Heisman Trophy finalists, from left, Alabama's Derrick Henry, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey and Clemson's Deshaun Watson pose for a photo with the Heisman Trophy before the start of the award presentation show, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in New York. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

Foolish to say race cost McCaffrey

He was alone in the front row now, the seat beside him vacated by the peer who’d been called onstage to accept the Heisman Trophy. Christian McCaffrey shook Derrick Henry’s hand, then sat down in the theater off Times Square and watched the Alabama running back thank God, his family and Nick Saban, though not necessarily in that order of priority.

McCaffrey, the all-purpose power plant who seemed more a Silicon Valley app this season than a Stanford football star, was the runnerup Saturday night. And the vote wasn’t nearly as close as it should have been, which will give even louder voice to those who opined last week that McCaffrey would lose as a victim of … racial bias. Disturbing to say, some purportedly responsible media members have been advancing this drivel — their names aren’t worthy of mention on credible platforms — with their dangerous rationale sounding something like this:

Henry is black. McCaffrey is white. The running back position is the domain of black players, and any fast and athletic white running back is an outlier and a freak who, thus, wouldn’t garner enough support to be named college football’s outstanding player.

In a country struggling with an explosive racial problem, that is not only a reckless view but wildly erroneous. If McCaffrey was a victim of electoral bias, it’s grounded in a blind prejudice across most of America that the Southeastern Conference — of which Alabama is a predominant brand name — remains supreme in any national judgments about the college game. Race? It’s a vehicle for media people to be heard and cash in via TV salaries when, in McCaffrey’s case, the interjection doesn’t make the least bit of sense. He wouldn’t have been in New York among the three finalists if there was bias against a white athlete at a so-called speed position. He wouldn’t have garnered as much support as he did in the polls, totaling 1,539 points to Henry’s 1,832 in far outdistancing the third-place finisher, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.

A perception problem might be the Pac-12 Conference, which still has no deal with DirectTV for its nebulous network while the SEC is fueled by the ESPN colossus. A perception problem might involve the Pacific time zone and the conference’s regrettable insistence that Stanford play seven Saturday night games with kickoffs after 7 p.m., which meant East, South and Midwest voters had to stay up late to watch McCaffrey or invest in a device called a DVR when, of course, the accounting department likely would reject the expense. A perception problem also may have been that McCaffrey was obscure last season, when coach David Shaw limited his freshman touches until he became stronger and learned the positional nuances of waiting for blockers.

But race? The times are much too sensitive to use a hallowed college football honor as a talk-show forum and Twitter brushfire. An Academic All-America selection, McCaffrey understands that much better than the idiots who try to infame and exacerbate.

“I don’t focus on race, just football,” McCaffrey said when asked about the issue by ESPN. “Most white running backs are perceived to be big up-the-middle guys. I don’t fit that stereotype.”

What he fits is an excitement quotient that might make Stephen Curry the more fitting comparison than Henry — as in, who’s the most fun athlete to watch in American sports? Anyone who saw McCaffrey knows how he made eyeballs protrude, jaws drop and blood gurgle. You want raw digits? No player in college football history generated more yardage in a single season, 3,496, which bested the 27-year record of the great Barry Sanders — who is in two Halls of Fame and won the Heisman. His average-yards per touch this season is 8.4, which made me laugh when analyst Tim Tebow, on the Heisman broadcast, said this when endorsing Henry: He carried 46 times against Auburn, then carried 44 times against Florida the next week.

“Dude is a freak,” Tebow said.

Not to denigate Henry’s workhorse production for a team heading to the College Football Playoff semifinal, but if he’s a freak, what exactly is McCaffrey? When he touches the ball 90 times, his output, by average, is 756 yards. “I think he’s had the best season of anyone who ever has played college football,” Shaw said. “I’m comfortable in saying that. It’s not just a really good year. This is an historic year. He did something that no one has ever done and has done it better than everyone who has ever won a Heisman. It’s phenomenal.”

Yet it wasn’t good enough to win him the ol’ bronze stiff-arm. Which is a shame, because here is a college athlete we want to believe in, after too much Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston in recent seasons. McCaffrey is the one you’d pay the most to watch. McCaffrey is the one you’d want running your company in 20 years. McCaffrey is the one whose family you’d like to join at the dinner table. And he’s the one whose humility, like Curry’s, is genuine, but whose confidence, also like Curry’s, is off the map. As a high school freshman at Valor Christian, outside of Denver, he wrote among a list of goals that he wanted to contend for the Heisman.

“It’s been a goal of mine for a long time,” McCaffrey told a media gathering after arriving for his first New York visit. “I like to be the best at what I do, and that means the Heisman Trophy at this level.

“I try to set goals and emphasize them and work toward them. I don’t set goals and brush by them.”

So next season, when he’s just 20, McCaffrey will try again to become Stanford’s first Heisman winner since Jim Plunkett after four other near-misses: Andrew Luck twice, Toby Gerhart and John Elway. The competition will be more difficult in the forms of Watson, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, Oregon running back Royce Freeman, Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer and Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, among others.

“But now I know what it takes,” McCaffrey said. “Following with anything less than that is unacceptable for me.”

I hope he wins. I want to hear what the race mongers have to say then.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

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