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Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey is living his best double life in 4/4 time

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Who were you at 23?

Maybe a vibrant young professional, moving into a new place in a new city, drowning in uncertainty and dirty Tupperware containers. Or maybe not even that put-together, stuck in a rhythm of staying up too late, playing music too loud, slugging cold brews too easily. No clear path to what the future held.

Twenty-three is still so young, after all.

Even for someone on the cusp of NFL superstardom.

Because although Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey — he of the record-setting sophomore season, a do-it-all weapon who might also be his team’s best receiver — is only 23, his age doesn’t tell his whole story.

“I just think with Christian, he’s a professional. Like, he’s old. He’s young, but he’s old. You know what I’m saying?” receiver Curtis Samuel, who was drafted with McCaffrey in 2017, told the Observer. “He’s got an old soul, if that’s the way to say it. I don’t know. I don’t really know how to say it.

“He’s an old man in a young man’s body.”

What exactly does that mean? McCaffrey has a duality to him. He’s the playful 23-year-old who quotes “Dumb and Dumber”, creates piano riffs with a 4/4 signature in his spare time more impressive than his 4.4 speed and binge-watches TV series. (Amazon’s superhero deconstruction, “The Boys” is the latest to sink its grappling hook into him.) Between all that, his trendy clothes and his more-jacked-than-ever frame, there’s no denying his youthfulness.

But those snapshots of McCaffrey don’t fully illustrate him. During football season, any imaginative energy is devoted to the game, not midweek interviews. He’s rigorous in workouts, drills, film study. From the time he walked into the locker room as a rookie, his close friend and left guard Greg Van Roten says McCaffrey has carried himself like an eight-year veteran.

“Just personality-wise, he’s a funny dude,” Van Roten said. “But yeah, when it comes to football? He’s focused and intense. Takes it really seriously.”

That juxtaposition — of a young kid still figuring out his life, versus one of the NFL’s best rising talents and one of Carolina’s most important players — is challenging. It requires McCaffrey to balance his personal and professional growth, like a teeter-totter with both ends sticking up.

It’s also something McCaffrey, consciously or not, has been preparing for his entire life.

“I think you can get better at everything. That’s in football. That’s in life,” McCaffrey told the Observer. “It’s a constant progression, and as long as you’re constantly striving to be better, you’re headed in the right direction.

“We had a quote on our field in college saying, ‘You are getting better or you are getting worse; you never stay the same.’ So I take that to heart. I firmly believe that.”

‘He’s been preparing for this his whole life’

It’s easy to see where McCaffrey gets his professionalism from.

“I think he’ll tell you, having his dad in the NFL and him growing up (around it), he kind of learned a lot not even really knowing it,” running back Reggie Bonnafon said. “Just being a little kid, being around NFL guys from a young age, seeing the work habits, things like that. It’s definitely played dividends for him.”

Added Samuel: “If you have a father that played in the NFL, he’s definitely going to teach you the way to approach things and the way to take care of yourself. Definitely being in a locker room, seeing it, it has advantages (and it’s) why he’s like that.”

Christian’s old man, Ed McCaffrey, played receiver for 13 NFL seasons, most successfully with the John Elway-era Denver Broncos. The elder McCaffrey accumulated more than 7,000 yards and scored 55 touchdowns over his career, winning three Super Bowls along the way.

That sort of experience isn’t lost on impressionable children. As such, all four McCaffrey brothers — Max (a free agent receiver who played at Duke), Christian, Dylan (quarterback at Michigan) and Luke (quarterback at Nebraska) — ended up in football, too.

And again, it helps when Dad can teach you how to watch film when you’re a teenager.

“I’ve always had some pretty good coaches, and we played different positions, but he definitely taught me a lot of how to study. Different keys of what to look for,” McCaffrey said. “He’s somebody that always taught us, whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability and put everything into it.”

That second part — about striving to be the best, relentlessly — is the most important thing McCaffrey learned from his father, even more so than any skill. It’s like there’s a switch in his brain, and someone flips it every time he has practice or a study session.

That never-ending drive pushed McCaffrey to play more snaps than any running back in the league last season. That, in turn, created his breakout season, with an NFL-record 107 receptions by a running back and 1,965 total yards, including more than 1,000 rushing.

“When I’m not training, I do a few things to get my mind off it,” McCaffrey said, “but really most of my life is revolved around football.”

And all that stems from what McCaffrey learned as a kid.

“When you are around someone who has won a couple of Super Bowls and played in the league as long as his dad did, you kind of have an advantage over everybody else who doesn’t know what it’s like when you get there,” Van Roten said. “In a way, he’s been preparing for this his whole life.”

‘I want to be remembered as ...’

For all McCaffrey has accomplished through two professional seasons, there’s still a thirst for more.

Again, he’s 23.

He writes down his specific goals at the front of his team notebook, the one he uses during film sessions and for pointers from coaches. It’s a list he’d prefer to keep private, McCaffrey says, but one he looks at “as much as I can.”

And keep in mind: These aren’t everyone else’s goals for him. They’re not the stats that fantasy football nerds hope he puts up this year — not that he much listens to outsiders anymore.

These are things McCaffrey expects — demands — of himself. For himself. There is no harsher judge.

“I stopped worrying about how other people define me a little bit ago,” McCaffrey said. “I used to care a lot. Now I just don’t care that much. Really, what I’m worried about is, am I being the best me I can be?

“At the end of the day, nobody has higher expectations for me than myself. I don’t really try to prove anyone wrong anymore as much as I try to prove myself right.”

Although, expectations around the locker room certainly aren’t low.

Asked to describe McCaffrey this week, quarterback Cam Newton said: “An outlet, safety valve, rescue button, life harness, an easy button. Ol’ go-to. C-Mac is just like a person I’ve been playing with for a long time. He’s very consistent, reliable and understanding of the game of football.”

Same goes for offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who previously turned a similarly gifted receiving back, LaDainian Tomlinson, into a Hall of Famer.

“Guys when they’re that young — he’s (23) years old — they get better,” Turner said Thursday. “Guys I’ve been around reach their prime at 26, 27, 28 ... so he’s just going to keep getting better in everything. He sees things better. I can’t say he catches better — he catches everything you throw to him — but he’s got a good feel for the offense.”

Since his season goals fall under the football umbrella in McCaffrey’s life, he keeps them close to the vest. Ask him about his brothers, and he’ll go on about how hectic it gets every summer when they reconvene in their Denver home. He’ll share stories about his dad’s intensity, how he obsessed over call sheets for eight hours the day before a recent high school game in Charlotte. (Ed is the head coach of Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, Colo.) Search “Christian McCaffrey piano” on Google, and you’ll find mini-documentaries about his musical prowess.

But football is where McCaffrey falls back into a sportswriter’s worst nightmare: “coach speak.” Generalities and cliches that shed absolutely no insight about a person or his personality. Except in McCaffrey’s case, his silence says everything. It’s not malicious. His mind is already occupied, churning and obsessing about pass protections and what route to run on a play-action pass.

He will offer some insight. Away from the masses, McCaffrey lets that wall down just enough for some of his long-term aspirations to squeak out. As he speaks, his words perfectly embody both sides of him — the young kid having fun and figuring it out, and the now-seasoned professional.

At 23.

“I just want to be remembered as somebody who gave it my all,” McCaffrey said. “You know, who never settled and who did everything I could for myself, for my teammates, for my family, and did it with all my heart, with all my might, at 100 percent.

“I’d like to be remembered as someone who brought a little bit of innovation to the game, I guess. Someone who just had a good time living his life. I’d like to think that I inspire people.

“Just someone who did it the right way.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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