The McCaffreys: Colorado’s first family of football

This article originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

As Ed and Lisa McCaffrey searched out options on where to send their oldest son to high school, sports were not the driving factor. “You can play sports anywhere,” reasoned Ed, the legendary Denver Broncos wide receiver. “And if you’re good enough, you can get a scholarship.”

This was 2009. Were athletics indeed the primary motivation, surely Valor Christian wouldn’t have been atop the list. It was a school that barely opened in 2007. And its football team – that was Max’s best sport – won only four games in 2008, its first year as a varsity program.

What was important, Ed says, was “that they get a good education, [that] they could be at a place that was uplifting, and preached the same values that we have as parents.” And so, because Valor offered those qualities, the McCaffreys settled on enrolling young Max at the beautiful new campus in Highlands Ranch.

Unknowingly, they shifted the state’s balance of football power at the same time.

Of course, it really takes an entire program of committed and skilled kids and coaches to become a flourishing football squad. And Max wasn’t a huge contributor his first season, his sophomore year, when the Eagles posted a 14-0 record and claimed the 3A state title.

But that 2009 season was the first of five straight state championships for Valor (two at 4A and two at 5A following the first title). After a one-point loss in the 2014 5A title game, the Eagles returned to their lofty perch this past December. Seven consecutive championship game appearances, six titles, and a McCaffrey has been on every single one of those teams.

Max shined as a junior defensive back, then also led the Eagles in receiving as a senior. He was joined by his younger brother those two years, as Christian immediately starred as a running back, receiver and returner. Christian was joined his senior year by younger brother Dylan, who suited up on varsity and played sparingly at quarterback. Dylan took over the starting job as a sophomore, and then led Valor back to the top this season as a junior. And Dylan was joined in 2015 by his younger brother, Luke, who saw some varsity action as a defensive back.

That means the run may not be over. Dylan has one more year at Valor, and Luke (who also played quarterback on JV) will have two seasons on his own after that. So 2019 will be the first year since 2008 in which a McCaffrey is not an Eagle.

What’s that sound? Opposing coaches around the state sighing in relief. And counting down the days.

***

For most families, one child earning a Division I athletic scholarship is quite an accomplishment. According to the NCAA, only 2.5 percent of all high school football participants go on to play at the D-I level; even fewer receive scholarships.

Those odds don’t factor in the McCaffrey family. Max parlayed his time at Valor into a football scholarship with Duke, where he just completed his senior season. Christian accepted an offer from Stanford, for whom he just completed the greatest all-purpose yardage season in college football history. And Dylan, who was just named a MaxPreps Junior All-American, has already received offers from Michigan, LSU, Nebraska, UCLA, Duke and Northwestern, among others.

It appears as if it’s only a matter of time before Luke gets similar attention. He’s already seeing varsity playing time in the state’s top program, and his family has quite the pedigree. Should he also move on to play D-I, he’d simply join every other member of his immediate family. Lisa competed in soccer at Stanford, where she met Ed, a star football player.

What’s more astonishing is the elite talent in the extended family. Ed’s brother, Billy, played two seasons of basketball at Duke, helping the Blue Devils win the 1991 NCAA title. He then transferred to Vanderbilt and became the 1993 SEC Player of the Year and a first-team All-American. Their sister, Monica, was also a basketball player, lettering four years at Georgetown.

On Lisa’s side is her brother, Scott Sime, who played four seasons at fullback for Duke. Their sister, Sherrie, starred for the Virginia tennis team.

The best athlete of all, however, was Lisa’s father, Dave Sime. He earned letters in baseball and track and field at Duke, where he also played one year of football before competing in the 1960 Rome Olympics. He captured a silver medal in the 100 meters following a photo finish, and ran the anchor leg for the U.S. 4×100-meter relay team, which set a world record but was later disqualified for a poor baton exchange.

Those disappointments closed out Sime’s days as an athlete, but made way for a career as an ophthalmologist. He became known as a pioneer in laser surgery, treating such luminaries as Richard Nixon, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Don Shula and Bob Griese.

At 79 years old, Dave Sime died on Jan. 12 in Miami after a lengthy battle with cancer. He lived just long enough to see his grandsons produce one of the most memorable seasons in the history of football.

***

To most around the country, Christian McCaffrey came out of nowhere in 2015. He scored just two touchdowns the previous year as a Stanford freshman, neither of which came as a running back, his primary position. But he and the Cardinal offense began to roll this past September.

Christian’s first career 100-yard rushing game came on the road at Southern California. He posted his first 200-yard game the next week at Oregon State. And the buzz began. Two weeks later he entered the Heisman conversation. On a Thursday night featuring No. 15 Stanford hosting No. 18 UCLA, McCaffrey exploded for a school-record 243 rushing yards and four touchdowns. A week later he dropped 109 rushing and 112 receiving yards on Washington, and then topped 100 combined yards every single week the rest of the season.

The Pac-12 Championship Game made him one of three Heisman finalists: 207 yards and one TD rushing; 105 yards and one TD receiving; 149 return yards; and an 11-yard TD pass. That brought his season total to 3,496 all-purpose yards – eclipsing the legendary Barry Sanders’ single-season record of 3,250 in 1988.

“To my left here is the best player in the nation,” Stanford coach David Shaw told the media after the game. “I don’t know if that’s even a question. There’s nobody in the nation doing what he’s been doing. It’s not even a debate.”

The Heisman voters thought otherwise. They handed the award to Alabama’s Derrick Henry; McCaffrey ended up second. He became the third Colorado high school player to finish runner-up, joining CU’s Byron “Whizzer” White in 1937 and Oklahoma State’s Terry Miller in 1977. Christian will be the front-runner for 2016. Winning would accomplish a goal he wrote down on paper as a child.

Not that he was striving to prove voters wrong, but McCaffrey made them think twice with his Rose Bowl performance: A 75-yard receiving touchdown on his first touch, a 66-yard punt return for another score, and 368 all-purpose yards, a Rose Bowl record.

To Coloradoans, this was just more of the same. En route to earning the state’s 2012 and ’13 Gatorade Player of the Year honors, Christian set state records with Valor for career all-purpose yards (8,845), single-season all-purpose yards (3,032), career points (848) and career touchdowns (141).

Not bad for a kid who felt scrutinized in Colorado because of his last name.

“At first, I definitely felt a lot of pressure,” Christian said in an ESPN interview before the Rose Bowl. “I always wanted to be as good as my dad and with that last name it’s tough because everybody, especially in the area, knew who he was.”

All the McCaffrey boys could say the same. What’s remarkable is how they’re each excelling despite that pressure.

Look at Max. He’s the son who most resembles Ed – a tall, lanky receiver wearing No. 87. He just completed a fine collegiate career, ending his senior season as Duke’s leading receiver. In late January, he participated in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, which is attended by scouts from every NFL team. He could be a late-round pick in the upcoming draft.

As for Dylan, he felt the weight of the McCaffrey name not only because of his father, but also due to his brothers. In an essay penned by Dylan and posted on the Valor website in November, he wrote:

Growing up, I had strived to be like my two older brothers. They had always worked hard and were successful, especially in high school. Despite me being overwhelmingly happy for them, I was scared to death at the same time. I thought to myself, “I am going to have to live up to those two guys, and have all the success and all the love that they have.” For a long time I couldn’t get over the thought that I would not be as good as my brothers, that I am just going to be a “misfit McCaffrey,” the one that was never as good.

After a freshman season as a backup quarterback, rather than a starter, which he’d grown accustomed to at every other level, Dylan realized he wasn’t being forced to play football. It was his choice, and that epiphany released any familial pressure.

Now he’ll be Colorado’s top quarterback entering 2016. Dylan played like a free man in 2015, throwing for 2,800 yards, 27 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He also added 592 yards and 13 touchdowns rushing, and caught three passes for two TDs.

December’s state title game may have featured Dylan at his finest (and was played just hours before Christian’s sublime Pac-12 title game). He passed for 194 yards and a touchdown, adding 52 yards and another TD on the ground. The scoring toss trimmed a 12-point deficit with just over four minutes remaining in the game. After Valor’s defense recovered a fumble, Dylan then orchestrated the winning drive, capping it with a two-point conversion pass. Valor defeated Pomona, 29-26.

The season was made even more memorable with all the college action he witnessed. Dylan visited the Big House with Ed in October as Michigan fell to in-state rival Michigan State on a last-second botched punt. In December, his whole family was afforded the rare occasion to gather in the same place, as they met in New York City for the Heisman ceremony. The family (minus Christian) was back in New York two weeks later for Duke’s Pinstripe Bowl game.

That’s just a small taste of Ed and Lisa’s autumn. With Valor games primarily on Fridays, Stanford playing mostly on the west coast on Saturdays, and Duke playing mostly on the east coast also on Saturdays, the parents did their best to make as many games as possible. Ed then also had to be at Broncos games, primarily on Sundays, as the color analyst for radio broadcasts.

There is no rest in retirement for Eddie Mac.

***

The easy explanation for the incredible string of success is superb athletic genes passed down from generation to generation. But that would be a disservice to how hard the McCaffrey boys work. They learned from Ed that while they’re gifted, hard work and discipline will set them apart.

After being drafted by the New York Giants in the third round of the 1991 NFL Draft, Ed enjoyed a few decent seasons. But in year four, he found himself buried on the San Francisco 49ers depth chart behind Jerry Rice and John Taylor. He caught just 11 balls for 131 yards in 1994.

Nonetheless, Ed never slacked off in practice or the weight room. Offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan noticed. When he took the Broncos head coaching job the next season, he encouraged McCaffrey to follow him. Nine seasons, two Super Bowls and one Pro Bowl later, Ed retired as one of Denver’s most beloved athletes.

His NFL days taught him the value of watching film. So as his young boys grew and chose to play football themselves, Dad would conduct individual film sessions, instructing them on what they did well and what they could work on. It should come as little surprise then that Max was praised by coaches for independently initiating film study with his fellow receivers at Duke, and Christian will now “watch film for hours” on his own, according to Ed.

This work that the public doesn’t see is the reason the McCaffreys are poised to go down as the greatest football family Colorado has ever known. The athleticism is there, but so is a maniacal work ethic. The father was the perfect role model for his sons, and his sons are subsequently the perfect role models for their brothers.

Valor Christian has been the biggest beneficiary. Ed likes to say, “I think we really struck gold by sending our kids to Valor.” But it’s clear the school hit the jackpot, too.

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