CHARLOTTE – Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey has spent more time preparing to play football than actually playing football this year.
And while those long hours of rehabbing a pair of injuries were not what he was hoping to take from this season, he does see the purpose in them.
McCaffrey said Monday that the problems which cost him nine games this year could serve a greater purpose as he thinks about his career as a whole.
"I don't think I ever had an issue with loving football. I've always loved it; it's what makes me happy," he said. "But they always say you don't know what you have until it's gone. And when something is taken from you that you love to do so much, it can be challenging and frustrating mentally, emotionally, and physically.
"So for me, to go through that, in a way just continues to spark a fire in you and understand how much I do love this game. And how taking pride in doing everything possible to stay in the game and play. It definitely makes you appreciate it more."
Before this season, McCaffrey had only missed one game because of injury, and that's when he was at Stanford.
He's missed the last three games because of a shoulder injury, after missing six games earlier this year with a high ankle sprain. He said he felt "great, ... I feel really great," for now, and hopes that remains the case for four more games.
The problem was everything it took to get back to that point, the long hours in the training room and working out outside the context of a football practice.
"For me, the days are actually longer when you're not playing than when you're playing," McCaffrey said. "I think from the time you get up until the time you go to bed, I'm doing something to try to get my ankle back, my shoulder back, and to try to stay fast, stay in shape, and stay strong. It's a challenging process that can be taxing.
"I've learned to fall in love with that, and to love it, and enjoy just the concept of getting better."
Since he works in a place where "process" has become a way of life, that's good news on multiple levels.
Panthers coach Matt Rhule said that if the team had practiced Monday (the facility was closed after a number of COVID-19 positives), McCaffrey would have participated, and the expectation was that he'd still be ready to play Sunday against the Broncos. That's welcome news, especially after the team put eight more players on the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday, including wide receivers DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel.
But the return to face the Broncos adds a layer to McCaffrey's comeback this week, since his father Ed McCaffrey had a standout career with the Broncos, winning a pair of Super Bowls in Denver.
There was plenty of talk about the past, and his recollections of growing up surrounded by football.
But Monday, finally, he had some football of his own to look forward to. And for McCaffrey, that was the reward, for all the hours spent in recent months not being able to.