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White Lightning
Michael Silver
November 30, 1998
With no pomp and precious little padding, the Broncos' deceptively fast Ed McCaffrey has become the NFL's unlikeliest star wide receiver
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November 30, 1998

White Lightning

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

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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. ¶ "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-this-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 mink 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 mat 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 cliché-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."

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