Why you should care
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This OZY encore was originally published Oct. 29, 2015.
It was a routine night at Stanford Stadium for star running back Christian McCaffrey. Against the University of Washington last Saturday, the do-it-all sophomore piled up yards like a video game character: rushing for 109, catching five passes for 112, returning kicks for 79 more. Oh, and scoring two touchdowns — one on a 50-yard catch and another on a 7-yard run while bouncing off three would-be tacklers. After wearing out the Huskies, there was another routine: passing a billboard featuring Stanford’s 63 All-American players — including his dad, Ed, class of 1990.
McCaffrey has always known what geneticists have confirmed in their labs — that it’s cool to have big-time athlete parents. The 19-year-old, whose bloodlines include his NFL Pro Bowl receiver dad, a collegiate soccer-playing mom and an Olympic sprint medalist grandfather, is making the most of his DNA this college football season. He’s pushed his way into the Heisman Trophy race by averaging a national-best 260 all-purpose yards per game this season — no one else has more than 220 — and helping lead the Cardinals to a 6-1 record and a No. 8 national ranking. “I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t very thankful for my genes.’’ he told OZY after a midweek practice. “I think it’s definitely given me a head start.”
He’s the latest breakout star in a long line of so-called legacy athletes.The NFL has its Manning dynasty — Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks Peyton and Eli are sons of former Pro Bowl passer Archie — and the NBA champion Golden State Warriors’ sharpshooting Splash Brothers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, are both second-generation hoops stars. Alun Williams, who runs the Cheshire Sports Genomics Laboratory in England, says that sort of breeding is key to sports success. “Maybe 50 to 70 percent of the differences between people in their athletic abilities is probably inherited,” he says.
At Stanford, McCaffrey’s not the only player with turbocharged DNA. He splits time in the backfield with Barry Sanders Jr., son and namesake of one of the greatest NFL running backs ever. He shares uniform No. 5 with safety Kodi Whitfield, whose father was an NFL offensive tackle for 15 seasons. Andrew Luck, Stanford’s quarterback from 2009–11 (who twice finished second in the Heisman voting), followed his father, Oliver, to the pros. Mikael Mattsson, a visiting assistant professor at Stanford who studies the DNA of elite endurance athletes, laughs and offers a resounding “no’’ when asked if the university is secretly breeding sports stars in a campus lab.
There are more McCaffrey offspring on football fields elsewhere. Older brother Max is a senior wide receiver at Duke University. Dylan is the starting quarterback at Valor Christian High School in suburban Denver, and Luke is a freshman quarterback there. Christian led Valor Christian to four state titles, and his Colorado-record 141 touchdowns are the seventh-most in history by a U.S. high schooler.
Of course, there also are disadvantages for a legacy athlete. Expectations can be high — or skewed. Christian grew up much shorter and lighter than his lanky dad, who earned three Super Bowl rings in the NFL, and some colleges underestimated him despite his gaudy high school stats. He was also relatively small for the position he aimed to play, and some wondered whether the undersize white kid from the suburbs had the stuff to be a big-time college back. And famous parents can cast long shadows, even over Heisman candidates. But McCaffrey, who grew up idolizing his father, keeps things real. That photo of his All-American dad he passes daily? It’s hilarious, he laughs. “He really needed a haircut.’’
McCaffrey, who has the classic blond, blue-eyed looks of the archetypal All-American boy, has supplemented his good genes with hard work, spending this past summer building muscle in the weight room even while interning for a commercial realtor. Though he’s now a solid 6 feet and 201 pounds, that’s still pint-size compared to the defensive linemen and linebackers trying to tackle him. He takes a pounding — he did postgame interviews last weekend with ice packs taped to both knees and his left hand. He compensates with speed, agility and the strength to break tackles, making him what Washington coach Chris Petersen calls “real disruptive.’’
Petersen’s team had pulled to within 17-7 Saturday before McCaffrey started disrupting. He took a short pass 50 yards for a score and then put the game out of reach, waiting patiently behind his blockers before spinning through three Huskies and falling into the end zone for another touchdown in Stanford’s 31-14 victory.
Sports Illustrated this week ranks McCaffrey No. 5 on its “Heisman Watch.’’ In a genuine aw-shucks manner, he says it’s an honor to be discussed for college football’s top individual prize but won’t let it become a distraction. Winning it, this year or in the future, he says, would be great but probably would not impress him as much as the “life-changing’’ high school trip he took to help build a playground in Rwanda. “It really made me look at life in a different perspective,’’ he says. “Enjoy what we have. We’re all so blessed to be drinking chocolate milk after practice and going to school for free. They would kill to be able to do that. It’s just very humbling.’’