Christian McCaffrey didn’t need to be asked twice to hand out one of the five grand prizes in USAA’s Salute to Service Sweepstakes. The Panthers running back also felt like a winner in getting to virtually meet with Jonathan Yeagley, the winning Marine corps veteran stationed at Camp Lejeune.
Along with receiving a large-screen TV, sound system, gaming system, gift cards and other prizes, Yeagley was also awarded a chance to hang out and chat with McCaffrey, who loved the experience.
“It was a blast. Anytime I get to work with USAA, I jump right to it. I have a big passion for the military, and this was a cool deal to connect with Jonathan, stationed right here in North Carolina,” McCaffrey told Sporting News. “The biggest thing I enjoyed was just getting to talk to him, picking his brain on why he joined. I find it fascinating, all the different stories you hear. He had a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it, too.”
McCaffrey, 24, has had plenty of success on the ground for Carolina in just four seasons. But he admitted that meeting someone such as Yeagley adds to him staying grounded as a young NFL star.
“I’m just very inspired, hearing the stories from some of the most selfless people on the planet,” McCaffrey said. “They’re heroes, sacrificing a lot. I’m here playing a game for a lot of money, so it’s nothing I take for granted.
“So it takes it to a whole other level. With us as players, you can try to think of simliarities, but they are training for a whole other purpose. It allows you to take a step back and realize how lucky we are to play football for a living. The men and women who serve, they just don’t serve for their families, but they serve for all of us.”
McCaffrey is back to heavy training for the 2021 offseason coming off an injury-riddled 2020. He played only three games for the Panthers, thanks to a high ankle sprain that landed him on IR early and then a late shoulder inury. His limited stellar play, however, hinted that he could have another monster season under new offensive coordinator Joe Brady. McCaffrey can’t wait to get back to work for Brady in Year 2 — and isn’t dwelling on what could have been last season.
“There’s a lot of negative that comes out of being hurt, but there’s a lot of positive, too. You get a different perspective on the game of football. For me, watching it from afar, I’m extremely excited for this year, trying to put away last year — lock it up, throw it away and move on,” McCaffrey said. “The weapons we have on this offense are something to be excited about. It’s all about winning from this point, and we’ve got a lot of guys with the same mindset.”
The Panthers were fortunate to have a strong reserve situation behind McCaffrey last season, led by featured supersub Mike Davis. Athough the team may not re-sign Davis to be top backup again, McCaffrey was impressed by how all the next men up fared in his offensive absence.
“You see what Mike did and the way he approached it, was fun watching him grow and see the leaps that he took. He’s been around, so it wasn’t shocking at all. It wasn’t just him, but it was also fun watching Reggie Bonafon, Trenton Cannon and Rodney Smith step up,” McCaffrey said. “It says a lot about our running back room in general.”
For now, there’s no sense that the Panthers will look to ease McCaffrey’s workload based on the fact that he’s recovering from two injuries. He plans to be good with however much Carolina deploys him next season.
“I’m going to be ready to go and play as much as possible, and that’s all I know,” McCaffrey said.
As he prepares for his return to the professional football field, Sporting News asked McCaffrey about who’s he rooting for in college basketball. With his favorite in-state powerhouse likely to miss March Madness, McCaffrey is ready to cheer on another team that will be in 2021 NCAA Tournament.
“They would like me to be ’politically correct’ with my affiliation, but I’m a Duke fan,” McCaffrey said. “I have reasons to be a Duke fan. My brother Max went to Duke and I have a huge family lineage of people who went to Duke. I don’t have anyone going to North Carolina. So I have to be a Duke fan, until someone in my family or I know well goes to UNC.
“One of my best friends when I was a kid, he now works with me — he went to Oklahoma State and is the biggest Oklahoma State fan on planet Earth. He’s tuned to every game, so I’ve watched more Oklahoma State basketball this year. I’ve found myself starting to root for them.”
McCaffrey has given thought to what position he would play in the hardwood if he was palming a basketball instead of carrying a football. At 5-11, 205 pounds, everything points to the point.
“I think about it all the time. It’s one of those things I always like to say. I’m like everyone else; I’m a couch viewer. When you get start getting put into the fire with some of these guys, there are levels to it.” McCaffrey said. “Out loud and in the locker room, I claim I’m the best guard on the team, definitely starting at the 1 spot.”
Despite the injuries and having a high volume of touches during his first three seasons in the NFL, McCaffrey isn’t trying to change much with his football training, rather just staying dedicated and calculated with all he does.
“There’s definitely a few things here and there, but at the end of the day I’m still just going to be me and I don’t try to change too much,” McCaffrey said. “I’ve had a lot of success in my career, so I don’t want to flip the script on things that I’ve done. If anything, it would be do less, recover more and keep taking pride in everything I do — whether it’s sleep, eat or hydration. Be smart, but continue to grow and train hard, keep having fun playing with my teammates.”
McCaffrey has got the physical part down for a big comeback season. Mentally, he’s also in the best place to return to his status as the NFL’s best running back.
“One thing I’ve learned, talking to guys around the league who have had injuries like mine, it’s just part of the game. In football, it happens all the time,” McCaffrey said. “You have guys who have exploded their knee and come back as MVP of the league. I’m not going to overthink it. It sucks that it happened, but there’s always next year.”