How Christian McCaffrey’s Biggest Supporters Lost Him the Heisman

By Ben Leonard

It’s a sunny day in Pasadena, right out of a postcard. Behind the Rose Bowl, the cragged, rocky San Gabriel mountains loom, the backdrop to Christian McCaffrey’s stage. It’s not one he particularly enjoys — the quiet sophomore meekly smiles when the roar of Stanford fans sends him off the field and into the locker room before the game. He keeps his head and electric blue eyes down, as if trying to hide them from the crowd.

However, once the game starts, the soft-spoken McCaffrey shows no timidity. A ferocious cardinal and white blur zips down the sidelines, into the end zone. Again. And again, dashing and bouncing around like a crazed rabbit, making Hawkeyes fall to the ground like they were sniped, leaving a trail of black and gold carnage on the vast expanse of field.

As McCaffrey’s dominance continues, Iowa reporters around me in the press box start out groaning, and then enter a state of shock. The press box public address system had not-so-gently reminded them that this was a working press box, and that cheering was prohibited — but that’s not why they are now left speechless. I try to contain my excitement as Stanford takes an astonishing 38-0 lead over Iowa (12-1) early in the third quarter. Just like their reporters, the herds of Iowa fans fall deathly silent, staring vacantly — they’ve just seen McCaffrey run for the first time. And they realize what they missed.

Apparently, the Rose Bowl was the first time Heisman Trophy voters saw McCaffrey play too — but his two touchdowns and Rose Bowl record 386 all-purpose yards came too late. The true sophomore hailing from Castle Rock, Colorado was runner-up to Alabama’s Derrick Henry in the Heisman voting, despite having arguably the best statistical season in history. The award is given annually to the most outstanding player in college football — what else could McCaffrey do?

With 3,864, he had the most all-purpose yards (receiving, rushing, kick and punt return) in history, eclipsing the legendary Barry Sanders’ record (3,250 yards) in fewer touches. Once thought an unbreakable record, McCaffrey broke it, and then some. And some more. According to Pro Football Focus, McCaffrey had the single best grade for a running back — by 65% — in history.

From my view in the press box all season long, McCaffrey’s delicate yet explosive running style was superhuman. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said he hadn’t seen a player do so much for his team since the great Sanders — in fact, he used Sanders’ film to prep for the Rose Bowl.

What makes McCaffrey such a special athlete is his competitive nature when he steps between the lines — even when he’s playing chess. Stanford linebacker and team captain Blake Martinez said that when he worked with McCaffrey last summer at an internship, the two would play chess together every day. When one of them lost, they would “go berserk in the offices. There was another office right above us, and they would tell us to be quiet because we were screaming at each other, wanting to play another game.”

Fellow captain and quarterback Kevin Hogan also had a “beef” of sorts with McCaffrey before the Rose Bowl — McCaffrey even “whipped [his] butt in ping pong and pool,” Hogan’s forté. With a smile on his face, Hogan wished he could “find something…that [he] could beat him in.”

But once he steps outside the lines — McCaffrey’s the most humble athlete I’ve ever seen, and that’s not hyperbole. Unlike many athletes, McCaffrey seems to shy away from the spotlight.

“You never hear him brag about anything,” Stanford guard Joshua Garnett said. “You definitely know when he was at the Heisman Trophy presentation, he was itching to come back and come practice with his team. And the first time he came back to practice, you could tell how excited he was to be back with us. He’s a guy like me who doesn’t really enjoy the spotlight too much and wants to play football.”

Those who watched the film and played with him saw it well before his record-setting day in Pasadena— McCaffrey’s a once-a-generation type of player. “I think he was the best player in America before this game, so I think it’s just icing on the cake for us,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said after the Rose Bowl. “I think it’s a shame that a lot of people didn’t get a chance to see him him during the course of the year.”

Those who didn’t only took notice of him at the Rose Bowl, when it was too late. Perhaps his humility and soft-spoken nature are the reason he fell short of Henry — he didn’t look the part. It certainly didn’t help that Stanford started seven of its games after 10:30 PM EST — most East Coast Heisman voters were soundly asleep before Stanford had even finished the first half. Perhaps it was the fact that according to Fox Sports’ Joel Klatt, nearly 15 percent of voters turned in their ballots before McCaffrey’s final regular season game, when he shattered the school record with 461 all-purpose yards. Whatever the reason, the news didn’t even make it to the Midwest, much less the East Coast, until December 12th’s Heisman ceremony.

“I hadn’t heard too much about [McCaffrey until the ceremony],”  said Iowa senior linebacker Cole Fisher, according to Do-Hyoung Park at the Stanford Daily.

Maybe it’s not that McCaffrey didn’t like the spotlight — plenty of Heisman winners, including Henry have been similarly humble — maybe it’s that the spotlight didn’t like McCaffrey. Countless writers, myself included, cast McCaffrey as being the by-and-large best candidate, but one that wouldn’t win because he hadn’t gotten enough attention. It’s not like media members don’t read each other’s writing — voters in the east will read western writers’ work and vice versa. They’ll look for a quick analysis on McCaffrey and find that he won’t win — so he won’t. Because they won’t vote for someone who won’t win.

There’s a similar problem in reporting on politics — take democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, for example. If I had a dime for every time I heard “unelectable” attached to his name because he’s a socialist, I’d be able to buy the elections. Americans overwhelmingly believe in Sanders’ policies, yet consider him an unelectable radical because that’s what they’ve been told –according to a Pew research poll, “74% [of Americans] think corporations have too much influence; 85% want an overhaul of our campaign finance system to reduce the influence of money in politics;… 75% of Americans (including 53% of Republicans) support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50, and 92% want a society with far less income disparity.”

Yet despite the fact that most Americans believe in Sanders’ policies, only “47 percent of Americans say they would vote for a socialist for president,” according to that same poll. Casting him as unelectable isn’t reporting — it only has a place in a column or an editorial piece.

Voters in the American electoral and Heisman systems alike don’t do the work to read platforms, watch film, and do their fair share of research — they let others do it for them, who base their predictions on speculation instead of facts. Many media members I’ve spoken with and read grumble about the Heisman process — when they’re really part of the problem. I was part of it, too — even though I wasn’t a voter.

Christian McCaffrey didn’t lose the Heisman race because the games started too late — we stole his Heisman from him because we’re buying our own elections.