Is he wearing jet propulsion engines? Is his uniform greased? Or, this being Silicon Valley, might Elon Musk have something to do with the red streak whisking through the night? A white guy can’t be this fast and elusive without help, and don’t fault me for invoking race in the Christian McCaffrey narrative when his mother did so first.
Seems a sports love affair blossomed at Stanford in the late ’80s, a football player hooking up with a soccer player. Years later, after they married and became parents, Ed and Lisa McCaffrey sat for a Sports Illustrated profile while Ed was a star wide receiver for the Denver Broncos in their Super Bowl-champion years. The subject turned to their frolicking preschool sons, prompting Lisa to tell reporter Mike Silver, “That’s why Ed and I got together — so we could breed fast white guys.”
That, they did. There isn’t a more electrifying player in college football than their offspring, Christian, who used a national TV stage Thursday night to inform Leonard Fournette and the sport’s other gamemakers that he has own montage of sick stuff. From his very first offensive play in Stanford’s 56-35 stomping of UCLA, this was McCaffrey’s record-breaking neon showcase, raging toward the midnight hour with 369 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns in what has become an unstoppable and highly entertaning — I repeat, unstoppable and highly entertaining — attack for a program that only recently was criticized for wishy-washy conservatism. With eight straight victories over UCLA — its defense without linebacker Myles Jack, lineman Eddie Vanderdoes and cornerback Fabian Moreau — and four straight games of at least 41 points offensively, coach David Shaw can think about more than a Pac-12 conference title at this point.
I didn’t say he will think about the College Football Playoffs. I said he can.
McCaffrey’s presence alone gives him the right.
“He’s a great runner, a great player,” Shaw said.
“A very special player,” quarterback Kevin Hogan said. “It doesn’t matter where he is. He’s just a playmaker when he gets the ball in his hands.”
The usual pockets of empty seats were visible. It’s the Bay Area’s loss for not filling the lovely, intimate bowl on campus, where bad vantage points are few. You’re missing the region’s most fun solo sports spectacle outside of Stephen Curry, with McCaffrey passing early Heisman Trophy frontrunner Fournette and assuming the national lead in all-purpose yardage. He rushed for 243 yards and four scores. He combined for 122 yards on kick and punt returns, including a 96-yarder that set up another touchdown. He lined up and took the direct snap in the Wildcat formation. He has a way of spotting a hole, gliding through it, shifting, dipping, stutter-stepping, eluding, then sprinting in open space like, well, an Olympic sprinter. Did I mention that his grandfather, David Sime, once held the world record in the 100-yard dash and won silver in the same event at the 1960 Olympics?
Combine the lineage with his childhood dream of becoming a great running back — he had wall posters of Walter Payton, Bo Jackson and Barry Sanders, father of his Stanford running mate — and a feeling came over all of us in attendance: We are watching the beginnings of something very special, on this level and the next.
“My goal was always to be like all of them,” McCaffrey said. “It’s so hard to try to emulate someone. I just try to do as much as I can and be as versatile as possible.”
And to think a year ago, as a true freshman, Shaw was reluctant to use McCaffrey because he didn’t know the playbook too well. Playbook? Just get him the ball and watch him run. It helped that he lost some baby fat and added lean muscle to his upper body, transforming him into a dynamo seemingly capable of anything.
“His all-purpose yards are off the charts,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “He’s just a really tremendous player.”
“A lot of times,” said UCLA linebacker Deon Hollins, “guys think they have him down, and he’s still wiggling back there.”
His eruptions only served to free up teammates for their own blasts. Hogan, who sent USC and Steve Sarkisian on a downward spiral last month with his gutsy performance on one leg, is a much healthier quarterback these days — and only more than happy to wing a deep ball in the third quarter, off a fleaflicker, by golly. It was grabbed in the end zone, somehow, by speedster receiver Francis Owusu, who, in the damndest twist, grasped the ball as it was pinned against the back of UCLA’s Jaleel Wadood as they fell in a sandwich. Wadood interfered with Owusu, too. That’s why Hogan raced downfield to celebrate, his 29th career victory in his pocket.
The Stanford defense made plays, too, with cornerback Alijah Holder picking off UCLA’s Josh “Chosen” Rosen and running it back for a touchdown in the opening minutes. The only downer came when star linebacker Blake Martinez, the nation’s leading tackler, was targeted on a cheap shot to the jaw by UCLA’s Kenneth Walker III, who was disqualfied while Martinez stuck a towel in his mouth.
This team is loaded with offensive gifts. Sanders and Bryce Love drop jaws and take runs to the house. Austin Hooper is the best tight end in the country. But they are supporting-cast members at the moment, much as Shaw protests when the subject inevitably turns to McCaffrey. “He’s a great player but an even better teammate,” the coach said. “He works extremely hard and cheers when other guys make plays.”
Indeed, McCaffrey quickly credits his offensive line. “With our guys, anything is possible,” he said. After the USC game, he took the linemen out to In-N-Out Burger. But between the third and fourth quarters Thursday night, a pop-music tribute seemed to overwhelm all shared praise: “You will remember me … for centuries.”
He wears No. 5. Why? Because Reggie Bush wore it at USC.
Christian McCaffrey may win a Heisman, too. Here’s guessing he won’t have to give his back.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.