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White Lightning With no pomp and precious little padding, the Broncos' deceptively fast Ed McCaffrey has become the NFL's unlikeliest star wide receiver

Nov. 30, 1998
Nov. 30, 1998

Table of Contents
Nov. 30, 1998

Faces In The Crowd

White Lightning With no pomp and precious little padding, the Broncos' deceptively fast Ed McCaffrey has become the NFL's unlikeliest star wide receiver

He's a goofy-looking white guy in a world of hip-hop flash, and
that makes Ed McCaffrey one heck of a target. On Sundays the
Denver Broncos' wideout subjects his nearly padless body to
continuous punishment. On Mondays he reads rip jobs in the press
about his supposed lack of athletic ability. But nothing is as
daunting to him as the first practice day after he has had his
shock of strawlike brown hair trimmed, a task the man who ranks
third in the AFC in receiving yards entrusts to Supercuts. "I
have a strong relationship with the people there," McCaffrey
says. "They've tried out a lot of techniques on me." Not only is
McCaffrey an affable lab rat; he often shows up at the Broncos'
facility looking like one. On a recent Wednesday his newly
trimmed, uncombed 'do caused a locker room uproar.

This is an article from the Nov. 30, 1998 issue

"What'd you tell 'em, 'Screw my s--- up'?" John Elway intoned.

"Nice bowl," backup quarterback Bubby Brister chimed in over the
laughter. "Hope they didn't charge you for that."

No prominent NFL player has munched as much humble pie as
McCaffrey. During his eight-year career he has been kicked off a
team bus for impersonating a player, ordered to pick up towels
by a locker room janitor and laughed out of a golf tournament
filled with NFL players after he shot a sterling 155. But if you
really want to see embarrassment, check out the body language of
a defensive back who has just watched the 6'5", 215-pound
McCaffrey beat him for a big gain. "You'll see their heads slump
to the ground every time he scores," says Rod Smith, the
Broncos' other starting wideout.

It's the same look that NBA players gave Larry Bird as he rose
to stardom in the early '80s: the
I-can't-believe-I-just-got-burned-by-his-white-dude face.
"That's just a big old ego thing, to be shamed because a guy
like Ed beat up on you," says Shannon Sharpe, Denver's All-Pro
tight end. "But there's reality and there's perception, and
people are starting to notice Ed for the wrong reason: because
he's a big white guy and not because he's an unbelievable
player. He'll probably be the first white receiver to go to the
Pro Bowl since Steve Largent. At some point the guy's got to get
some credit."

He already does in Denver, where he's practically a folk hero.
His face is plastered on condiment bottles (Ed McCaffrey's Rocky
Mountain Mustard) and soon will grace cereal boxes. In the
defending Super Bowl champions' locker room, McCaffrey's street
cred is unquestioned. "I can't think of anyone we'd trade him
for," says Elway.

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who as the San Francisco 49ers'
offensive coordinator from 1992 to '94 ran an attack that
featured hard-blocking wideouts Jerry Rice and John Taylor, says
McCaffrey is the "best, most consistent blocker of any receiver
I've seen."

Denver's All-Pro running back, Terrell Davis, says, "When people
talk about big-time receivers, Ed doesn't get mentioned. That's
unfair. But the more they ignore him, the better it is for us."

Alas, the rest of the league is starting to get religion.
McCaffrey's courage, deceptive speed, precise routes, sly moves
and unfailing hands have made believers of some of the best
defensive backs in the business, including Dallas Cowboys
cornerback Deion Sanders, who was a teammate of McCaffrey's with
the 49ers in 1994. "The guy can run," Sanders says. "He's one of
my favorites. He finds a way to get open."

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Shawn Springs learned that the hard
way in September '97, in his second game as a pro. McCaffrey
burned him for eight catches and two scores, and Springs was
penalized three times while trying to cover him. "If you watch
film on a guy like that, you don't know how good he is," says
Springs. "You think he's just this really big white guy."

The underlying assumption, of course, is that white
guys--especially large, long-striding receivers such as
McCaffrey--are slow. McCaffrey can handle immeasurable grief
about his hair, unhip wardrobe and nervous neck twitches, but
make a crack about his speed and he's more defensive than
Calista Flockhart. It's a reaction provoked by years of jabs,
including one by a Giants Weekly writer who said he'd "seen
better moves by Ironside" and another that appeared in a 1996 SI
article suggesting that McCaffrey "should be an Amway
distributor by now, he's so slow."

If you're doing an interview with McCaffrey, speed kills. "Are
you going to rip Ed for being slow again, or do you plan on
writing the truth for a change?" his wife, Lisa, asks as she
bounces through the kitchen of their house a few miles south of
the Broncos' facility. While giving constant chase to their two
sons--Max, 4, and Christian, 2--Lisa gets off the best lines of
the interview. Noting that her father, sprinter David Sime,
graced SI's cover in 1956, Lisa riffs, "That's why Ed and I got
together--so we could breed fast white guys."

If Ed, whose comments tend to be bland and cliche-ridden, is
plain mustard, Lisa is wasabi. "It's like a comedy show," says
former 49ers offensive lineman Harris Barton, a good friend of
the McCaffreys'. "Ed's the setup guy, and she comes up with the
punch line. They work like a team to try to make you feel bad
about yourself."

After Ed signed a free-agent contract with the Broncos before
the '95 season, Lisa brought an uncomfortable halt to a luncheon
to welcome the wives of the team's newcomers that was hosted by
Annabel Bowlen, wife of Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. Following
several excruciatingly stiff remarks by various attendees--My
husband is Dan So-and-So, we have two kids, and we're really
excited to be here--Lisa deadpanned, "I'm married to that tall,
lanky receiver. We have one kid, and now I'm knocked up again."
Several seconds passed before Shanahan's wife, Peggy, bailed her
out by bursting into laughter.

When Ed and Lisa aren't breeding fast white guys--they're
expecting their third son in April--they amuse themselves by
making prank calls. In one of their favorites, Ed pretends he's
with the water company and tells his victim he wants to check
the neighborhood's water pressure. "I tell him to turn on all
the faucets and flush the toilets," Ed says. "If that works, I
ask him to do it again. [Colorado Avalanche right wing] Claude
Lemieux flushed three times before he caught on. The Romanowskis
[Broncos linebacker Bill and his wife, Julie] are a five- or
six-flush family."

The McCaffreys met in 1990 at Stanford, where Ed was finishing a
stellar career. A three-sport star from Allentown, Pa., he chose
Stanford largely because coaches there fancied him as a wideout
rather than as a tight end. "I was pretty dorky in high school,"
McCaffrey says. "I was pretty much of a recluse. Meeting Lisa
lightened me up."

Ed clicked with Lisa, then a Stanford soccer player, at a mutual
friend's birthday party at Max's Opera Cafe, a Palo Alto
restaurant that would serve as the inspiration for their first
son's name. "I thought he was pretty hot," Lisa recalls. "But he
had this terrible '70s 'do--long in the back, and bangs straight
across the middle like Moe from the Three Stooges." Ed doesn't
have bad-hair days, he has bad-hair decades. The next time the
two went out, Lisa slipped into the conversation, "You know, I'm
really good at cutting hair."

An hour later they were back at Ed's off-campus apartment, where
Lisa gave her first-ever haircut. "She was using these little
thread scissors," Ed says, "and it took her an hour and 45
minutes."

When the Broncos aren't goofing on McCaffrey's 'do, they're
making fun of his wardrobe. One teammate says McCaffrey looks as
if he "dresses in airline blankets." His game-day attire is
particularly unpretentious. "Guys are wearing Versace, Armani,
Gucci," says Justin Armour, a Denver backup receiver, "and
homeboy will show up in unmatching Polo sweats, old running
shoes and a DirecTV hat."

But what truly sets McCaffrey apart is what he wears--or doesn't
wear--once he takes the field. To rid himself of unnecessary
weight, he defaces his uniform. He cuts out the lining, belt
buckle and pockets of his pants, punches holes in his jersey,
even slices off all but a half inch of the band above his
athletic supporter, creating what amounts to a G-string jockstrap.

The only padding McCaffrey wears is a discontinued model of
shoulder pads (Wilson's 77-I Aggressor) that, according to
Broncos equipment manager Doug West, "you wouldn't even put on a
junior high kid. I've tried to take his pads from him, because
they're right on the borderline of safety, but he won't let me."

This decrease in padding leads to an increase in pain, but
McCaffrey says it's tolerable. "Getting lighter probably gives
me more of a psychological edge than a physical one," he says,
"but I guess I had a complex about being slow, because so many
things have been written."

Ah, the speed trap: The stigma of slowness is tougher to escape
than any defensive back. Yet it's not applied to all white guys.
No one accuses Ed's younger brother, Billy, of lacking
quickness. Billy, who played on Duke's '91 national championship
team and was an All-America point guard at Vanderbilt in '93 and
'94, avoided that rap by keeping up with future NBA studs such
as Kenny Anderson and Allan Houston. "Growing up, everyone used
to assume I was faster than Ed," says Billy, who has played
abroad the past several seasons. "But every time we'd race, he'd
win."

Shortly before the '91 NFL draft, Ed says, he ran consecutive
4.38 40s that were timed by the San Diego Chargers. Though
McCaffrey never was a full-time starter with the New York
Giants, who took him in the third round of the draft, he led the
team in receptions in his second year, with 49. His aw-shucks
appearance also made him a primary target off the field. He was
routinely denied access to the team bus by drivers who didn't
believe he was a player. "Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor would
tell the driver they'd never seen me before and make me wait
outside for five minutes," McCaffrey says.

Once at Giants training camp, McCaffrey was the last player in
the locker room, and a janitor approached him and began
screaming, "Pick up those damn towels!" When the shocked
McCaffrey didn't respond, the janitor ordered him out of the room.

After Dan Reeves replaced Ray Handley as the Giants' coach
before the '93 season, McCaffrey's role diminished. He was still
unsigned two days after camp began in '94 when he received a
stunning call from Reeves. "He told me they already had enough
receivers," McCaffrey recalls. "That was the most devastating
point in my career. We had a new apartment and a two-month-old
baby, and I had to find a job."

Reeves, who now coaches the Atlanta Falcons, recently said that
cutting McCaffrey was one of the biggest mistakes he ever made.
After a yearlong apprenticeship under Rice and Taylor in San
Francisco, McCaffrey was lured to Denver, which had hired
Shanahan following the Niners' Super Bowl victory over the
Chargers in January '95. Bill Walsh, who came out of retirement
to spend the '95 season as an offensive assistant with San
Francisco, says he was told the team lost a chance to retain
McCaffrey when it balked at paying him $350,000 a season.
McCaffrey won a starting job in '96 and caught a total of 93
passes for 1,143 yards and 15 touchdowns over the next two
seasons.

"Not a lot of people run routes like he does," says former Denver
quarterback Bill Musgrave, now the Philadelphia Eagles' de facto
offensive coordinator. "He runs a straight stem on the first 10
yards of almost every route, and from there you don't know what
pattern it'll become."

Shanahan says McCaffrey has learned "how to keep people off
balance coming out of a break. He can turn a defender's body so
that even the greatest athlete can't make a play on the ball."

McCaffrey's blocking prowess is a product of his positioning,
strength and hustle. The latter quality most impresses Simms, a
Giants quarterback when McCaffrey arrived. "He was skin and
bones back then, but he's been working on those arms in the
weight room for eight years," Simms says. McCaffrey and Smith
have succeeded Rice and Taylor as the league's best blocking
tandem, a fact that is not lost on their teammates. Last month,
when Davis presented Rolexes to his blockers, the wideouts were
stunned to learn that they'd been included.

McCaffrey's breakthrough has come this year. Despite sitting out
Sunday's 40-14 win over the Oakland Raiders with a hamstring
injury, he has 44 catches for 774 yards and seven touchdowns. Now
McCaffrey looks like a lock to make his first Pro Bowl. "People
underestimate him," Elway says. "They'll bump him, but he's so
strong that he'll just toss the corner and blow by him."

During a game against San Diego on Nov. 8, Shanahan noticed that
the Chargers were paying special attention to McCaffrey. It
didn't work: McCaffrey matched his career highs of nine catches
and 133 receiving yards in a 27-10 Broncos win. The game showed
what a steal Denver had in a player who will earn a relatively
paltry $897,000 a year through 2000. A few weeks earlier Sharpe
had created a stir by telling USA Today, "If Ed McCaffrey was
black...he'd be making three-and-a-half million dollars a year."

Shanahan, noting that Sharpe and McCaffrey have the same agent,
Marvin Demoff, laughs and asks, "Do you think those guys are in
cahoots?" However, the coach says he hopes to sign McCaffrey to a
lucrative extension after this season.

To McCaffrey the extension would mean a lot. As he sits in his
den watching Lisa entertain their sons, Denver's most famous
mustard salesman turns serious. "After you've been on the verge
of being out of the league, you never forget where you came
from," he says. "All this attention makes me uncomfortable,
because so much of what I've accomplished is due to this system,
Coach Shanahan and my teammates. Not only do they do their jobs
unselfishly, but the feeling of camaraderie is so special."

McCaffrey is touched when the teammates who tease him so much
praise his ability. He practically chokes up when discussing
Sharpe's comment about the $3.5 million, until Lisa restores
order. "I knew I should have married [Seahawks wideout] Joey
Galloway," she says, grinning. "I'd be rich. He's probably a hell
of a lot faster than you, too."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER BARE ESSENTIALS McCaffrey's vintage shoulder pads are extremely light but provide minimal protection. [Ed McCaffrey wearing shoulder pads]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS BAD RAP Some consider him slow, but McCaffrey knows how to stretch a defense, and his 17.6-yard average per catch proves it. [Ed McCaffrey catching football in game]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER ON THE PROWL McCaffrey, who isn't afraid to mix things up, was rewarded for his fierce blocking with a Rolex from Davis (30). [Terrell Davis and Ed McCaffrey in game]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER CUTTING UP Ed, admittedly something of a recluse in high school, developed into an All-Pro prankster after meeting Lisa. [Lisa McCaffrey cutting Ed McCaffrey's hair]
"When people talk about big-time receivers, Ed doesn't get
mentioned," says Davis. "That's unfair."
Simms says McCaffrey was once "skin and bones, but he's been
working in the weight room for eight years."
Never at a loss for words, Lisa quips that she and Ed got
together "so we could breed fast white guys."