Arizona State linebacker Brandon Magee’s tank has never been short on resolve.
"He was walking when he was 9 months old," his mom, Tia Magee, said. "And he was potty-trained at a year and a half. That’s unheard of, but he just followed his brother into the bathroom, saw what he was doing, and then he ripped off that diaper.
"He was like, 'I'm done with this!'"
Magee needed every ounce of that resolve after rupturing his Achilles tendon in August and missing the 2011 season. Not only did he miss what should have been his senior season, he missed his last chance to play with a group of players who had been his teammates since high school — Vontaze Burfict, Shelly Lyons and his older brother, Angelo. He missed a chance to have an impact on a team many observers thought had the potential to compete for the Pac-12 crown.
"He would have been the best linebacker on the field had he played," said former teammate Colin Parker, who is awaiting his fate in the NFL draft. "He's extremely explosive, he’s fast, and over the years, he’s become a very smart player, too. It really hurt not having him."
Former defensive coordinator Craig Bray called Magee the best player on his unit in 2010, the last time Magee took the field.
"He was, by far, the biggest loss we had on the team last year," Bray said. "Losing (cornerback) Omar Bolden was important, but Brandon’s impact — not just his skills, but his emotional impact on the other players — was a dynamic we couldn’t replace."
Bray believes Magee’s skill set would make him effective as an insider linebacker if the new coaching staff opts to play him there, as has been rumored.
"If he can adjust to the changes, he can be very successful for the simple fact that he can be in on every play," Bray said. "Sometimes it’s a challenge when you’ve been playing on an edge and view things from an outside-in perspective. When you’re in the middle, it’s like it’s all coming at you, and that transition can be more difficult than you perceive it.
"But he’s such a smart kid, and he sees the game so well. He’s one of my all-time favorite guys because all he wants to do is get better and win, and he doesn’t care what it takes to get there. He loves criticism, he loves the film room, and his intensity on game day is unmatched."
Rehab has been a grueling challenge for Magee, especially the early stages, when he hopped on crutches from one weight station to the next to keep his upper body strong. A burning pain still lingers in the tendon seven months later as Arizona State University begins spring practice, but Magee’s self-pity didn’t make it past the day of his injury.
"He was bawling his eyes out when he got hurt," Tia recalled. "I told him I was going to give him a couple minutes, and then it’s time to get back up."
Don’t get the wrong impression: Tia Magee’s household isn’t run in militaristic fashion. It’s been well-chronicled how many boys she took under her wing (and into her home) in Corona, Calif., giving them food, shelter, advice and love.
"We had Hamburger Helper and Tampico juice every day," Brandon said, laughing.
Tia ingrained such a sense of self-worth in her own two boys that, to this day, all she has to do is text them the words "I am,” and the boys reflexively respond, "special."
"My mom would give me maybe five minutes of 'Woe is me,' then she’d tell me, 'Suck it up. Let’s keep it moving forward,'" Tia said. "My dad was a strong man, but he was a whiner. That irritated me, especially in a man, so I decided to raise strong, solid men that look toward the future, believe in themselves and stay positive.”
Brandon took a little more time to reach that place, but as he was lying in bed the night of the injury, unable to sleep due to the pain, the wheels started spinning in his head.
"I was thinking about Pat Tillman. Look what he did. I mean, really think about that," Magee said, raising his voice for emphasis. "It made me realize, 'C'mon, who am I to complain about an Achilles injury? I’ll get a chance to play football again. What about kids who are handicapped and can’t do what I do? Look how blessed I am.'
"So I got up the next morning and smiled. That injury wasn’t going to ruin my day."
Instead, Magee spent the time working out, supporting his teammates and experimenting with new ventures to satisfy his competitive juices.
"I played cards. I even went salsa dancing," Magee said, laughing. "I’m catching on and I’ll show you some of it after I make a play next season. That Victor Cruz dance? I can get that."
Arizona State will need all of Magee’s playmaking ability, as the defense was decimated by graduation. Gone are linebackers Burfict, Lyons, Parker and Oliver Aaron, safeties Clint Floyd and Eddie Elder, defensive end Jamaar Jarrett, defensive tackle Bo Moos and Bolden, who missed last season due to an ACL injury.
The Devils won’t just be auditioning a cast of new characters for starting roles; they’ll be searching far and wide for the type of senior leadership that defines winning teams.
At least they know what they have in Magee.
One month after taking the job as Arizona State's new coach, Todd Graham was sitting in his office and talking about his personnel. He liked the physical tools and intangibles of his quarterbacks. He saw depth at running back and thought the strength of his defense would be its tackles.
Then he paused.
"And Brandon Magee? Whew!" Graham said, his eyes widening. "That’s one special kid. It’s pretty obvious he’s going to be a leader for us."