The lightness of being Christian McCaffrey

ByAndrew Corsello ESPN logo
Wednesday, August 17, 2016

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's August 22 College Football Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

QUICK: WHAT DO you see when you look at Christian McCaffrey? Don't think. Just answer. Say it out loud -- commit to it.

OK, next question: How confident are you in your answer -- that what you say you see, and what you see, are one and the same?

One hundred percent, no doubt. Because the answer is as straightforward as the question is stupid, right? He's an athlete, after all, a visually explicit human being. Call up a YouTube highlight. The who and the what become obvious in five seconds.

At this particular moment, I happen to be watching a Christian McCaffrey high school highlight on YouTube ... while in the presence of the living, breathing, real-time Christian McCaffrey. I'm doing this for two reasons. The first is that wherever you are and whomever you're with, it's always time for a McCaffrey video on YouTube. Known fact: McCaffrey highlights, without exception, are absolutely bananas. What's more: They serve -- again, without exception -- to cheer you up and renew your capacity for surprise and make you a better person.

The other reason is, well ... bear with me a moment. So McCaffrey the Actual is seated next to me on an hourlong flight from San Jose to Los Angeles. It's a Wednesday, the 13th of July, and the running back and three of his Stanford teammates are attending tonight's ESPYS. (McCaffrey, up for best record-breaking performance, will lose to Stephen Curry.) This flight is a chance for "some good one-on-one time," as the team's PR man has put it. Yet now that I'm here, I find there's something about this moment I'm hesitant to disturb.

It began with the flight attendant's safety announcement. Or, rather, the full attention McCaffrey gave to the man who was making it -- a courtesy there, an acknowledgment, small but unmistakable. Then the announcement ended and the charts came out. Laminated sheets, dozens of them, each a diagram of a play that Stanford coach David Shaw has devised. Each laminate was accompanied by a separate piece of paper listing a dozen or so words -- mnemonics McCaffrey designed to embed the play and its call words in his memory. Shaw constructs complex, pro-style, run-first offenses, and this, apparently, is what is demanded of the keystone player.

The intensity of this kid! There's an immersion and stillness and deep rhythmic groove he achieves as he traces with his right index finger the motions plotted out for him and his teammates while also quietly incanting their mnemonic tethers. White. Sixty. Ox. Robin. One row over, one of McCaffrey's teammates, smirking, unburdens himself. It's silent but deadly -- a weaponized, wet-velvet, all-but-visible wave of flatulence that warps the air of the cabin. I exclaim Save us from Satan while pulling my shirt collar over my nose and mouth. Others around me do the same (more or less). But not McCaffrey. No, McCaffrey is in his bubble, impervious, tracing, incanting, learning, maintaining his rhythm: After "finishing" a given play, he moves on, then returns exactly five minutes later to test his retention.

It's not the intensity that I'm loath to disturb but the earnestness. It somehow seems of a piece with his regard for the flight attendant making the safety announcement, quietly touching in the same way. I table my voice recorder for the moment and open a notebook. Perhaps because McCaffrey happens to be a pretty good self-taught pop-song pianist (again, see YouTube), I scribble this mincing fancy: Like a conservatory piano student working his way through a Chopin étude. The instant I do, though, another, even less appetizing, phrase bubbles up to consciousness. That phrase.

He's a student of the game.

You know it well. We all do, and what it's code for: He's white. Just as we know that he's a great natural talent or he's an instinctive athlete means he's black. In the past couple of decades, these codes -- that linger and gnaw, undead, at the notion of sport as pure and blind to color -- have been applied almost exclusively to quarterbacks and the false either/or proposition of old-school pocket passer vs. the newfangled read-option player. But now McCaffrey, as great a natural talent and instinctive athlete as you'll ever see, a generational star, perhaps the best since Reggie Bush, has come along.

What he does on the field -- breaking Barry Sanders' collegiate single-season all-purpose yardage record as a 19-year-old sophomore -- defies the eye. It might seem presumptuous, an obnoxious projection, to say that the simple act of looking at McCaffrey, uplifting as it is, isn't always as simple as it seems, that it's in fact loaded, because of the way people, with varying degrees of self-awareness, mentally caption the sight of him with the words, "And he's white!"

Indeed, it would be presumptuous and obnoxious if it weren't for the fact that before he became a proven commodity, many people -- football people, recruiters, experts -- looked at McCaffrey and saw him wrong, got him wrong. Saw him as a potentially useful general "athlete" who might be purposed in some specific situations. Even Shaw, who envisioned and recruited McCaffrey as a carry-the-team running back with world-class vision, power, quickness and breakaway speed, didn't initially apprehend the scope of McCaffrey's talent.

"Christian came to our spring camp before he came in as a freshman," Shaw recalls. "I thought I knew this kid. I had it in my mind that, 'This kid is different, this kid is special.' But after four runs in camp, I thought, 'Oh my god, I haven't seen that on this field since Glyn Milburn. Or maybe even Darrin Nelson.' Do you understand? This was freaky stuff, scary stuff, OK?"

This is the second reason I've paired the superhuman highlight-reel Christian McCaffrey in front of me with the real-time studious Christian McCaffrey next to me. A thought experiment to help ascertain what it means -- with an awful racial static alive in the national air -- to think, and commit to paper, and possibly even publish, the facts that Christian McCaffrey is "a student of the game," a "great" and "instinctive natural talent." ("And he's white!")

All that said, it boggles the mind that anyone tasked with recruiting could ever view the highlights I'm now watching and not exclaim, Unto us the next Marcus Allen is given. Mon dieu! And yet it happened.

The signature moment occurs three minutes in. A ridiculous end-zone-to-end-zone touchdown run. McCaffrey waits, waits, waits for the hole, shimmies once, twice, then breaks into open space. The announcer's alarmed voice glissandos up a whole octave in the time he observes that, "He's pickin' up speed ..." The screaming begins then. A girl in the stands. An unjaded teenage love scream shot through with incomprehension and surrender, the kind that greeted the Beatles when they first deplaned at JFK -- a scream whose time, you'd have assumed, had passed. All in all, it seems like both a perfectly understandable reaction and the best description I've encountered of the human explosion that is Christian McCaffrey.

Later, I describe this moment to Shaw. On the one hand, there's the student of the game ensconced in his carrel. On the other, the natural talent going nova over entire defenses. Which one explains Christian McCaffrey? Which one is the there there?

"The answer to your question," he says, "is yes."

"I HONESTLY BELIEVE I've never looked at anyone's skin color and judged them that way, or even thought of them that way, like, 'You're white' or 'You're black' or 'You're brown.' Ever," McCaffrey says the day after the ESPYS.

"I know that everybody thinks that about themselves. Or most people do, until you get old enough to learn that race affects your perceptions of people in all sorts of ways that you're not always aware of. We all see color. We do. And anyone who says he doesn't see color is confused or isn't telling the truth. Except ... and I know how this sounds, but I can't remember any point in my life where I saw other people and thought of their color."

Not only didn't judge it, but didn't even think of it, or consider it?

"Yes ... Maybe at some level, even at an early age, without ever being aware of it, I was reacting to something. To people judging me based on how I looked instead of what I could do."

In other words, a kind of pre-emptive psychic projection of the Golden Rule onto the world and everyone in it: I don't want people judging me by my skin, so I'm not going to judge anyone else that way. I'm not even going to look at the color of their skin.

"I don't like to focus on this," McCaffrey adds. "The only reason that all that stuff even came up is because someone asked me a question on it, asked me if there was a misconception that white athletes can't do what other athletes can do. I was cued to say something about it."

In May, McCaffrey pointed out to Sports Illustrated the tendency of sports journalists to call white skill-position players like him "tough," as opposed to "explosive" and "athletic." People, he said, "underestimate me." The genie was out. The internet exploded. McCaffrey says the discussion was "rescued" by Stephen A. Smith.

"He's right," Smith shrugged on the air. "He's a white guy not receiving [respect] because of the color of his skin and the position that he plays."

"It was a relief," McCaffrey says. "I couldn't have said it better."

It'd be easy to chalk up the way others misread or downgrade McCaffrey generally to "haters" or "trolls." But he thinks it's simpler: "More like a lack of imagination." Shaw puts it in a neuroscientific context, citing virtual reality headsets he uses to train quarterbacks, which are designed to accelerate players' journeys to the proverbial 10,000 hours required for mastery.

"The technology teaches us that whatever your eyes serve up, your brain takes for real," says Shaw, in LA, a couple of days after I fly down with McCaffrey. "And if all you've ever seen, if all you have as precedent, is guys who look a certain way being the only ones who can play a certain way, you may literally not be able to see it when the guy who breaks the mold comes along."

An excellent case in point is a quote that appeared last November in the New York Post: "[McCaffrey] is one of the few players that I've been around that you can really say, 'Man, he can do everything well.' I could see the Patriots taking him and making him the next Wes Welker or Julian Edelman. He can run a million option routes." Welker, Edelman -- natch. Thing is, the quote came from Lance Taylor, the Cardinal's own -- McCaffrey's own -- running backs coach.

David Shaw is also exceptional: He is the Pac-12's only black coach, and if the Cardinal were to take it all the way, he would be the first black coach to win a Division I football national title. Yet when I ask if it was his race or background that let him see in McCaffrey what so many others didn't -- that is, to see past color, or to not see it at all -- he bristles. Kind of. And he uses the royal "we" to discuss a subject he seems to consider, if not trivial, then perhaps manufactured.

"We never considered or addressed it," he says. "Football coaches, I'm not saying we're better than anybody, but we have to be pure. We have to be able to see ability. And this kid, as quick as he is, as athletic as he is, and just as tough as he is and physical as he is, it was obvious."

Shaw, his eyes fixed on mine, lets an emphatic silence form: Got it? "It" being: Shaw can correctly read and recruit guys like McCaffrey not because he's a black coach but a good one -- and to suggest otherwise is to make the same mistake with him that others have made with McCaffrey.

"He walks the talk about developing men as well as football players," says Cardinal defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. "He doesn't do 'coachspeak.' He pays attention."

The same individualized, moment-by-moment attention I saw on that airplane as McCaffrey tuned in to the attendant's instructions on seat belt mechanics.

AMONG THE MANY crazy things about McCaffrey is the rare position he has been in all his life to watch world-class athletes up close, to observe the ways other people perceive those athletes and to note what those people do and don't get right.

Which inevitably brings us to the other subject McCaffrey is loath to discuss but knows he must: his family. The subject has been beaten to death, and McCaffrey bristles at the way any emphasis on his athletic lineage is an implicit de-emphasis on his unwavering work ethic, the degree to which he has created who and what he is. What's more, he looks like no one else in his family. Christian is a fireplug, with a low center of gravity, built for high rpm and rasslin'; his brothers, like their dad, are lean, long-legged gazelles.

So let's dispense with the aunts and uncles for now and make note, first, of the maternal grandfather, David Sime, who was at one point the world's fastest man, who won silver in the 100 meters at the 1960 Olympics. Then the mother, Lisa, a soccer star at Stanford. Then the three brothers, one older (Max, an undrafted rookie receiver with the Raiders), two younger (Dylan, a quarterback committed to Michigan, and Luke, a sophomore quarterback, both at Valor Christian in Highlands Ranch, Colorado). And then, of course, the father, Ed, the All-Pro receiver who played at Stanford before winning three Super Bowl rings.

The family: freaky stuff, scary stuff, OK?

Those family connections lead to a seemingly innocuous remembrance by McCaffrey: "Some of my best childhood memories are of watching Terrell Davis with my dad. I used to hang out when I was, like, 4 and 5 years old and play Power Rangers in the locker room with him and Shannon Sharpe and Rod Smith."

As one does.

"And I loved Terrell. He was awesome. I can still say he's the best running back I've seen live in person, and the best player live I've ever seen anywhere, period."

A beat.

"You do know," McCaffrey adds, "that Terrell Davis was a sixth-round pick, right?"

In other words, a stud of historic proportions whom others, with expert eyes, examined as closely as they could and somehow failed to see.

"There are a lot of 4.3s flipping burgers," McCaffrey says. "Even as a kid, I kind of understood that it takes so much more than being athletic. You need a time and a place and the right eyes on you. You have to figure out how to stand out in a positive way."

THAT LAST BIT, that bromide about standing out in a "positive way" -- does it register as a little bit sweet, or even pat?

If so, fair enough. But here's the thing: McCaffrey isn't just a student of the game. He's a smart guy, straight up. An Academic All-American, in fact. He does think about how language affects perception, and vice versa, and of the many different things "Christian McCaffrey" symbolizes and signals to many different people. He would probably do this if he weren't Christian McCaffrey, because he's a thoughtful guy. But as Christian McCaffrey, he's obligated to ponder his own semiotics, because going into fall 2016 he unquestionably is one of America's greatest college football stars.

It transcends football, the McCaffrey frisson. Just two nights before at the ESPYS, Julius Erving, Dr. Julius Erving, spotted McCaffrey across the room and chirped "Hey!" He walked up, shook the young man's hand, introduced himself and said, "I was just talking about you yesterday to a friend of mine!"

It's inescapable, this aura. Going into his senior year at Valor Christian, McCaffrey's teammates overwhelmingly voted him team captain. McCaffrey just said no; football, he explained, was a team sport. A rotation of seniors subsequently served as captains.

Like his athleticism, this way of being comes naturally to him, but he also works at it. He believes athletes can and should be role models and carry themselves accordingly, and he is perfectly happy to say so. Though he doesn't use the term, McCaffrey adheres to the old-school ideal of the student-athlete as someone who should, as he says, "put light out into the world." (To this end, he repeatedly, un-self-consciously, unfortunately quotes a John Mayer lyric about how "the heart of life is good.")

Coming from McCaffrey, these sentiments register as lofty and wholesome. And, inevitably, a bit quaint -- again, because they come from McCaffrey, who hails from a very well-off family and attends one of the nation's most academically elite institutions. (And don't forget: He's white!) Stanford may well be the only school in the top 20 where it is possible to see past the fact that college football is a billion-dollar enterprise that's turned the aspirational "student-athlete" into an ugly joke.

You converse with Christian McCaffrey, watch him interact with others over the course of an hour, a day, several days, waiting for the false note, for that moment when you glimpse the seams in the CGI. You try to see through to the calculation and manufacture taking place beneath the magic. And yet it never comes.

There are two simple reasons for this. The first is that McCaffrey really is this way. The second is that McCaffrey will tell you straight up that he's striving to be this way. And there you have it: There's no subtext with this guy. He's plain, in the Amish sense of the word, which is to say frank, never clever or cute, in the way he presents to the world.

Part of Pac-12 media days takes place in the courtyard of a teeming mall. A woman about to interview McCaffrey on camera spots three teenage girls strutting by and gets an idea. With one hand, she beckons them over, with the other she passes the mic to McCaffrey. The girls respond to the attention with a marvelous narcoleptic insouciance. A funny thing about Christian McCaffrey: He imparts a far more detailed and lasting visual impression when he is in motion (even if he's just walking) than he does when he is still. This is true of most people, more so of athletes. But the degree to which this is so with McCaffrey is truly striking. Even his face seems more faceted and lapidary -- and arrestingly handsome -- when he's in motion. It's almost as if some small but vital part of his existence becomes negligible when he's at rest. These teens barely even look at him.

"How do you think Stanford football is going to do this year?"

"Fine," says the tallest of the three. Her friends agree: "Of course, very fine."

"And how good do you think Christian McCaffrey could be this year?"

"Oh," says the tall one with a flick of the hand, indicating she's considered the question. "Very, very good, I think."

It's difficult to convey the delight McCaffrey gets from this moment, chatting with these girls who have never heard of Christian McCaffrey and are entirely unaware that they're in the presence of a person who is about a lot of things to a lot of people, increasingly so every day.

And it's delightful to witness McCaffrey freed, if just for a moment, from carrying himself, from the burden of his own symbolic weight. The smile on his face has a caption, something McCaffrey said to me several hours before: "There are certain things that people love to do, and they can't really explain it. That's me and football. The game gives me hope. It lets me be myself."

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