Injured PSU rushing star sticks with team, looks for positives
Dressed in green sweatpants, a white sweatshirt and a gray stocking hat, Cory McCaffrey wheeled himself around the Portland State practice field Tuesday on a tricycle scooter that supported the torn Achilles' tendon in his left leg.
'I feel horrible for the kid,' Vikings coach Nigel Burton said.
'It kills me,' quarterback Connor Kavanaugh said.
'I'm sad to see that he couldn't finish out his senior year,' added Shaquille Richard, the backup running back who has taken over McCaffrey's running duties.
McCaffrey's career at Portland State ended at Montana on Oct. 15. He had rushed for 103 yards and one touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. The Vikings were moving the ball, but Kavanaugh threw an interception. McCaffrey, who had run a flat route toward the sideline, saw the pick, turned and planted his foot to take off after the defender.
'The next thing I know, it felt like someone had machete'd me or kicked me in the back of the leg,' McCaffrey said. 'I just felt this huge pop right above my ankle. I kind of figured it was my Achilles right when in happened.'
Fifteen minutes later, McCaffrey learned the worst from the team doctor: 'It's your Achilles (tendon). You'll be out for the rest of the year.'
"That was it for my college career," McCaffrey remembers thinking.
Sitting on the sidelines in Missoula, McCaffrey teared up as the grief hit him.
For 16 games, the 5-9, 185-pound senior was arguably the greatest running back in Portland State history. In his first year at running back for the Vikings, McCaffrey carried the ball 231 times for 1,287 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2010. Through four games of the 2011 season, he was leading the nation in rushing and touchdowns.
As with Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, McCaffrey finished at the pinnacle of his trade.
'The great thing about my injury is that I went out on top,' he said. 'I can say that for the rest of my life. I went out leading the nation in rushing and in touchdowns. And I still have my high school records.'
At Sisters High, McCaffrey became the most prolific running back in Oregon prep history. Over three years, he gained 8,460 yards - a mark that eclipses the next-best state rushing total by more than 3,000 yards.
No Division-I scholarship offers came, though, and McCaffrey chose to go to Portland State.
He found himself star-crossed throughout his time on the Park Blocks.
McCaffrey played his first two seasons under Jerry Glanville. With the Vikings using a run-and-shoot offense, McCaffrey was pigeonholed into being a receiver. In two seasons, he caught just three passes.
When Glanville was let go and Burton took over the program, McCaffrey returned to running back. His teammates dubbed him 'The Great White Hope."
'You don't see too many white running backs at the college level,' McCaffrey said. 'I guess that's the little joke.'
Playing less than a season-and-a-half at running back, McCaffrey never had time to etch his name into the Vikings' record books. He finished his career with 353 carries for 2,018 yards and 23 touchdowns. He ranks 10th all-time in rushing yards and eighth in touchdowns.
'It's a shame he didn't have another year,' Burton said, 'because he would've broken a lot of records here.'
As he looked out over the practice field on Tuesday, McCaffrey radiated a desire to take off his cast and line up behind the quarterback in the Vikings' pistol formation.
'Man, I know that guy loved football,' Kavanaugh said.
'Really, there's no other sport like it,' McCaffrey said. 'Coach Burton talks about it sometimes. How it's the closest thing there is to war, and it's like that. When you're playing with guys, it's a bond that you don't get in any other sport.
'My football friends are the best friends that I've ever had. That's probably been the greatest part of it.'
McCaffrey continues to show up with the team.
'That's just the kind of kid Cory is,' Kavanaugh said. 'He was never going to give up and say 'my season and career is done, I'm just going to go hang out at home.' '
Watching the games is the hardest part for McCaffrey.
'It's kind of boring at practice,' he said. 'I was the same way if I was on the sideline. I have a short attention span. But watching games is different - knowing that I maybe won't be able to do that ever again and people won't know me as an athlete or a student-athlete like they would have if I was playing.'
Difficult as it is to see his teammates compete without him, McCaffrey will continue to be a part of the team until the season is over.
'It's my team, too,' he said. 'I want to be as much a part of the team as I can just to let them know that I'm there.'
The injured running back's willingness to remain a part of the Vikings is not without reward. Seeing McCaffrey on the sidelines is an inspiration to the rest of the team.
'I try to go out and play for the people who can't play,' Kavanaugh said. 'I know everyone else in the offense does, too, because they see Cory on the sideline.'
As he watches the Vikings fight for a chance to make it into the FCS playoffs, McCaffrey takes pride in knowing that he was such a big part of restoring Portland State as a competitive football program.
Portland State is coming off a win at Eastern Washington as it prepares to take on Sacramento State at 1 p.m. Saturday at Jeld-Wen Field.
'It's just great to see the team that I was on winning,' McCaffrey said. 'If I'm there or I'm not there, it doesn't matter. Just that my team is winning and we're doing big things that haven't been done in this program for a long time, that's a special thing to me.'
McCaffrey is trying to look at any positives of having his season cut short. He has more time to focus on school, cook a good meal, do laundry, see friends, go fishing and go out once in a while.
'It's going to give me a chance to do stuff that a student-athlete wouldn't regularly get to do,' he said.
While he has not ruled out a comeback attempt at the professional level, McCaffrey isn't sure if he will take another handoff.
'That's what everyone is asking me,' he said. 'I've thought about it. It depends on how this (rehabilitation) goes. It sounds like it's going to be a long process before I'm ready to do anything like that.
'I don't want to come back too soon and do something when I'm not ready. So the 'pro day' is out of the question. The combine is out of the question. But, by next year, I should be good.'
After all the years of his life that he has given to football, can McCaffrey really walk away from the game? If he does not come back as a player, will he return as a coach? It is too soon for McCaffrey to answer those questions.
'A better time to ask me would be a year from now,' he said. 'Right now, the highlight of my week is just coming out here and spending time with the guys. Without that, it would be a lot rougher than what it is.'
McCaffrey's last play for PSU ended with him crumpled on the ground after trying to make a tackle that he did not need to make. The last image of McCaffrey as a Viking will be of him standing on the sideline in a cast.
But what will be his legacy at Portland State?
Burton smiled warmly and said: 'The best.'