be a very successful coach in the league because he’s very innovative. He’s awesome. I just think LeSean’s going to be a very successful player like he has been.”
Sitting in the Bills locker room during the team’s mandatory minicamp in June, McCoy said he had moved on, but he didn’t regret his earlier comments.
“I don’t take back nothing I said,” he said.
McCoy had attended only a few practices with the Bills, but he already had noticed differences between his new and old coaches.
“I think one thing about this team, especially the coaches, they have that veteran type of football mindset,” McCoy said. “Rex knows who his guys are. He knows the older players need a little more rest. I feel they have the right mindset. They know their players. Football is treated the way it’s supposed to be treated here. I’m really happy to be a part of it.”
McCoy was asked what he meant by the “right mindset.”
“Just take care of your players, what your players say matters, like their feedback,” he said. “Some coaches don’t care about that. Some coaches have the college mindset where they think everybody’s 21 years old. Some coaches feel like you can do hard work but in smart ways and take care of the veteran players.”
As McCoy participated in a practice in June, T.J. Porter sat on the sidelines looking after McCoy’s three-year-old son and searching his cellphone to identify places for the two longtime friends to live. They were staying in a nearby hotel, but McCoy wanted to find a house before training camp started in late July.
Porter, who was McCoy’s teammate and roommate at the University of Pittsburgh, helps McCoy with numerous duties. He plans on staying with him during the season to keep him company. Except for a year-and-a-half at a prep school in New York around a decade ago, McCoy has played high school, college and professional football in Pennsylvania.
Porter and a few of McCoy’s friends from Harrisburg are around him often, although they aren’t sure how much help he needs getting accustomed to Buffalo.
“He can cut on a dime,” Porter said. “The way he plays on the football field, that’s the way he lives. He can adjust. If something don’t go right, he can adjust real quick. He’s that type of guy. He likes it. He sees the good in everything, and he just goes with it.”
That’s not to say McCoy eagerly embraced the new surroundings. As a kid, he attended Eagles training camps and games. In high school, he met Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, the biggest star in a sports-crazed city. It was McCoy’s dream to star for the Eagles.
During the first few days after the trade, McCoy spoke with friends such as Indianapolis Colts running back Frank Gore and former NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson to get their advice. He also talked with his brother, LeRon, and Rosenhaus. They encouraged him to deal with the change and told him he would enjoy playing for Ryan. They compared the gregarious Ryan to Dave Wannstedt, McCoy’s college coach. Ryan and Wannstedt are both known as players’ coaches. McCoy and Wannstedt had a close relationship.
“I always thought I wouldn’t be a player that would leave a team, especially the Eagles,” McCoy said. “My initial thoughts weren’t good, obviously, because it was a new team, a new situation. I’m sure the first two days, maybe the first week, I was kind of mad about it. But that’s life. I think anybody would feel [bad]. It’s like a coach getting fired. I’m sure he’s not like extremely happy about that. But once I sat down and relaxed, I was fine. It’s a business move. This is a business.”
And it’s one that’s been financially rewarding for McCoy. The Bills signed him to a new five-year, $40.5 million contract with $26.5 million guaranteed, displaying their faith in McCoy and making him feel even more wanted.
Still, those close to McCoy say the money didn’t diminish his motivation. Soon after trading McCoy, the Eagles signed free-agent running back DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s rushing leader last season with the Dallas Cowboys. McCoy wants to prove the Eagles chose the wrong back.
“When someone says they don’t want you anymore, it makes you want to work hard,” LeRon McCoy said. “That’s what a trade is about. A trade lets you know somebody doesn’t want you anymore or they’d rather have someone else than you. Of course it’s going to motivate him.”
Even before the trade, McCoy committed himself to regrouping from what for him was a subpar 2014 season. He finished third in the NFL with 1,319 rushing yards, but his 4.2 yards-per-carry average was the lowest among the top 10 runners. He scored only five total touchdowns and had a career-low 28 receptions.
In February, McCoy traveled to Miami to work for a couple of months with Pete Bommarito, a trainer he had consulted with off and on since his rookie year. Other running backs such as Gore, Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh Steelers), Matt Forte (Chicago Bears) and Rashad Jennings (New York Giants) trained at Bommarito’s facility as well.
McCoy not only lifted weights and ran, but he met with a physical therapist, masseuse, acupuncturist and chiropractor to realign his joints and other body parts and get in top shape. He also had a chef who cooked his meals and designed a nutritional program.
“This is the year that he definitely has put in the most consistent block of time with us,” Bommarito said.
As McCoy ages, Bommarito has found him more concerned with his health and doing anything he can to remain injury-free.
“I don’t think anybody really talks about getting old,” Bommarito said. “That’s the taboo subject for anybody, especially a running back. But he definitely made statements like, ‘I want to maximize my power. I want to make sure that I take care of my body throughout my career.’”
Although McCoy hasn’t suffered any major injuries while in the NFL, he understands the unpredictable nature of football, which he learned as a teenager. During his senior year at Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg in 2005, McCoy suffered a serious right ankle injury in the season’s fourth game against rival Harrisburg High.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno then recommended McCoy transfer to Milford Academy, a prep school in New York, more than 200 miles from home. McCoy had shown interest in playing for Penn State, and Paterno had a relationship with Milford coach Bill Chaplick.
When McCoy arrived at Milford in January 2006, he had undergone surgery, was on crutches and wore a cast. He worried about his future. It took several months until he returned to the field. That fall, he shared carries with future University of Miami running back Graig Cooper and future Auburn running back Bo Harris. At Milford, McCoy competed against junior varsity college teams, regained his confidence, became academically eligible to play in college and returned to his old form.
“It took a lot of work,” Chaplick said. “When you have an injury like that, you soul search. But he handled it...When it’s your first one and you’re a running back, it takes you a little while because you’re looking for the next one.”
That next one never came, as McCoy has been healthy for the past decade and has had no trouble adjusting to different levels. At the University of Pittsburgh, he broke the school’s freshman records set by Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett for points (90) and rushing touchdowns (14). In two years, McCoy gained 2,816 yards rushing and ran for 35 touchdowns before the Eagles selected him in the second round (53rd overall) of the 2009 NFL draft.
Early in his rookie season, McCoy split carries with veteran Brian Westbrook. After Westbrook sustained two concussions and missed several games, McCoy took over as the lead back, a position he maintained throughout his Eagles tenure.
Since McCoy entered the NFL, only two players (Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson) have gained more than his 6,792 rushing yards. During that time period, McCoy’s 44 rushing touchdowns rank fourth behind Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and Arian Foster.
And yet, McCoy, who turned 27 on July 12, is approaching old age by today’s running back standards. He’s had 300 carries each of the past two seasons under Kelly, a figure Ryan doesn’t plan on changing in 2015. McCoy will be the focal point of an offense that has three players (Matt Cassel, EJ Manuel and Tyrod Taylor) competing for the starting quarterback job and serious questions about its passing game.
“I don’t know why not,” Ryan said when asked if McCoy could have another 300-carry season. “He’s proved through his career that he can handle a big workload. We brought him here to do that for us.”
Still, the Bills are being careful with McCoy. At each practice, he and his teammates wear heart rate monitors. Coaches don’t plan on making him get hit every day, either.
“Being a former running back, you only have so many cuts in a year,” said Bills running backs coach Anthony Lynn, who played for the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers in the 1990s. “You don’t want to waste any of ‘em. You want to save the guys when you can. The most important thing is to get them to game-day fresh.”
How much longer does McCoy think he can play?
“I feel like I got a good couple years left,” he said. “I feel like this contract [which runs through 2019]. I feel good. I feel quick. I feel explosive. We’re gonna find out.”
Two hours before McCoy’s charity softball game in June, Ron Payne waited with other Bills fans for the Frontier Field gates to open. When they entered, they could buy numerous items such as a McCoy T-shirt with “I Joined the Mafia” across the front, referencing the nickname of the Bills’ fans.
Payne, 34, was among dozens wearing McCoy’s No. 25 Bills jersey. He had purchased tickets soon after the game was announced and was eager to see McCoy in person. He recalled playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 on his computer in early March when a Twitter alert showed up on his cellphone telling him the Bills had acquired McCoy. Payne had owned McCoy in his fantasy football leagues, but this was much better news.
“This year, we’re going to go to the playoffs,” Payne said. “I hope to God that we get into the Super Bowl. At least the championship game would be awesome.”
McCoy’s standing in Buffalo is much different than in Philadelphia, where his comments about Kelly and the trade have left some angry with a player they once adored. McCoy doesn’t seem hurt by his diminished reputation in his former home.
“Even when I was on that team, great games or bad games, I never really paid attention to the fans’ reaction because that doesn’t really matter,” McCoy said. “A fan is gonna be loyal to their franchise. Sure, they love players. They like players. But if a player leaves, they probably love the player, but their loyalty has to go to the franchise.”
Now, McCoy’s allegiance is to Buffalo, and he’s already developed friendships with teammates. During the NBA Finals, he watched games at a local Mexican restaurant with fullback Jerome Felton, running back Anthony Dixon, receivers Percy Harvin and Sammy Watkins and others. They also compete in video games, including the Madden and FIFA franchises.
“If you go in that locker room, he’s a lot of people’s favorite,” said Harvin, who’s known McCoy since high school when they went on a recruiting trip together to USC. “He’s always joking around. You’re always gonna hear his voice in the locker room just keeping everybody loose.”
On Dec. 13, McCoy returns to Philadelphia when the Bills face the Eagles. He’ll be wearing a different uniform and playing for the road team in what had been his home for so long. The McCoy-Kelly drama will be rehashed ad nauseam.
It will, no doubt, be a strange sight for McCoy and those close to him. His family still lives in Harrisburg, and he visits the area often. And yet, McCoy is a Bill now and is eager to get on with the next chapter of his professional life, although he still occasionally mentions his old team.
“When he tries to talk about Philadelphia, I tell him, ‘Man, forget them. You’re over here with us now,’” Dixon said. “I try to tell him when he came over here, ‘We got your back, no matter what. Just focus on this and what we gotta do and then when we get to Philadelphia, we gonna show ‘em what they’re missing.’”