Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey: Chasing the Heisman Trophy…and Barry Sanders

Every now and then, a particularly exceptional player surfaces in the ranks of college football. Such a player was the great running back, Barry Sanders, who won college football’s coveted Heisman trophy back in 1988. Sanders was a running back at Oklahoma State University with speed and exceptional quickness, qualities which made him almost impossible to corral on the football field. His reputation was cemented by a stellar career with the NFL’s Detroit Lions; Sanders is regarded as one of the very best ever to play the game…. at any level.

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford University’s nationally-ranked football team has a player cast from the same mold as Sanders – sophomore Christian McCaffrey – running back, pass receiver, and punt/kickoff returner par-excellence. Linda and I were at Stanford Stadium last Friday evening to see young McCaffrey set a Stanford single-game school record for total all-purpose yards – 389 yards which included 192 yards rushing on 29 carries. In addition, the young phenom snaked his way through the entire University of California defense for a 49 yard touchdown off a screen pass followed by a 98 yard kickoff return for another score. That first touchdown showcased the Sanders-like balance, elusiveness, and anticipation that made Barry Sanders so unique. The second score highlighted McCaffrey’s flat-out speed as he glimpsed daylight and hit the afterburner, leaving all pursuers in the dust.

Rumors Last Season

There were rumors last season about young McCaffrey who, as an incoming freshman, deeply impressed the entire coaching staff and the other players not only with his ability, but with his mature attitude and work-ethic. Those rumors of something special surfaced early, emanating from spring football camp last year. Stanford head coach David Shaw occasionally played McCaffrey last season as a true freshman, but only in spot situations, preferring wisely not to overwhelm a young, budding talent with Stanford’s complicated offensive schemes. Whenever young Christian did trot out for a play or two, it was invariably with good results. In fact, I recall that on his very first play in the game we saw, he reeled off a long gainer.

As an alum and a long-time follower of Stanford football (since 1960), I have seen them come and seen them go, including some truly great players like Plunkett (Stanford’s only Heisman winner – 1970), Elway, Stenstrom, Luck, Hogan, Gerhart, Nelson, Hill, and Lofton. Sometimes, though, the early program hype does not fully materialize during the ensuing four years.

I wondered about young McCaffrey last year who still had a boyish-look about him, and, yes, talent and good speed….but why did Coach Shaw not utilize him more if he was that good? As this season opened, Stanford lost unexpectedly to Northwestern, and the entire team played poorly. Stanford has since decisively beaten all opponents except for a close loss to Oregon, late on the schedule.

Since the disastrous Northwestern opener, I have been surprised and impressed by two things about this Stanford team beside the fact that they are good:

First: The maturation of McCaffrey as a physical player since last year. He worked hard in the weight room during the off-season to bulk-up, adding an additional thirty pounds of mainly muscle – extra baggage which makes breaking tackles easier, but tends invariably to temper a player’s quickness. Now, as a sophomore, he is very physical going through the line yet more elusive than ever with greater quickness and flat-out speed than last year. In that respect, alone, he is an anomaly. There are few players around with the flat-out speed to catch him on his way to the end-zone. Very impressive, and it has been a long time since Stanford had a back who, like O.J. Simpson at USC, long ago, will not be caught from behind!

Second: I noticed Stanford’s team demeanor throughout televised games when the cameras routinely scanned the sidelines. I saw unmistakable signs of great team chemistry on display. McCaffrey is partly responsible for that, I am certain. It is a rare “star” player who is truly likable and revered by his teammates without reservation. In that vein, today’s local sports page highlighted some pertinent comments made by Coach Shaw:

-After Friday’s Cal game: “I haven’t seen anybody in America like this kid.”

-“Kickoff returner, runner, receiver, blocker – the kid’s just truly special. And our guys know that, and they take a lot of pride blocking for him.”

-Earlier in the year, Shaw commented in a half-time TV interview that his team had a good first half because they were playing hard and they were playing for each other. I believe the last part of Shaw’s comment fully explains the team chemistry – a credit to the individuals on the roster and a reflection on their young Heisman candidate, Christian McCaffrey.

A quick vignette to illustrate the point: Barry Sanders, Jr. – the son of the great Barry Sanders who holds the collegiate season record for all-purpose yards – ironically is a reserve running back to the man who is chasing his father’s long-standing record as well as the Heisman – young McCaffrey.

The junior Sanders is a talented back, but not in the same unique mold as his father. Earlier in the season, when young Sanders came in to spell McCaffrey and scored on a long run from scrimmage, he was mobbed by his teammates. The sincerity of their joy for young Sanders was evident. The season has been that way all along, and I credit McCaffrey’s presence and the coaching staff for nurturing the elusive team chemistry that is the mark of champions.

Out of curiosity, last night, I googled some of young McCaffrey’s recruiting film clips from his stellar high school career at Valor Christian High in Colorado. What I saw on film was the prelude to greatness which is currently unfolding at Stanford Stadium. One of young McCaffrey’s high school kickoff touchdown returns looked like a carbon-copy of what we saw last Friday night against the Cal Bears.

Reel after reel of great football plays and McCaffrey’s matter-of-fact reaction to his own success were the dominant themes. After a score, he politely hands the ball to the officials, modestly accepts inevitable congratulations from his teammates, and heads for the sidelines. I never once saw the “number 1” finger in the air, chest thumping, or strutting of any kind – and that self-effacing style is also evident at Stanford. How refreshing is that, in this age of self-promotion on the football field? I fully understand why McCaffrey’s teammates consider it a privilege to be blocking for him – all game long. Barring injury, he is on his way to becoming a truly great player as well as a fine example of what collegiate football should be all about!

Football Moxie and a Sprinter’s Speed:
A Rare Combination and a Great McCaffrey Story

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To understand how a Christian McCaffrey “happens along,” it helps to know something of his fascinating lineage:

His maternal grandfather is David Sime – silver medalist at 100 meters in the 1960 Rome Olympic Games and former world record holder in the 100 and 220 yard sprints. David Sime was the world’s fastest human in the time-frame of 1954/56.

Sime’s personal story is fascinating in itself, but suffice it to say he graduated from Duke University medical school as an ophthalmologist after missing the gold medal in the 100 meters by a hair to the German “Thief of Starts,” Armin Hary. He fathered several children, one of whom is Lisa Sime McCaffrey who graduated from Stanford after starring there on the women’s soccer team. While at Stanford, she met and subsequently married a 6-foot-five, lanky, sure-handed pass receiver on Stanford’s football team named Ed McCaffrey – Christian’s father. The senior McCaffrey was an All-American at Stanford and enjoyed a notable career in the NFL as a Denver Bronco. Ed McCaffrey is the owner of three Super Bowl rings.

Hearing the McCaffrey name (often) last Friday night at Stanford Stadium rekindled still-vibrant memories of sunny, Saturday afternoons at Stanford Stadium in the late 1980’s. I still hear the echoes of long-time stadium announcer Ed McCauley’s play-call floating above the crowd’s roar: “….the pass complete to Ed McCaffrey for 24 yards and a Stanford first down….”

Never forgot the sights, never forgot the sounds, never forgot the great ones.
Never will. Good luck to Christian McCaffrey…and GO STANFORD!

Should College Football Players Be Paid? Since When Do We Pay “Real” Students?

Just when I begin to question whether fact IS stranger than fiction, something like the recent news from the University of North Carolina comes along to verify my belief that “you just cannot make this stuff up!” The New York Times reported on October 22 that an investigation has concluded that athletes at U.N.C., including football players, had been receiving course grades (A’s and B’s) and credits for classes that were non-existent – imaginary entities whose primary intent was to keep marginal students and “student”-athletes academically eligible.

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Nudging this revelation even further into the realm of “unbelievable” is the allegation that this has been going on at U.N.C. for years. To quote the Times article, “…between 1993 and 2011, two employees in the university’s African and Afro-American studies department presided over what was a “shadow curriculum” designed to help struggling students – many of them Tar Heels athletes – stay afloat.”

Although the existence of these “shadow” classes and their bogus course credits had been public knowledge for three years, it has only recently come to light that members of athletic teams benefitted “disproportionately.” I’ll bet!

It is always interesting – no, fascinating – to watch large organizations whose hand has been caught in the cookie-jar avow that the larger management of that entity “just did not know” what was taking place. Penn State University was yet another tower of academia that recently claimed to be largely oblivious to the sexual abuse scandal that threatened the university and…especially, its beloved football program.

Sometimes I just want to shout-out, “What kind of butterballs do you take us (the public) for?” If upper management is truly unaware of major transgressions taking place within their organization, then they are only slightly less culpable than if they knew and did nothing about it. At some level of responsibility, ignorance is equivalent to incompetence, and incompetence of that kind is grounds for dismissal.

 There Are Things Worse than Tar On the Heel!

By not watching where they stepped, it seems that the Tar Heels have put their foot into something more disgusting and smelly than mere tar. On the one hand, I feel badly for the vast majority of students, faculty, and administration at U.N.C. who will undeservedly suffer from a tarnished reputation, as a result. On the other hand, the old saying that “we have met the enemy and he is us” implies that perpetrators of unscrupulous conduct are often aided and abetted by complacent colleagues who remained too silent for too long.

Sports, and football in particular, are an effective way for a college or university to promote their public image and to encourage alumni donations…and that is a shame. It says a lot about our human frailties, particularly when we come to suspect that some student-athletes we see on Saturday afternoon are only half of what their name implies, yet we proceed to brush reality aside and continue to relish the deception.

How About a “Freedom of Information”
Mandate on Colleges and Universities?

Here is what I propose: During those slick NCAA campus promotional pieces televised for each school during college football and basketball half-times, how about making it mandatory to reveal graduation rates over the last five years for the combined team members of the sport being televised? In addition, schools should be required to list the academic majors by category of all participants over those five years (graduates and non-graduates, alike) so viewers can come to their own conclusions regarding the integrity of each school and their athletic programs.

For audiences who care, such a mandate should readily identify the hypocrites of college sports, those institutions which have no compunctions while abandoning academics for the sake of major sports glory… and revenue.

The University of California at Berkeley basks in a long-standing reputation for academic excellence, yet its football (51 per-cent) and basketball (46 per-cent) graduation rates rank last in the Pac-12 athletic conference. Even these sad graduation rates can be claimed only after climbing several points from those of the previous year. Supposedly, admission requirements to Cal are very stringent?

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I love college football when it is played with genuine student-athletes and not so much when it is not. It is reasonable to concede a slightly lower high school GPA for entering students who also offer special talents honed on the athletic field. The same is true for students who bring with them special achievements in the arts. However, graduation rates at the 50% level for athletes imply an academic “pass” in the school’s admission office. The awarding of courtesy grades and credits in phantom college courses, as appears to be the case for some athletes and non-athletes at U.N.C., falls into an even more egregious category, it seems to me.

Today, there is discussion in some quarters about colleges and universities taking undue advantage of their athletes because of the vast sums of money flowing into the institutions. One could make a case for that claim. On the other hand, the star athletes who attract big bucks for their school are rewarded handsomely at graduation (or after athletic eligibility expires) as they are welcomed into the NFL or the NBA with multi-million dollar contracts. In addition, first-team athletes playing big-time college football and basketball inevitably receive full-ride scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars. For true student-athletes, that represents real value; for the rest, it’s merely free room and board while training for their professional sports careers. While some major league baseball teams, like the World Champion San Francisco Giants, have their own farm system in which to develop new, young players, colleges and universities unfortunately constitute the lone, de-facto farm system for professional football and basketball – a very cozy arrangement for all involved. A significant portion of today’s expensive college football tickets already goes to subsidize the training of future professional athletes. The very notion of pay-for-play in college sports as recompense for a system gone-bad is as cock-eyed as the behaviors which brought college sports to its present dilemma in the first place vis-à-vis the questionable “student”-athlete.

 Too Much Money in Sports – Professional and College

There was a time, not that long ago, when college football was fun to watch from inside the stadium. There were no television cameras present to slow the tempo of the contest with interminable commercials back then. Today, most major college football games are routinely televised…follow the money. The result: Long, drawn-out games and game-times which completely cater to the television networks. The message to loyal fans who miss the traditional, sun-drenched Saturday afternoon games: Deal with it or get lost! Back then, real student-athletes participated, parking was free, and tickets were available and affordable even for a young family. That was then, and this is now, and these things no longer hold true.

All of this makes me sad. Making me even sadder are the lengths to which some eminent colleges and universities will go to promote and profit from big-time college sports. Saddest of all are those schools which will even compromise their academic integrity in order to play the game.