From Prized Recruit to Heisman Finalist: Christian McCaffrey's Inevitable Rise

Damon Sayles@@DamonSaylesNational Recruiting AnalystDecember 9, 2015

Christian McCaffrey has been electrifying all season for Stanford. On Saturday, the 19-year-old sophomore is hoping to be named the recipient of the 2015 Heisman Trophy.
Christian McCaffrey has been electrifying all season for Stanford. On Saturday, the 19-year-old sophomore is hoping to be named the recipient of the 2015 Heisman Trophy.Ben Margot/Associated Press

Goals. Every athlete has them.

As Christian McCaffrey prepares for one of the biggest days of his life as a football player, his goals as an athlete are remembered. Stanford's outstanding all-purpose sophomore athlete not long ago dreamed of winning a Heisman Trophy.

Once thought to be something of a pipe dream, McCaffrey now is one Saturday-evening announcement away from checking off one of the biggest goals of his athletic career.

"When he was little, he wrote a bunch of goals down. Someone once told him if he wanted to set goals, write them down," said Lisa McCaffrey, Christian's mother. "One of the goals was to win a Heisman Trophy.

"At first, we all were like, 'That's pretty cool; go for it.' But now, he really has a chance to achieve his goals."

Monday's touching scene at Stanford had the Internet buzzing. Not because of who it was, but because of how it appeared. McCaffrey and his Stanford teammates sat calmly yet eagerly, listening to 1998 Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams announce the names of the Heisman Trophy finalists who would be invited to New York for Saturday's prestigious ceremony.

They heard the names in alphabetical order. First name: Derrick Henry from Alabama. Second name: Christian McCaffrey from Stanford.

From there, the eruption of a dozen teammates was heard, and there was McCaffrey—as cool as the Julius Erving, New York Nets 32, ABA jersey he was wearing—with his head in his hands, fighting back emotions.

McCaffrey was going to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.

"I couldn't do it without my teammates," McCaffrey said in a postgame interview after Stanford beat USC to win the Pac-12 Championship Game. "I couldn't tell you how much I love those guys. It takes all 11 on the field doing their job correctly to make it all happen."

He then added: "I'd love to go [to New York]. That'd be a huge honor."

Mission accomplished. And one major goal now is within reach.

 

Winning Stanford over...with impact 

Before Mike Sanford was the offensive coordinator for Notre Dame, he was the quarterbacks and receivers coach, as well as the recruiting coordinator, for Stanford. And before McCaffrey was a Heisman Trophy finalist, he was a kid abusing defenses as a do-it-all athlete for Valor Christian High School, located in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, about 40 minutes outside of Denver.

Sanford was eyeing prospects in the Denver area in November 2012, the day before Stanford played a road game against Colorado, and he attended a high school game featuring Valor Christian. He originally didn't have a lot of film on McCaffrey, but he knew the last name well because of his father, three-time Super Bowl champion Ed McCaffrey.

It didn't take long for Sanford to notice McCaffrey's versatility, speed, elusiveness and field vision that has helped make him the athlete he is today.

"I watched him play, and I kid you not, he was literally the best football player on the field," Sanford said. "He did everything; he played running back, receiver, Wildcat quarterback, safety, cornerback ... the next morning, I told [head] Coach [David] Shaw that he might be one of the best players on our team right now."

Huge words delivered to Shaw, who played alongside McCaffrey's father as Stanford teammates in the 1990s. Sanford, however, didn't want Shaw to offer McCaffrey based off his last name. He wanted Shaw and the entire staff to see more.

Sanford wanted everyone to see what Brent Vieselmeyer saw on a daily basis. Vieselmeyer is in his first season as assistant linebackers coach with the Oakland Raiders, but before the Raiders—and two seasons coaching college ball at Houston Baptist—he was McCaffrey's head coach at Valor Christian.

If anyone knew about McCaffrey's talent and overall versatility, Vieselmeyer was the guy.

"He's so unique," Vieselmeyer told the Denver Post (via Scout.com) in May 2013. "He can do so many things—catch the ball, block punts, run returns. He can be a power back. He's not a normal type of player, that's for sure."

Stanford offered McCaffrey, the nation's No. 2 all-purpose back in the 2014 class, shortly after Sanford's trip, and on May 2, 2013, he gave his verbal commitment to the Cardinal, choosing to follow in his father's footsteps.

Only now, he's bypassing his father's footsteps from a statistical standpoint. In 2015, McCaffrey has rushed 319 times for 1,847 yards and eight touchdowns. He's caught 41 passes for 540 yards and four scores. He's also thrown two touchdown passes. And then there's his special teams play, with 1,042 kickoff return yards and a touchdown.

A Heisman Trophy would help in trading war stories down the line with a father who has had his success on the field.

"From afar, I'm rooting for him," Sanford said laughing, knowing that Stanford and Notre Dame are rivals. "At the end of the day, I think really high of Christian and their coaching staff. Of course you want to see your guys do well against him first, but I'll always root for his personal success."

 

A family loaded with talent 

The second-oldest of four sons, McCaffrey was one of those children people knew would be athletic gold if athletics were his thing. His father played 13 seasons in the NFL. His mother, Lisa McCaffrey (formerly Lisa Sime), was an outstanding soccer player at Stanford.

Athleticism was all around Christian. His uncle, Billy McCaffrey, played college basketball at Duke and Vanderbilt before playing professionally overseas in the 1990s. His grandfather, David Sime, was an Olympic sprinter and hurdler who held world records in the 1950s.

And then there are Christian's brothers. Oldest brother Max McCaffrey is a 21-year-old senior receiver at Duke. Younger brother Dylan McCaffrey is a 16-year-old junior at Valor Christian and the nation's No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the 2017 class. Youngest brother Luke McCaffrey is a 14-year-old freshman at Valor Christian. He also plays quarterback.

Going the athletic angle seemed too easy for Christian—particularly football, even though he was never pushed into the sport.

"I still remember when he first stepped on a football field. He begged to play tackle [football]," Lisa said. "He was seven, and we told him we were going to wait until he got older. When we finally let him, it was like a horse out the gates at the Kentucky Derby.

"I remember him getting in a stance where he really looked like a good football player. And we've had the pleasure of watching him excel at every level."

McCaffrey helped Valor Christian win a championship every year of his high school career. The team has won six Colorado state championships in seven years, and he was a senior on the team that won its fifth-consecutive title.

McCaffrey was a U.S. Army All-American in 2014, and many were expecting to see his talents displayed during the summer of 2013 at The Opening, the prestigious all-star event featuring the nation's best. McCaffrey, however, had scheduling conflicts with his 7-on-7 team and couldn't make any qualifying events, but he stayed on the radar of the entire The Opening staff.

"On tape, you could see the acceleration and balance that is on full display now at Stanford," said Brian Stumpf, vice president of football events for student sports and one of the voices for both The Opening and Elite 11.

"I'll add that he was one of the most courteous, nicest kids that I've dealt with. He was always super appreciative of any communication, quick to respond and grateful for opportunities and consideration. An A-plus kid."

While every McCaffrey son seems to shine on the field, they all have different personalities. Max is the conscientious hard-worker. He set the bar for the others, and the bar was set high. Dylan is the natural-born leader by actions over words. His mother described him with adjectives like "introspective" and "cerebral." And Luke is the happy-go-lucky baby of the bunch, the extrovert who could be his school's homecoming king in a couple of years.

And then, there's Christian.

"Infectious. You saw him work, and it made you want to work just as hard," Lisa said. "You get him on a team, and he's very serious about it; it's very important to him that he does well for the team. During the offseason, he trains like it's the [regular] season.

"We used to joke when he was little that he'd be happy doing whatever in life—whether it was football, being a toll-booth collector, a barber, a doctor, whatever. And we knew that he would do whatever it took to win. He put everything he had in whatever he was doing. He was just a fun kid to raise."

And now, the 19-year-old kid is days away from potentially being the Heisman Trophy winner. But even that hasn't affected Christian's low-key demeanor.

"After the [finalists] announcement, he went outside and laid on the practice field," Lisa said. "We FaceTimed each other and talked about enjoying the moment and not letting it get too big. We all said it to each other, including Ed and I. We're just trying to appreciate where he is and where we are as his parents.

"And then he said he wanted to get into his shorts and just go jump in a pool. I told him, 'You're a Heisman candidate. Go jump in the pool.'"

 

Campaigning for Christian

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Before he was a Super Bowl champion, Richard Sherman was a Stanford cornerback—and a very proud Cardinal backer. Back in October, he recognized McCaffrey's greatness when others didn't.

"Apparently, I have to say this, because it has to happen, because nobody will campaign for him, but ... Christian McCaffrey for Heisman," Sherman told 710 AM, ESPN Seattle (6:50 mark). Let's make that happen."

Former Oregon standout LaMichael James, a 2010 Heisman Trophy finalist, gave his take, as well, calling McCaffrey "the best player in the country, definitely."

"Look at what he does for his team," James said during Nike's invitation-only 2016 Football Summit (via 247Sports) in Beaverton, Oregon. "He does everything in my opinion. He's the best player out there."

Stanford fully supports McCaffrey and is campaigning for him with WildCaff.com, a website dedicated to tracking his highlights and stats.

McCaffrey is hoping Saturday will be his night, not just for him but for his family and university. Stanford has been in the running for the Heisman three times since 2009, with running back Toby Gerhart (2009) and quarterback Andrew Luck (2010 and 2011). The Cardinal, however, only have one Heisman Trophy winner in NFL great Jim Plunkett (1970).

The Heisman talk for McCaffrey started slow but really picked up toward the end of Stanford's regular season. Was it because of Stanford's Pac-12 schedule? Was it because of McCaffrey playing on the west coast, three hours after east-coast evaluators watched other conferences like the SEC or Big Ten compete?

Or maybe it was because first impressions simply were way off? Physically, McCaffrey doesn't have a super-imposing physique. He's 6'0" and 201 pounds, about the same size as many other skill-position athletes in college football. He doesn't have the 6'3", 242-pound frame possessed by Alabama running back Derrick Henry, who many believe will win the Heisman on Saturday.

"A lot of times, I got confused for a kicker," McCaffrey told Fox Sports in October. "And I've been compared to every white player in the NFL."

Dazzling the crowds and making the critics do a double-take has been what McCaffrey's done best all season long. He has an FBS-record 3,496 all-purpose yards and leads the nation with 268.9 all-purpose yards per game.

McCaffrey additionally broke a 27-year-old NCAA single-season record on Saturday by tallying 461 all-purpose yards (207 rushing, 105 receiving, 120 kick return and 29 punt return) in leading the Cardinal past USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

The person who held that record: 1988 Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders, whose son, Barry J. Sanders, is a teammate of McCaffrey's at Stanford.

McCaffrey's performance was enough to give USC linebacker Su'a Cravens his Heisman endorsement following the game.

"I mean, 'What doesn't he do?' is what you could ask me," Cravens said, via ESPN. "He catches the ball in the backfield, makes the guy miss and takes it to the house. [He] rushes the ball inside and on the edge and scores with any play they draw for him. He's just a special guy.

"In my opinion, he should win the Heisman."

Many at and surrounding Stanford echo those remarks, but Saturday will determine if the voters agree. Henry and Watson both are worthy candidates, and a winner will be televised nationally at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.

"You know what?" Lisa McCaffrey said. "No matter what, he's already won. To have his name mentioned as a Heisman candidate ... wow. I'm just so proud of him."

 

Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles