LAS VEGAS — Lisa McCaffrey is nervous as Super Bowl LVIII approaches on Sunday.
“I’m trying to stay calm,” she said over coffee Monday in a hotel lobby on The Strip. “I’m trying to stay busy. I’m trying not to think about it until opening kickoff.”
It’s a familiar feeling for McCaffrey. Her husband, Ed McCaffrey, won three titles as a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos. And now her son, Christian McCaffrey, is set to play a central role when the 49ers take on the Kansas City Chiefs for all the marbles Sunday.
“I’m probably even more nervous this time because it’s one of my kids,” she said. “But I definitely was stressed out back then, too.”
That past was immortalized in magazine form 25 years ago, right after Ed McCaffrey won his final Super Bowl with the Broncos in January 1999.
Denver had beaten the Atlanta Falcons. That’s when a 2 1/2-year-old Christian McCaffrey, wearing Ed’s No. 87 jersey that was far too big for him, sprinted across layers of confetti on the field in Miami to produce an image that Sports Illustrated would feature as one of its full-spread lead photos.
Her husband had won another championship, so that stress was gone. But Lisa suddenly faced another worry as her young son was weaving in and out of traffic on a busy post-Super Bowl football field.
“I think I lost Christian at one point,” she said. “I remember being exasperated.”
The future NFL star was already a prodigious runner then.
“He started walking around seven months, which was unusually early,” Lisa McCaffrey said. “I know that sounds bizarre, you can not believe me — but I swear that’s the truth. Ask his pediatrician. He was doing things his mind was not ready to do. It was like, ‘Please, don’t hang on the chandelier.’
“Christian’s brain was moving at a normal rate, but his body was moving faster.”
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He was also ready to play tackle football at an exceptionally young age, and one such game featuring his older brother, Max McCaffrey, and several other players’ children broke out on the Super Bowl field in Miami that night.
Christian McCaffrey says he was too young to recall that night, but Kyle Shanahan remembers the postgame scenes of that era. The 49ers coach was a college freshman at the time and his dad, Mike Shanahan, was the Broncos coach who had just helped Denver to back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
“I always loved Ed and I knew that he had a bunch of crazy boys,” Kyle Shanahan said. “They all just played tackle football outside the games together and killed each other all the time.”
Two decades later, Ed and Christian McCaffrey have a chance to become just the second father-son duo to win a Super Bowl as players with the same team, joining Steve and Zak DeOssie for the New York Giants. And the chance to do so has the younger McCaffrey astounded by all the 49ers’ links to the past.
“It’s surreal, man,” he said. “Not just with Kyle and Mike Shanahan. My dad played with (49ers QB coach) Brian Griese. He played with (49ers co-running backs coach) Anthony Lynn. A lot of Kubiak connections. Bobby Turner was the running backs coach when my dad was in Denver.
“Even though I didn’t grow up in San Francisco, it feels like home to me. All the names that are in our building are the same names that I remember my dad would say, and it’s just the next generation of them. It is really cool to be able to go to work with all of those guys, knowing that we’re cut from the same cloth.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the current 49ers vividly remind the McCaffreys of the 1994 team that won the franchise’s most recent Super Bowl title.
After the New York Giants cut Ed McCaffrey in 1994, he signed with the star-studded 49ers.
“That’s when I really learned what great culture was all about,” McCaffrey said in Las Vegas on Tuesday. “We were welcomed by everyone on the team.”
McCaffrey was unsure about his chances of making the 49ers’ roster. Center Bart Oates and his wife, Michelle, welcomed Ed, Lisa and their newborn son Max — the first of four McCaffrey boys, born in May 1994 — into their home so that the young couple wouldn’t have to buy or rent a house amid all that uncertainty.
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McCaffrey ended up making the roster. He and Lisa experienced the entire season’s journey, from the early blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles to the monumental NFC Championship Game win over the Dallas Cowboys to Super Bowl XXIX, a blowout victory for the 49ers over the San Diego Chargers.
“I remember that team feeling like it was a family,” Lisa McCaffrey said. “Everyone liked each other. They were kind to each other. There were team dinners that included all the wives. Even us — Ed was low man on the totem pole behind Jerry Rice. He barely sniffed the field, but they treated everybody really, really well — like they do now. I had never been part of an NFL team that was as warm and kind and open.”
That openness carried forward into the decades ahead. Harris Barton, a fixture on the 49ers offensive line of that era, hosted many of those 1994 team dinners. Twenty years later, when Christian McCaffrey enrolled at Stanford, Barton and his wife, Megan — who still live in Palo Alto — opened their doors to the next generation.
“When Christian would get sick at Stanford, he’d go over there and they’d take care of him,” Lisa McCaffrey said. “They really took him under their wing.”
Said Ed McCaffrey: “From Steve Young right on down to every guy on the team, they welcomed us with open arms. It was a completely unselfish team where guys competed against each other, but rooted for each other at the same time and pushed each other to be the best. There was such a high standard and expectation as a player to perform well and live up to their standard.
“A lot of those players, even though I was only there for about seven months, are dear friends to this day. It felt like we were there 10 years.”
McCaffrey would follow Mike Shanahan, the offensive coordinator of that 49ers team, to Denver after Shanahan signed on to be the head coach of the Broncos in 1995. The era that followed saw Christian McCaffrey enter the world. It also saw the most important developmental years of Kyle Shanahan’s career as a player.
The future 49ers coach, a high school wide receiver at the time, began idolizing Ed McCaffrey.
“(Christian’s) dad was my hero,” Shanahan said. “I cut my shoes like him. I wore my shoulder pads like him.”
Shanahan said he even shook his head after making catches in a way that resembled McCaffrey. His jersey number in high school and at college in Texas, 87, was also an homage to Ed.
“I didn’t know that until after he had grown up,” Ed McCaffrey said, laughing. “I’m honored and flattered. If I had known he was emulating me, I would have behaved a little better.”
Both Ed and Lisa McCaffrey were thrilled when the 49ers traded with the Carolina Panthers for their son last season.
“We knew he was going to an incredible organization,” Lisa said. “There was a winning atmosphere that we were familiar with all those years ago. And you don’t have that on every winning team. You just don’t.”
Christian McCaffrey, meanwhile, isn’t shy about expressing how much he’d enjoy sharing the title of Super Bowl champion with his father. He’s one win away from that.
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“It would definitely would be cool,” he said. “We were fortunate enough to have a dad who won three Super Bowls, had a lot of success, played 13 years, but also did it the right way and was a great father. He taught all of us how to play the game and do it the right way. To be able to share that moment with him would be awesome.”
It’s a moment that Kyle Shanahan would love to see, too. Like the McCaffreys, he’s been part of this 49ers fabric for a long time. And he therefore knows what a Super Bowl victory would mean, not just to the current team but also to the larger story of connection that underlies all of this.
“It’s really special to think about it now and the history we have with all that stuff,” Shanahan said. “We’re back, and nothing’s really changed.”
(Top photos: Cooper Neill / Getty Images and Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)