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Christian McCaffrey
He. Could. Go. All. The. Way.
How a 7-year-old Christian McCaffrey put a mascot on skates, found his first NFL end zone, stepped out of character, and changed the course of history.
By Darin Gantt Dec 11, 2020

"It was one of the greatest moments in football history. No, sports history. Clearly among the top five highlights of all time," — Noted football historian.

"Without me, nobody would know who he is today," — The man who threw the block to spring his star teammate.

"Do you want to hear the real story? Or just the version they'll tell you? Because I can tell you the real story," — The poor devil who ended up in the foreground of the poster.

"It doesn't matter, because he was a part of what I call a legendary little league play," — The kid who left him in the dust.

Wait, what? Little league?

Yes, little league.

For all the plays he's made, for all the highlights he's created, one of the memories that stands out the most in Christian McCaffrey's head happened on Nov. 3, 2003.

That's when a 7-year-old McCaffrey took a reverse to the end zone, leaving poor Toro, the Houston Texans' mascot, grasping at air with a quick juke and then showing his speed as he pulled away from his furry foes, sprinting 29 yards to the end zone of what was then known as Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver.

What McCaffrey did next made it legendary.

He laughs when asked about the game now — which is probably the appropriate response when you ask an NFL star about a Pee Wee game against a bunch of animal mascots. But there's also that kind of genuine smile that comes from a place he holds dear, when football was just the thing to do with your friends and your older brother and his friends because it was cool and fun.

He also laughed because his mom, who was visiting him in Charlotte this week, was just asked about it as well, and that turned the volume on this story to 11.

"I can hear her from three rooms over, so I figured it was something," Christian said.


At a very basic level, Lisa McCaffrey was just thrilled to see her sons having a blast at her husband's workplace.

At halftime of the Broncos' Week Nine Monday Night Football appearance against the Patriots, during her husband Ed's final season as a player, she got to witness something truly special.

She howled as she turned it into "one of the greatest moments in football history" in her re-telling, but it was mainly a chance to see two of her kids having a blast at once.

The McCaffrey boys were always around football. It was dad's job, the context they grew up in. But being able to take the starring role was something else. So when the Douglas County Dolphins had a chance to be the show that night, Lisa could tell how important it was to the kids.

"They of course had been around the stadium, and run around on the field after games and stuff like that," she said. "But you clearly got a sense of how excited he was."

Considering her son Christian seems a little stoic at times, she's asked how she could tell it was something he was excited about.

"Oh, his eyes get big, he starts breathing heavy, you could tell the tension," she said. "Whenever he'd have a big game, like a little league championship game or something, he'd get so excited about the game that he'd eat right and go to bed early."

That's the kind of reaction that only comes from conditioned response, and Christian credited the discipline his father instilled in him for that.

"That was from my dad," he said. "My dad struck fear in me from an early age: 'If you do not do this, you will not succeed.' That's how it was and it played on.

"Obviously joking, but some of those habits did work."

McCaffrey family


Thus prepared for his chance in the spotlight, McCaffrey was also struck by one basic emotion — fear.

Even though he'd grow up to be a professional athlete, he's still kind of a small one. And on this night, he was 7, playing up with his brother Max's 9-year-old team.

Even fully padded, Christian was still about half the size of the adult humans in the mascot suits who were in on the bit but remained ADULT HUMANS IN MASCOT SUITS.

"It was kind of scripted. They said, 'Christian, you're going to run a little reverse, and just try to make guys miss and score and whatnot,'" McCaffrey recalled. "So we get out there first play, all I remember, by no means were the mascots taking it easy on us. They were actually hitting some of these kids pretty hard. I'm already a younger kid, playing up at another level, and these guys, I think it dawned on me quick these guys have to put on a show. They just can't let the little kids score. They have to make it interesting.

"So me running as fast as I could was pure out of fear to not get hit by one of these adult mascots."

CMC juke

The one in particular he had reason to fear was the bull.

Mascot games are loosely organized events, basically a collection of whichever members of the international brotherhood of mascots had road games that week. Thus available, Texans' mascot Toro was there to help his partner in Denver, only to become the foil for the biggest run of McCaffrey's life (to that point, at least).


The guy inside the Toro suit, Jonathan Frost, knew the gig, having played in mascot games before. They're tipped off in advance to who they're playing. Having worked for the Texans for 14 years, he knew quarterback David Carr's little brother Derek from similar events, so he knew that Ed McCaffrey's kids were out there on the field.

"It's tough, because you don't want to look like the bad guy," Frost said this week, recalling memories nearly two decades old. "You know you have to let them score, but you try to make it look as good as possible.

"So he comes around the end, and made his little move, and I kind of dove the other way and missed him so he could score."

That sounds a little bit like a defense mechanism for a highly trained adult acrobat who just got worked by a 7-year-old. But as years went on and McCaffrey became the player he is, it took on a new meaning.

"I remember when Christian got drafted, the video was going around," Frost said. "My friends would see it and say 'He shook you.'

"Not that he couldn't have done that anyway, but hey, the job is to make sure the kids have something to feel good about."

mascot block

Of course, it did come with a price, at least for some of McCaffrey's teammates.

Aaron Melton was an offensive lineman for those Douglas County Dolphins (he went on to play collegiately at Drake), who was one of Christian's older brother Max's buddies, and a constant presence around the McCaffrey house.

Melton is happy to tell you about springing McCaffrey for the run, confident in his own role in the process.

"Without me, nobody would know who he is today," Melton said. "I'm absolutely responsible for that."

But that star turn also came with a cost, as the mascots seemed to turn their game up to the next level after watching a 7-year-old flash through their defense.

"I think after that touchdown, the mascots got really serious. Their pride was a little damaged," Melton said. "A couple of plays after that, I took a pretty good shot from a man in a raccoon costume. I think it was a raccoon. All I know was I got knocked down by a large man in a furry costume."


Of course, as good as the play was, the part of this story that makes it truly remarkable was the aftermath — for the act itself, and the contrast to what we know today.

Remember, this was 2003, a year after then-49ers wideout Terrell Owens punctuated a touchdown by producing his own Sharpie and signing the football to celebrate.

Naturally, a bunch of 9-year-olds saw this and thought it was the coolest thing in the world. They just needed somebody to put themselves out there, to be that guy.

There just happened to be a little brother hanging around.

"Yeah, Max pretty much pushed him to do it, and all the older kids leaned on him," Melton said. "I mean, let's be honest, the majority of our practice for that game was our celebrations. I think we had four or five plays — eight or 10 if you count left and right — so we spent most of our time thinking about what to do after we scored."

Thus peer pressured, Christian stuffed a Sharpie in his sock, and after crossing the goal line, made a huge spectacle of pretending to sign the ball before tossing it into the stands.

McCaffrey signs football

"He executed it flawlessly," Melton said. "I mean, so much could have gone wrong. The pen could have been lost, maybe he doesn't throw it as far as he did, but he nailed it."

And it wasn't lost on them at the time, but it was also pretty out-of-character for the young McCaffrey. He's been around some pretty elaborate celebrators, but his post-touchdown rituals as a pro are muted, a few taps of the ball to honor family members, a quick point the sky, and he's done.

But he was the little brother, hanging with the big kids, so they were able to talk him into anything.

"It was a lot of fun. Where we're from, we were always taught not to celebrate," McCaffrey said. "So going against the mascots at halftime, we finally had an opportunity to be able to kind of let loose a little bit, and I think anyone who scored, we had a scripted celebration.

"And they told me to do the Sharpie and throw it in the crowd. So I kind of just went with it, and when I scored, I did it, and I'm happy that it still lives on today."

It definitely does live on, one of those moments of genuine exuberance that we don't always get to enjoy in sports now that people participate in them in exchange for money.

But it also serves as a bit of an object lesson for others.

Having seen a lot of kids and alleged adults score a lot of touchdowns in his day, the former Toro knows how they emulate what they see on television.

Frost left the mascot game in 2015 and now serves as the executive director of Youth For Christ in Houston, a group that works with those in juvenile facilities to try to steer them to a different path through chaplaincy and other programs.

"He still celebrates, and there's such joy in the way he plays the game," Frost said of McCaffrey. "It's not in-your-face, it's just fun.

"I work with kids now, and try to guide them to mentors who do things the right way. I always liked the way he handled himself because you can tell when he gets to the end zone now, he's happy for everyone around him and isn't trying to make someone else look bad."

McCaffrey is also aware that a Terrell Owens-style homage runs counter to his current image. And as he's struggled to come back from injuries this year, he's had to hang onto moments like that night in Denver as fuel, to remind him why he does this.

"It's cool looking back on those memories, and realizing, that's back when football, you're just playing it for the love of the game," he said. "That's the goal constantly for me, even to this day, is bring back that in myself."

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