CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- David Shaw remembers that look.
Of all the amazing things Christian McCaffrey achieved on the field at Stanford, his college head coach remembers the look on McCaffrey's face on his way to an early-season Monday night practice in 2015, after learning he was being held out in order to rest.
It was that look that personified McCaffrey's intense competitive nature. It was that look that made Shaw fully grasp what the Carolina Panthers and NFL now are seeing on a weekly basis -- why McCaffrey is special beyond his athletic ability.
“It was the first time he was really ever mad at me,” Shaw said with a laugh. “It’s just not in his DNA to ever take his foot off the gas pedal. He didn’t say a word, but he gave me that look, that look like, 'You can’t take football away from me.'
“It’s just the fire that he brings every single day.”
McCaffrey will bring that fire back to Silicon Valley on Sunday to face the 6-0 San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium, about 13 miles from where he burst onto the national scene at Stanford in 2015 by smashing the NCAA record for all-purpose yards in a season with 3,853, which was 603 yards more than previous record holder Barry Sanders achieved in 1988.
It’s not McCaffrey's first return to the Bay Area as an NFL player. He came back for the 2017 opener as a rookie, when he shared the backfield with veteran Jonathan Stewart.
But this is McCaffrey’s first return as an NFL star, ranking third in the NFL in rushing (618 yards) and second in total yards from scrimmage (923), though leader Dalvin Cook has played one more game.
Along with McCaffrey's parents, Lisa and Ed, who both went to Stanford, the stands will be filled with old friends, teammates and coaches there to watch a player they believe deserved to win the 2015 Heisman Trophy.
Niners coach Kyle Shanahan has more than a passing interest in this homecoming. Besides trying to stop McCaffrey -- who he says has reached a “freak level” -- he watched the now 23-year-old grow up when Shanahan's father, Mike, coached McCaffrey’s dad with the Denver Broncos.
Kyle Shanahan wore Ed McCaffrey’s No. 87 in college because the wide receiver was his hero.
Shanahan admits it wasn’t easy when his 49ers drafted McCaffrey’s Stanford roommate, defensive end Solomon Thomas, with the No. 2 pick in 2017 to fill a more pressing need, then watched McCaffrey go No. 8 to Carolina.
“Especially being an offensive coach and thinking all the fun things that you can do with a guy like that,” Shanahan said. “It’s definitely a hard feeling, like I’m watching Marshall Faulk coming to town.”
The legend begins
In Stanford’s 2014 opener against UC Davis, a somewhat underdeveloped freshman running back made his debut.
“We put him in on an option route,” Shaw recalled. “It was a blitz, and it was just him and the safety. We all knew that guy didn’t have a prayer.”
Although 2015 was McCaffrey’s breakout on the national scene, the 52-yard touchdown catch on his first play in 2014 was a sneak preview.
“That’s where the legend began.” Shaw said.
McCaffrey wasn’t a starter then. The staff didn’t believe he was big enough or strong enough to be an every-down back and challenged him to bulk up in the offseason.
McCaffrey did, pushing harder to get stronger and faster than any player Shaw had seen.
“That sophomore year, it was the strength, the power and the speed, but also the mentality,” Shaw said. “The mentality was to go out there and dominate. Not just in games. Dominate practice and set a level of performance so high that you challenge everybody to reach.”
McCaffrey’s historic season actually began slowly. He had a combined 206 yards rushing in the first two games, a loss to Northwestern and a win over UCF.
It wasn’t until the third game, against USC, that McCaffrey topped 100 yards rushing. And it wasn’t even a run that former Stanford running backs coach Lance Taylor remembers the most.
“We faked a jet-sweep run, and we were releasing Christian up the hash,” said Taylor, now the running backs coach at Notre Dame. “The safety stayed back, so we checked the ball down to Bryce Love.
“Christian proceeds to get two pancakes blocking for Bryce. When [McCaffrey's] name started coming up for the Heisman, that was a play I mentioned when people asked me what type of player he was.”
Then came a Thursday night game against 18th-ranked UCLA. McCaffrey rushed 25 times for 243 yards and four touchdowns, caught one pass for 4 yards and returned two punts for 122 yards -- a total of 369 all-purpose yards.
“That was the one that started the hype train,” Taylor said.
Former Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, now the head coach at Rice, said it was “ridiculous” what McCaffrey did.
“That game was such a coming-out party for him,” he said. “He was a man among boys. And if I remember correctly, we sat him out the entire fourth quarter.”
The hype train reached a pinnacle in the Pac-12 championship against USC. McCaffrey rushed for 207 yards and a touchdown, caught four passes for 105 yards and a touchdown, completed one pass for an 11-yard touchdown, returned five kicks for 120 yards and returned two punts for 29 yards.
Total: 472 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns.
A week after the Pac-12 championship, the Heisman Trophy went to Alabama running back Derrick Henry, who set an SEC single-season rushing record with 1,986 yards and helped the Crimson Tide to the national title.
McCaffrey finished second, 293 points behind.
“The fact he didn’t win it is a disgrace to the trophy,” Thomas said. “Embarrassing, actually.”
Taylor, who spent McCaffrey’s first two NFL seasons coaching wide receivers for the Panthers, agreed.
“It was almost, to me, tragic in how it ended,” he said. “A real travesty to how great his season was. You look at the records he broke ... the guy had video-game-like numbers."
The first time McCaffrey touched the ball in a game after finishing second in the Heisman voting, it took 11 seconds for him to take a short catch 75 yards for a touchdown in the Rose Bowl.
“You could tell losing the Heisman fueled his fire,” Taylor said. “That’s how he embraced everything in his life. Every time somebody has doubted him, he has embraced that and used it as fuel for his fire.”
The topic of McCaffrey losing the Heisman came up a few weeks ago in the Carolina running backs room.
“If he was at Alabama, he definitely would have won the Heisman Trophy,” said rookie running back Jordan Scarlett, a fifth-round pick out of Florida of the SEC. “It was a bias in my opinion. Now he has a better opportunity in front of him, to be a Hall of Famer.”
McCaffrey hates to lose. You can tell losing the Heisman still grates at him four years later, even though he doesn’t like talking about it.
“It kept me hungry and kept me focused,” McCaffrey said.
McCaffrey and Thomas set up their dormitory suite as a gathering place for others to relax, talk about life and compete in video and board games. They actually spent time researching how to build furniture to make the room most efficient.
Neither liked to lose, especially McCaffrey.
“Christian has a habit of breaking controllers,” Thomas said. “You can’t stop that. It’s just something that is innately in Christian.”
McCaffrey could only smile when reminded of that.
“When you’ve got controllers to spare, you figure make use of them,” he said diplomatically. “I don’t like to lose, so sometimes that happens.”
McCaffrey and Thomas were like brothers then and still are. They talked on Tuesday night about this week’s game, what it means to both teams and both players.
The 49ers are 6-0 and have the NFL’s top-ranked defense. The Panthers (4-2) have won four straight since an 0-2 start, with McCaffrey gaining 153.8 yards from scrimmage per game.
It will be strength against strength.
“We really can’t wait for the game to be over so we can be friends again,” Thomas said with a laugh. “Because in the game, I won’t see Christian. I’ll just see No. 22.”
And Thomas is sure to see the look Shaw got the first time he held McCaffrey out of practice. He saw it in practice at Stanford when defensive players weren’t allowed to touch McCaffrey, who wore No. 5 then.
“He would be like, ‘Hit me; I want to get [ready] for the game. Please hit me,'" Thomas said of how McCaffrey approached his hands-off rule. “There’s a fire in him. That’s why he’s so good.”
And those football fans who missed much of McCaffrey’s college career, because he played so many games on the West Coast that were late at night for them, are seeing what those at Stanford gushed about.
“I’m excited now that not just the people on the outside are noticing it but the football people in the NFL are noticing,” Shaw said. “The guys who play the game, after games they go up to him and shake his hand and just go, ‘Wow!’"