Each time Christian McCaffrey scored touchdowns in NFL stadiums the past seven years, whether it was the 10 he compiled in four high school state championship games at Sports Authority Field at Mile High or the gallops across big-venue goal lines while playing at Stanford, he moved closer to becoming a professional end-zone hunter.
The wait came to an end for McCaffrey on Thursday night when he was selected by Carolina with the eighth overall pick in the NFL draft, making him the second running back chosen. LSU's Leonard Fournette was taken fourth by the Jaguars.
"This is a dream come true right here," McCaffrey said in an interview with ESPN shortly after his selection was announced. "It's an unbelievable honor. I can't tell you how thankful I am for the coaching staff for believing in me. I'm just out of words right now. I'm so glad to be a Carolina Panther. I can't wait to grind every day for that organization, the team, the fans and everyone there."
McCaffrey had steadily moved up draft boards after deciding to forego his senior season at Stanford last December. His performance at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, when he ran a 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds and recorded a 37½-inch vertical jump, put impressive raw data behind a seemingly unending reel of highlights.
The physical gifts of the 5-foot-11, 202-pound running back were on display long before the combine. They carried him from Valor Christian, where he cemented his place as one of Colorado's all-time great prep players, to Stanford, where he was a Heisman Trophy finalist as a sophomore. Now, he's a top-10 pick for an organization trying to get back to the Super Bowl after losing to the Broncos to end the 2015 season. Carolina missed the playoffs last season.
McCaffrey was preparing for his big moment from the time he was a young kid chasing his dad, former Broncos wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, around the team's practice facility, hauling around pads and helmets that swallowed him whole and anchored him to the ground.
"It's been a dream of mine to play in this league since I can remember," said McCaffrey, counting his father as one of his biggest motivators. "He was the one who first told me if I have a dream, it's my job to work as hard as I can to achieve it, go get it and don't let anybody take it from you."
The son's talent quickly began shining on its own.
As a freshman at Valor Christian in 2010, one year after being featured in Sports Illustrated's "Faces In The Crowd" for his exploits as a middle-school talent, McCaffrey compiled 1,396 total yards and 21 touchdowns, leading the Eagles to their first of four consecutive state titles. He kept smashing records all the way to Stanford, where he shredded his way to an historic sophomore season in 2015. While finishing second in the Heisman race, McCaffrey set the NCAA single-season record with 3,864 all-purpose yards.
"There's so much value there," said Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, who added he watched all 700 of McCaffrey's touches at Stanford. "The best tackle-box runner I've ever seen is Curtis Martin. Christian is right there with him."
McCaffrey's versatility as a runner, receiver and returner should be an immediate boost to a Panthers team that ranked 19th in total offense last season at 343.7 yards per game. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton completed just 52.9 percent of his passes last season, the worst of his career. McCaffrey should lessen some of the pressure on Newton with his ability to be a game-changing playmaker out of the backfield.
Before the draft process began, McCaffrey faced doubts as to whether he could be an every-down player. His reply to naysayers?
"I'd tell them," he told reporters on a conference call Thursday night, "to watch the tape."