Max McCaffrey continues the family tradition at Duke

lkeeley@newsobserver.comSeptember 9, 2013 

— One of Max McCaffrey’s earliest football memories is the 1999 Super Bowl, when the Denver Broncos beat the Atlanta Falcons. Max’s father, Ed, was a wide receiver for the Broncos, and after the game ended, young Max was running around on the field, celebrating with his father as the confetti rained.

The next year, Scottie Montgomery, now Duke’s wide receivers coach, was a rookie with the Broncos, backing up Ed McCaffrey. Montgomery would go over to Ed and his wife Lisa’s house, where he would often see their young sons.

“They were tiny. Max was tiny,” said Montgomery, who now coaches McCaffrey. “They were just running around the house. They were boys’ boys then. And then now seeing him, it’s unbelievable.”

The 6-foot-2, 190-pound McCaffrey is a starting wide receiver as a sophomore for the Blue Devils. While he grew up around football, he was never forced to play. It wasn’t until college that McCaffrey concentrated solely on the sport – he ran track and played basketball in high school, and he didn’t take any official visits during his recruitment because they interfered with his basketball schedule.

After seeing limited action as a freshman and catching two passes, both at Florida State, McCaffrey is ready for a bigger role. He surpassed his freshman year production in Duke’s season opener, making three catches, good for 25 yards, and fielding two punts in the win against N.C. Central. He had one catch for 11 yards against Memphis on Saturday.

“He’s a hard worker,” Montgomery said. “He gets nothing because of his last name, I’ll tell you that. I’ve never seen a guy earn what he’s earned. We need more people exactly like him.”

Backyard football

As the oldest of four boys, McCaffrey could have tried to bully his younger brothers in backyard football. But he never did.

“One of the reasons I think those games worked and were fun was because Max is the oldest brother, didn’t pick too much on his younger brothers and always incorporated them into games,” Ed McCaffrey said. “He made the sport fun for them.”

Ed, whose second son, Christian, is a senior committed to Stanford, said his boys probably played more football in the backyard than anywhere else. Max was 9 years old before he asked his parents if they could sign him up for organized football, and once they did, that sport went into his rotation, along with basketball and soccer.

While Ed McCaffrey was an All-America receiver at Stanford, which was where he met his wife, Lisa, a soccer player for the Cardinal, the McCaffrey family has a multisport history at Duke, too. Billy McCaffrey, Ed’s brother, was a member of Duke’s 1991 national championship basketball team.

Dave Sime, Max’s maternal grandfather, lettered in baseball, football and track and field for Duke in the late 1950s and went on to win the silver medal in the 100 meters at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Scott Sime, Max’s uncle, played fullback for Duke in the early 1980s.

McCaffrey was always a Duke fan, he said, and he attended one of the Blue Devils’ basketball camps when he was younger. It wasn’t until after his sophomore year of high school that he decided to pursue football instead of a career on the hardwood (he still plays basketball when he can, even joining an intramural team with other guys on his hall last year).

McCaffrey wanted to commit early and play for a team that considered him a main target instead of a fallback plan. With no qualms about playing far from home, he looked at schools on both coasts, and Duke and Wake Forest emerged as his most serious suitors. He chose the Blue Devils the summer before his senior year began.

“I’ve always loved Duke since I was little, because I knew I had family ties there,” McCaffrey said. “I love watching the basketball games. But when coach Cutcliffe came and talked to me, I decided that this was the right place and I felt comfortable picking this school.”

Later that fall, Matt Lubick, then Duke’s receivers coach, went to watch McCaffrey play. A three-way player – offense, defense and special teams – McCaffrey blocked three punts, returning two for touchdowns, and caught another touchdown pass the night Lubick was in the stands.

“Sometimes you get guys where, after they commit, they’ll have a little bit more of an attitude about where they want to play,” said Brent Vieselmeyer, who coached him for three years, all of which ended with state championships, at Denver-area Valor Christian High. “But, honestly, if we told Max, ‘hey, you’re going to play all defense,’ he would, and wouldn’t say a word.”

McCaffrey is never the loudest or most talkative in a group – Vieselmeyer estimates that he heard him say four words during his sophomore season, his first at Valor Christian – but he has a way of standing out anyhow.

“The first thing right off the bat that I noticed is that he has a quiet toughness. He is so tough, mentally,” said Montgomery, who rejoined the Duke staff this offseason after three years coaching with the Pittsburgh Steelers. “His skill set is growing at a rate that I would have hoped we could have gotten him to eventually.”

Jamison Crowder, Duke’s top receiver, laughed when asked to describe McCaffrey’s game.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an older style, but it’s just like an original style. He doesn’t have any flash,” Crowder said. “He just goes out and gets the job done.”

Montgomery has drilled the importance of detail into Crowder, McCaffrey and Duke’s other receivers since his arrival, down to which foot should start forward when they line up before the ball is snapped. To work on improving their catching, Montgomery took tennis balls, painted them brown and shot them out of a machine, sometimes even mixing in some green balls to add to the degree of difficulty.

The work paid immediate dividends for McCaffrey, as he earned a starting spot for Duke’s opener against N.C. Central and was thrown to six times, second-most behind Crowder.

When asked if McCaffrey reminded him of his dad and former teammate, Montgomery said no, that Max reminds him of Max, the grown-up version of the boy he met many years ago. Instead of running around the field after the game ends, he’s right in the middle of the action.

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley

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