PASADENA, Calif. — Welcome to The Year of Christian, 2016, when he’ll win the Heisman Trophy, have a video game created in his image, threaten Steph Curry for eyeball-bulging sports showmanship, beat Usain Bolt and American Pharoah in match races, make virtual reality obsolete and, better, educate us more about his humanitarian work in Rwanda.
He needed only the first 11 seconds of the Rose Bowl, Christian McCaffrey did, to reaffirm his electrogliding, hoverboarding presence to those hapless snoozers in the Midwest, South and East who didn’t catch on this season until he’d also left exhaust in their faces. On a typically glorious New Year’s Day in the Arroyo Seco, against a backdrop of mountains seemingly painted onto a blue skyscape, McCaffrey somehow was more spectacular than the scenery. Dressed head to toe in white, he streaked across the green lawn with sublime ease, shocking us only when he wasn’t busting another long one in Stanford’s 45-16 crushing of a dazed maze of Maize from Iowa.
If McCaffrey is coming off “the best year in the history of college football,” as coach David Shaw says, he laid claim Friday to one of the mesmerizing bowl performances ever. Add a Rose Bowl-record 368 all-purpose yards — 172 rushing, 105 receiving, 91 returning, with two touchdowns — to his all-time record 3,496 accrued through the first 13 games, and, yes, he has established a standard that won’t be broken until … he breaks it next season. Not even Heisman voters who rejected him last month, citing seven Stanford games that started past 10 p.m. Eastern time while apparently not familiar with DVRs, can ignore him after his latest masterpiece. Was he motivated by his runner-up finish to Alabama’s Derrick Henry?
“I’ve talked to some of the great players, and the great players play with a chip on their shoulders whether they have a reason or not,” McCaffrey said afterward. “I play for my team, my teammates, God, my family, and at the end of the day, whether I won anything or not, they’re the reason I play.”
Said Shaw: “It’s a shame a lot of people didn’t get a chance to see him before. Apparently, the games were too late. I thought Christian was the best [player in the country] before this game.”
There he was, on the game’s first play from scrimmage, lining up right of quarterback Kevin Hogan in the shotgun formation. There he was, running his route and making such a hard left cut that Iowa safety Jordan Lomax went flying toward Echo Park. There he was, catching the ball over the middle and romping untouched 75 yards for his first score, leaving one defender diving for air and three others staring at the No. 5 on his back.
It was the beginning of a performance to which we are accustomed on the West Coast, where the narrative of McCaffrey’s parents — football star meets soccer star on the Stanford campus, leading to the birth of a prodigy whose maternal grandfather held the world record in the 100-yard dash — already is legend. Now, America knows about him, too. On game’s eve, McCaffrey talked of watching the Rose Bowl as a kid. “I’ll try to make a memory myself,” he said. He made about 20 of them, using the moves and jukes that make him as elusive as he is Olympic-sprinter fast. Is he a creation of Elon Musk? Is his uniform lathered with grease?
Nah, it’s just natural, vintage McCaffrey, laying his groundwork as the next great American football hero, adding a 63-yard punt return for a score among other double-digit romps. Oh, and did we mention a 73-yard return TD that was nullified by a hold? Even when he wasn’t touching the ball, he was spooking the collective psyche of the overmatched Iowans, such as when Hogan deliberately set the ball on the ground, with McCaffrey beside him, and then, without taking his hand off it, throwing a 31-yard scoring pass to Michael Rector to make it 35-0 late in the first half. Minutes later, booing Iowa fans were subjected to a cow-and-farmer show by the rowdy Stanford band, which prompted ESPN to switch programming, not wanting to lose wide swaths of viewers in Cedar Rapids.
Much as NFL fans will be dreaming and drooling about him until the 2017 draft — we should inform Jed York that he’s just a sophomore — McCaffrey was most impressive talking about all things non-football during his week in Southern California. We knew about the piano, learning to play in high school as a way of “meeting girls,” as if that is a problem now. But before his senior year at Valor Christian in suburban Denver, when he already had opted for a Stanford education, he took a school-sponsored trip to Rwanda.
“One of the greatest things that ever happened to me,” McCaffrey said. “You land, and you see mud houses. You see a third world country. I’d only seen it on TV, but being there is a definite different experience. When you arrive, it’s a major culture shock. To meet the people and see how they have so little, yet they’re so happy, it’s one of the coolest things for me.”
Several years ago, Tim Tebow became a national darling for caring about bigger global matters. Might McCaffrey make a similar social impact in the coming year? Did Heisman voters know anything about his Rwanda trip?
“Coming back to America, where we have so much that we take for granted, it’s something that I just put in perspective that life is extremely precious,” he said. “It’s OK to take what we don’t have and make it a positive thing, because you look at people who have been affected by genocide, who are living in poverty, living off of a cup of porridge a day, who are so happy and filled with so much joy. I look at that and saw there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be happy, why we shouldn’t care for each other and love each other like they do there.”
Every day, we have to watch Bill Cosby coverage on TV, or Donald Trump. On Day One of 2016, we could watch a genuine human being … in a football uniform. McCaffrey keeps a picture of a 5-year-old Rwandan girl. “That was taken at the school that I was helping at,” he said. “Her name is Sonia, and she has a sister named Ruth and an older brother named Fabrice, and I was really, really close to them. I definitely miss her.”
And now that he’s a major star, what does he have planned next? A party like Johnny Manziel? “I thought about helping China do some stuff while my football career is going on because it’s such a platform that you have there,” he said. “That’s one of the advantages that we do have, using our name and using the success that we have to help other people.”
It’s a shame Stanford lost twice this season and didn’t make the four-team College Football Playoff. McCaffrey could have helped ESPN with its ratings, which, as predicted, were down 35.2 and 37.4 percent for the semifinals. So much for the arrogance of CFP officials in thinking they could “change the paradigm of New Year’s Eve.” And while ESPN claims it tried to persuade a date change to Jan. 2, how sad that a network paying $7.3 billion for the rights looks so soft and powerless.
So what comes next, a week from Monday, is “the natty.” We join the New York Times in heartily endorsing that it officially becomes The Natty, a clean break from the cumbersome way of describing the sport’s national title game. As it is, this College Football Playoff name is unimaginative, surely waiting for a company to slap on its name for a substantial rights fee, but thanks to lovable Dabo Swinney, we have a reprieve.
“All I know is, we’re going to the natty!” the Clemson coach proclaimed after permanently ditching the “Clemsoning” rap — the program’s way of botching big moments — in a 37-17 semifinal win over favored Oklahoma.
You’ll hear much about polar opposites: The dictatorial “process” of Nick Saban, who again has proven his coaching mastery and actually cracked a smile after Alabama’s 38-0 drubbing of Michigan State, juxtaposed against upstart Swinney, who will do the Dabo Dab and throw mass pizza parties and also has won 56 games in five years.
But Swinney will draw more attention than Saban for different reasons: his faith, which has permeated through his program in ways that will prompt heat now that he’s playing for a national championship. “I’m a Christian. If you have a problem with that, you don’t have to be here,” Swinney reportedly has told recruits, while also distributing Bibles to players, urging them to attend church services together and even baptizing a player in the Clemson stadium in an animal trough.
Those deeper discussions can wait until next week.
Right now, I’m enjoying another Christian, on the first day of a new year in the rest of his very cool, 19-year-old life.
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.