Inside a Denver recording studio not far from his offseason home, Carolina Panthers All-Pro Christian McCaffrey, one of the most versatile gridders in a league full of elite hybrids, reveals the off-field obsession that could one day add a few new hyphenates to his job title: RB-pianist-songwriter-music producer.
As McCaffrey, 23, tickles the ivories, his pals Nick Shanholtz and Rob Abisi, better known as DJ duo Lost Kings, tackle the drums and bass guitar, respectively — while Levi Waddell, aka rapper Levi Todd, pens lyrics on the fly. What begins to emerge from this 90-minute recording session is a pop/hip-hop track that defies genre, much like the third-year pass-catching ball carrier who’s doing much of the quarterbacking here.
Eventually, the group gathers in the control room to assess the unfinished product. “I think it’s missing a layer,” McCaffrey says before sticking me on the cowbell because, as he says, he has “a fever, and the only prescription is … more cowbell!” When the laughter subsides, the versatile star adds a layer of his own via the harmonica, which he taught himself to play back at Stanford when he wasn’t busy trying to win the Heisman Trophy. I get the feeling we’ll be sitting here into the early morning hours laughing, fist-bumping and “adding layers” if I don’t play party pooper and pull McCaffrey aside for an interview.
ESPN: Why are we in a recording studio?
Christian McCaffrey: One of my big passions in the offseason, or just when I get time off in general, is playing music, and I’ve been fortunate to be around people who are a lot more talented than I am. I met Rob and Nick a long time ago, and every time I go to LA, I’ll hit them up and we’ll just jam in different genres. And Levi is one of my best buds from high school. First time we all jammed, it was a come-to-Jesus moment where we were like, “We should do something with this.”
What sparked your interest in performing?
My childhood neighbor played piano, and he told me we’d get all the girls if I learned how to play-and I was probably in eighth grade, going into high school, so I said, “Sign me up.” There was a talent show with a cash bonus, so we learned a little song together [Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”] and ended up winning it, took home one of those big checks, like in Happy Gilmore.
Who are your musical influences?
There’s a guy right now who’s probably my favorite: Tyler Childers, a country artist. I love his sound. I love Mac Miller. I’m a big Drake fan. I love Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bob Marley. I probably have the most versatile playlist in the world, from country to rap to classic rock to classical.
What’s the most embarrassing thing you listen to?
I’m proud of everything I have in my library.
I’ll give you one if you give me one: I like Taylor Swift.
I love Taylor Swift. I’m not ashamed of that. Why are you embarrassed by that?
You’re right: I love Taylor Swift.
There you go.
Could we hear an album one day?
[Laughs] That’d be really cool. We’ll see where it goes. I’m still learning. I’ve always played by watching somebody’s fingers and listening, but these last two weeks I told myself that I was gonna commit to learning how to read actual sheet music and trying to, like, classically train myself. It’s funny, I’m back at “Ants Go Marching.”
Can you write lyrics or sing?
I’ve written lyrics, but it’s not for me. And the downfall of my music career might be singing. [Laughs] I kind of have a vision of how somebody should perform a certain song.
You do seem to know exactly how it all fits together, like a producer.
That’s a fair description. Being able to produce music and grow a song from nothing is a lot of fun. With technology nowadays, I have a keyboard where I can play any instrument and do it all myself on the computer. And the beauty of it is, every once in a while you make something you like. Ed Sheeran said songs are weird — they come and go and you never know when they’ll show up.
Cam Newton has said you have “swagger through the roof.” What in the world could zap your swagger, besides a microphone?
[Laughs] That’s an honor coming from the Drip God, as he calls himself. But to answer your question: spiders. I’m not a fan of spiders. Not at all. I could do without insects.
So, if a spider dropped on your lap right now?
I’d freak out. Yeah, that’d be no good.
If you could do a collab with any teammate, who’d you have on your album?
I’d have Greg Olsen on the mic. He’s an electric singer. Anytime there’s a song on, he’s the first one belting it. Pregame, he’ll be belting out Adele, and it’s the best thing ever.
This offseason, we discovered another thing you’re good at: being ripped. What’s it like to go viral for a photo of your muscles?
[Laughs] The internet’s a crazy place. When I came into the league, I was 20, so naturally I’m getting bigger, faster, stronger. But I’m only about a pound or two heavier than last year. I like playing at around 207, and that’s what I’m at right now. But I’m definitely stronger. This is one of the first times that I’ve been able to train for a full offseason because I came out of the season healthy. That makes a huge difference.
Coming into the league, some doubted that you could be an every-down back — in part, let’s be real, because of the color of your skin. How did that make you feel at the time?
I just kinda let that pass, know what I mean? I get it, there’s not a whole lot of white running backs out there. [Laughs] It’s just the way it is. But every single NFL player has doubters. I’ve always fought the criticism that I can’t run between the tackles, but I feel like I’ve kind of put that to rest. [McCaffrey ranked first last year in yards per carry between the tackles among backs with 150-plus attempts.]
Because of your versatility and the versatility you afford an offense, The Ringer declared: “Christian McCaffrey is the future of football.” Do you think that’s true for you and guys like you?
Yeah, I do. The league is shifting. It’s becoming a smaller league, way more speed-dominant. So you’re seeing more backs like me who can run between the tackles, pass-protect, catch and become matchup nightmares. You also have more receivers who are getting jet sweeps, doing different things with the ball in their hands. A lot of it stems from college offenses. There’s very few pro-style college offenses nowadays, so you see NFL coaches adapting to the players that are coming in. That’s why [Panthers offensive coordinator] Norv Turner has been huge for me. He’s a guy who’s been in the league so long, but you constantly see him adapting.
He’s also a guy who’s coached some of the greats at your position.
Yeah, I’ve seen more LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles clips than anybody out there, and I hear stories all the time about those guys — Adrian Peterson, LT, all the guys I watched growing up. Knowing that their coach believes in me is something I really appreciate.
Last year you ran, caught or threw for 14 touchdowns. Where’s one place on the field that I can’t pay you to line up at?
[Laughs] You could pay me to line up anywhere if the money’s good.
Where would you like to line up and haven’t yet?
Oh man, I’d love to play safety. I played it when I was a kid, back when I was watching guys like Brian Dawkins and John Lynch come down full speed and hit someone. Or rush end! I always got a ball in my hand, so being able to let loose would be really fun. But Coach [Ron] Rivera would probably shut that down quick.
You’re a fantasy superstar. Have fantasy owners been showing their appreciation?
Every time I’m in public, somebody’s like, “Yo, thank you so much for my fantasy points last year.” I’ve had multiple waiters and waitresses give me free meals for helping them win their league. Hopefully I do it again this year, otherwise the tabs might go up.
Last season was a forgettable one for the Panthers. Give your fans reason for hope. Why will this year be different?
This is a team that’s a few years removed from the Super Bowl with a lot of the same guys from that team. We got great leaders with Luke Kuechly, Cam, Greg Olsen, and we just added Gerald McCoy, Chris Hogan, guys who’ve won in this league and know what it takes. We have the talent. It’s just a matter of staying healthy, executing on Sundays.
How would you assess your own leadership skills right now?
I’ve had more of a vocal presence this year. We’ve got a young running back room — so I’m able to verbalize things that I see for them. Other than that, I’m just working as hard as I can, showing guys what it takes. I’m lucky to have come into a team with guys like Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Greg Olsen, who set the standard.
Your dad, Ed, won three Super Bowls, two here in Denver when you were a child. Do you have any memories of those wins?
My only memory is a picture on our wall from SI where I’m running on the field with confetti and a big ol’ blond ‘fro. I was [not quite] 2 and 3 when he won those. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen his rings. He keeps them locked up.
He’s afraid you’re gonna steal them?
[Laughs] No, he’s just a humble man. I want my own rings. One for every year that I play. That’s the goal.
What other goals have you set for yourself?
I got a lot of goals that I keep to myself, but one goal is definitely the 1K/1K club [1,000 yards rushing and receiving]. I almost did it last year and it was a bummer not getting it. Two guys have done it — Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig — and there’s a race to be the third. There’s a lot of backs in the league who can get there.
Yeah, in a time when backs are being devalued, there are a heck of a lot of good ones out there.
Especially in the NFC. I think Saquon [Barkley] is a great back. Todd Gurley. Zeke [Ezekiel Elliott]. David Johnson. Melvin Gordon. Phillip Lindsay, a hometown guy in Colorado. Alvin Kamara is a guy I’m watching constantly.
If you had to pick, which one do you want more: Football Hall of Fame or the rock ‘n’ roll one?
[Laughs] Both would be great. That might be a first. I’d never considered that one. There ya go, that’s another goal. Perfect.