DURHAM, N.C. — A reporter asked Max McCaffrey if he had heard about the “McCaffrey for Heisman” campaign.
The Duke senior wide receiver, seated casually at the Blue Devils’ practice facility for a media session, sat up proudly. He understood the question that otherwise could have been taken more ways than one.
No, it wasn’t a wisecrack about catching two touchdown passes in Saturday’s four-overtime victory at Virginia Tech. Nor was it sibling rivalry reference to his younger brother, Stanford sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey, overshadowing him on the Heisman Trophy radar.
“My brother is having a great year,” Max said. “I’m watching him all the time. It’s really cool. I fully support him, obviously. I love my little bro.”
Christian leads the nation in all-purpose yards seven games into the season. He is averaging 259.7 all-purpose yards with 953 rushing, 284 receiving, 22 on punt returns and 559 on kickoff returns.
He has been putting up big numbers all season, but he joined the Heisman conversation with his 369-yard performance in a 56-35 win over UCLA on an ESPN Thursday night broadcast. The night was highlighted by 25 rushes for 243 yards and four touchdowns and a 96-yard kickoff return that set up another TD.
“I talk to Christian a lot,” Max said. “I’m not surprised. I’ve seen his work habits. He puts in the time, definitely. I’m glad to see him stepping up and having a big year. It’s fun to watch him.”
Max is the oldest among four brothers from the combined athletic genes of their athletically gifted parents, Ed and Lisa McCaffrey. Next in line is Dylan McCaffrey as one of the top high school quarterback recruits in the nation in the Class of 2017. He’s a Rivals.com 4-star prospect playing for Highlands Ranch (Colo.) Valor Christian, the same school his brothers attended. Luke is the youngest and still on the way up.
The three older boys fit the family backyard football team cliché with Dylan at quarterback, Christian running back and Max wide receiver. We’ll have to wait and see about Luke.
“We played a lot (of football) when we were growing up,” Max said. “It was an all-boys household and very competitive. It was good times growing up.”
Ed has been known to join in the backyard games. He was an All-American wide receiver at Stanford and NFL receiver with three Super Bowl rings playing for the Denver Broncos and New York Giants.
“Every now and then he would come out and play with us,” Max said. “He was busy, but he would play with us when he could.”
Their mother’s renown is having played for Stanford’s national power soccer program from 1987 to 1990.
The McCaffrey boys’ backyard games have a nice fit with their varied sizes as well as positions. Max is a 6-foot-2, 200-pounder, Christian 6-0, 201 and Dylan 6-5, 200. Dylan is physically the most like his 6-5 father.
“I don’t know how that worked out,” Max said. “I got in the middle somehow and Christian got the short gene – just kidding – but it is weird how we’re all different skill sets and play different positions.”
Max added they all played quarterback at one point in youth football but only Dylan has remained behind center.
“I like playing receiver a lot better,” Max said. “I don’t have the size for running back and don’t like the pressure playing quarterback. Christian always loved playing out of the backfield. He likes running the ball. When he came to college they wanted to switch him to receiver, but he said, no, he wanted to play running back. Dylan likes being in charge and taking control of the offense.”
In high school, Max and Christian played together on the varsity as a senior and sophomore. During Christian’s senior year, Dylan was a freshman that traveled on the varsity, but he wasn’t the starting quarterback.
Max said he will encourage Dylan to choose Duke based on his own experience playing for the Blue Devils and head coach David Cutcliffe. But otherwise he will take the same approach with Dylan he did with Christian.
“I’m trying to get him to come here, obviously,” Max said. “But it’s his decision and I’ll support him wherever he goes, much like I did with Christian.”
Christian’s play also has him on the Maxwell Trophy Watch list for the best football player in the nation and the Hornung Award for the best all-purpose player. He would be favored more for the Hornung than the others.
Previous to Christian’s UCLA splash, he had already posted a 303-yard all-purpose game against Oregon State (206 rushing), 260 all-purpose against Arizona, and 300 all-purpose against Washington.
Stanford, a preseason No. 16-ranked team, lost its season opener at Northwestern, 16-6, but the Cardinal have been on the upswing since then. A conference title and prominent national ranking can be crucial to gaining Heisman votes. Stanford (6-1, 5-0 Pac-12 North) fell out of the Top 25 after the Northwestern loss but has climbed back to No. 8 in this week’s AP. The Cardinal have won six straight as they enter Saturday’s game at Washington State (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12 North) that is crucial to the division race.
Max’s play also has helped his team gain a national ranking and enter a conference title chase. Duke (6-1, 3-0 ACC Coastal) is ranked at No. 22 and riding a four-game winning streak. The Blue Devils are at home this week against Miami (4-3, 1-2 ACC Coastal).
Max shares Duke’s team lead in catches with 25 and leads in receiving yards (360) as well as TDs (three). The Virginia Tech game was a sign of a balanced offense possibly breaking out for the stretch run. The Blue Devils struggled passing the ball early in the season under first-year starting quarterback Thomas Sirk.
But in the 45-43 win over Virginia Tech, the longest OT game in ACC history, McCaffrey caught a 1-yard touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead in the first quarter and a 16-yard score in later in the first for a 14-7 advantage. He led the Blue Devils in both catches (six) and yards (94).
To the uninitiated, Max may seem out of place at Duke with his father a Stanford alum and brother a Cardinal star. But the family roots between the two elite academic schools are extensive.
Max’s grandfather, Dave Sime, was a track All-American at Duke who won a 1960 Olympics silver medal in the 100 meters.
Christian seems to have the largest share of their grandfather’s speed, although Max says he’d like to have a say in a 40-yard race someday with Christian.
Max’s uncle, Bill McCaffrey, played basketball on Duke’s 1991 national championship team, although he later finished his career at Vanderbilt.
Despite playing in such shadows, Max says he and his brothers are comfortable amid so many family footprints.
“At first you felt a little pressure that you have to step into big shoes,” Max said. “But then you realize you’re playing for yourself. Once you realize that, you’re fine. I’m not playing because of my dad. I love football; I love playing. It’s the same for my brothers.”
Much of that, though, had to come from the nurturing of the parents. And because of that, Max may soon be enjoying a trip to the Heisman Trophy presentation even if it’s only to accompany his finalist brother.