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Christian McCaffrey does it all

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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.

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Patriots end Etling WR experiment, release QB

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots waived Danny Etling on Tuesday, the team announced, which ends an experiment in which the quarterback was attempting to switch to wide receiver.

The Patriots needed to create a roster spot to make room for tight end Eric Saubert, who was acquired in a trade from the Atlanta Falcons for a conditional seventh-round draft choice.

Etling’s transition to receiver, with additional responsibilities on special teams, captured the attention of many at Patriots training camp. Receiver Phillip Dorsett said Etling — who was a 2018 seventh-round draft choice out of LSU — reminded him of New Orleans Saints quarterback/slash option Taysom Hill.

The Patriots also have a notable history of players making a successful position switch, headlined by Julian Edelman going from college quarterback to NFL receiver.

Etling spent his 2018 rookie season on the Patriots’ practice squad, but in an unusual twist, the team had him attend road games. Practice-squad players usually don’t travel, but coach Bill Belichick said Etling could benefit from being around the team, and Etling’s work ethic was widely respected in the organization. He was often the last player to leave the practice field in training camp.

But the Patriots selected Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham in the fourth round of this year’s draft, and that ultimately bumped Etling off the quarterback depth chart, with no room for a fourth option behind Tom Brady, veteran Brian Hoyer and Stidham.

So he transitioned to receiver, but in recent days Etling had some struggles at the position. He was the intended target on an incomplete fourth-down pass in the preseason opener Thursday night and also was penalized for illegal formation.

Then in Monday’s practice, he bobbled a pass that was intercepted. He was also the intended target on another pass that was picked off.

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Giants WR Tate’s appeal of 4-game ban denied

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New York Giants wide receiver Golden Tate has lost his appeal of his four-game suspension, leaving his new team without a key acquisition for the first quarter of the season.

Tate tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance that he said came from prescribed fertility medication. His appeal was heard Aug. 6 by an arbiter in New York.

The suspension will cost Tate $465,000 in salary ($116,176 per game). He will miss the opener on the road against the Dallas Cowboys followed by games against the Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins.

He will be allowed to participate in all preseason practices and games.

“This morning, I received the unfortunate news that my appeal was denied,” Tate said in a statement Tuesday. “I went into this arbitration with the understanding that due to the facts, unlike many other cases, we could be the exception to win. Unfortunately the NFL stood by their no tolerance policy, which I hope one day to help have a part in reforming, so no other player has to go through this situation.”

The NFL and NFLPA have Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) available to players who need to take medications that are appropriate for the treatment of specific medical conditions. The exemptions include fertility issues since some fertility drugs are known to serve as masking agents. However, players must submit an application filled out by their physician to receive approval for a TUE.

Tate did not follow that protocol, and therefore was “referred for administrative action” under the league’s policy for PEDs.

“No one is more upset than myself, but moving forward, all I can do is continue to be a leader, continue to hold myself to the highest character and integrity, and soon make the biggest impact on the field,” Tate said in his statement.

Tate’s absence will put added pressure on a wide receiver corps that lost Odell Beckham Jr. in an offseason trade. Tate signed a four-year, $37.5 million deal as a free agent to help offset the loss.

Sterling Shepard (broken thumb), Cody Latimer and Bennie Fowler will play bigger roles in Tate’s immediate absence.

Latimer is expected to slide into Tate’s starting spot. He started in Thursday’s preseason opener with Shepard still sidelined and caught two passes for 36 yards despite playing just two drives.

On Tuesday, before the decision was announced, Giants quarterback Eli Manning lauded Tate’s ability and said he hoped “things work out” for the receiver to play a full season.

“Golden is a smart player and he is going to be in the right spot and he has a good feel for the zones, how to get open versus different techniques and stuff,” Manning said. “A veteran guy but also, we have seen a bunch of it with the Giants, his run after catch historically has been very good — a playmaker. Hopefully, things work out and he will be here all year.”

In a statement last month, Tate said he thought he had a legitimate case to win his appeal.

However, the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs is unforgiving. It states, “Players are responsible for what is in their bodies and a positive test will not be excused because a Player was unaware that he was taking a Prohibited Substance.”

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Colts GM says Luck now has high-ankle problem

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Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard said quarterback Andrew Luck‘s calf strain has become a high-ankle issue.

Ballard isn’t ready to say what Luck’s status will be for the Week 1 game at the Chargers.

“We’re 3 and a half weeks away from regular season, so I’m not ready to say (Luck’s regular season is in jeopardy),” Ballard told reporters on a confereence call Tuesday night.

Ballard says “most likely” Luck will not play in the preseason.

Team owner Jim Irsay told SiriusXM NFL Radio on Monday that Luck’s ongoing absence from Colts training camp was related to a bone issue in his lower left leg.

The quarterback has been ruled out of practices through Thursday, including a pair of joint sessions with the Cleveland Browns that begin Thursday, according to coach Frank Reich. He has been a participant in walk-throughs and has worked with throwing coach Tom House.

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