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Photograph by Chayce Lanphear

Why Is Ed McCaffrey Coaching High School Football?

Can an ex-Bronco repair the off-the-field reputation of Colorado’s most dominant high school football team?

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On a glorious, clear-skied summer morning in Highlands Ranch, the sun still rising brightly in the east, Colorado’s pre-eminent high school football program has once again set about doing God’s work. Roughly 70 Valor Christian High School teenagers are practicing blocks, passes, and plays—drilling and drilling again in pursuit of continued superiority this fall. Adding to the vaguely militaristic atmosphere, almost all of the Eagles wear the same uniform: blue helmet, blue shorts, white T-shirt. Printed across the able shoulders of every player is Colossians 3:23, which references the Bible verse that reads, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”

The Valor boys could very well be toiling for the Almighty, but their earthly masters are all that can be heard over the din of grunts and smacking pads. “Good work, good work.” “Rotate, rotate.” “Next up, next up.”

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One of the few coaches not barking orders stands near midfield. Although he’s working on a slight paunch, 50-year-old Ed McCaffrey’s rangy, athletic build is still recognizable 14 years after his retirement from the Denver Broncos. The former wide receiver is dressed in black, wearing a baseball cap, and, at least today, sporting dark stubble on the once clean-cut face you might remember from Sunday afternoon NFL games. Hired as Valor’s head football coach in early 2018, McCaffrey twirls a whistle around his wrist, silently assessing his teenage charges.

Why is McCaffrey—a Pro Bowl wideout, former Broncos color commentator, and millionaire sire of the most accomplished football family this side of the Mannings—coaching high school football? He’s got plenty of reasons, but chief among them is that he loves Valor and believes his mission is to mentor its young men, who, McCaffrey says, “need guidance and help.” Not only between the hash marks—where the conflicts are difficult to overcome, yet simple to understand—but off the football field too. It so happens that it’s there, outside the lines, where things get complicated for Valor.

Valor Christian’s practice jerseys cite an inspiring Bible verse. Photograph by Chayce Lanphear

Valor Christian sees itself as a school worthy of the Lord, and its campus reflects that high-minded notion. Set upon a hill in Highlands Ranch, the red brick and white stone campus comprises the impressive gable-roofed Academic Building as well as the 90,000-square-foot Valor Center for Culture and Excellence, which boasts a 750-seat performance hall. When school is in session, more than 1,100 students—most of whom pay $18,980 per year in tuition to attend the private institution—cross its manicured grounds on their ways to and from places of learning such as the 5,300-square-foot research library and the professional recording studio.

Most of Valor’s 35 acres, though, are dedicated to sports. The $23 million Athletic Building contains two gyms, a rock-climbing wall, a wrestling room, and a cafeteria with vaulted ceilings. Housed inside Valor Stadium, the school’s roughly $9 million sports complex, is a mélange of high-dollar accoutrements more commonly seen in college facilities: cutting-edge video equipment, pro-grade workout gear, Muscle Milk products. From the football stands, spectators can ogle Valor’s tennis courts, soccer and lacrosse field, and softball and baseball diamonds.

Valor wouldn’t disclose its athletic budget, but in 2011 the Denver Post reported that the Eagles spent $1.2 million that school year on sports. For 2018-’19, the other schools in Valor’s football conference—the Metro South, in which the Eagles compete against five nearby public schools, including Highlands Ranch High School—have budgeted an average of $600,000.

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The millions the school and its boosters have poured into athletics are an investment in Valor’s motto: “Influence Through Excellence.” Administrators expect the institution to succeed in everything from academics to athletics—and so far, it has—in the service of Jesus Christ. Although Valor was founded in 2007, it has already once been named a National Blue Ribbon School for academic excellence. Valor has also won dozens of state titles across its 24 sports in just more than a decade. The football team, the school’s most successful program, claimed its first state championship in 2009. Over the subsequent seven years, Valor racked up six more.

Having a McCaffrey kid on the field almost from day one didn’t hurt. Ed McCaffrey’s eldest son, Max, was a star receiver who helped lead the Eagles to their first three state titles before matriculating at Duke University and then playing in the NFL. Christian, Ed’s next child, set the Colorado record for career all-purpose yards at Valor—and then set the NCAA record for season all-purpose yards at Stanford University before being drafted by the Carolina Panthers. The youngest McCaffrey boys have both played quarterback for the Eagles: After being redshirted his freshman season, Dylan is now a second-year Wolverine at the University of Michigan, and Luke, who has committed to the University of Nebraska, began his senior year at Valor this past month.

Still, Jamie Heiner, the school’s athletic director, attributes Valor’s success to something even more powerful than McCaffrey genes. “I personally feel like having the Lord oversee that and fully commit that unto Him truly was the game changer,” Heiner says. Commitment is one thing. There are those, however, who believe Valor’s quick and sustained superiority is due less to righteousness than to sins.

Allegations of illegal recruiting—which, according to the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA), entails soliciting a student to enroll purely for athletic reasons—have dogged Valor since its inception. The football team has never been censured, but in 2009 the CHSAA suspended the Eagles’ baseball coach, Keith Wahl, for trying to conscript players from Mountain Vista High School, his previous employer. A year later, Valor coaches were sanctioned for recruiting runners during a track meet.

Even McCaffrey, who was, at that time, a self-described dad in the bleachers, endured allegations of impropriety. In 2011, during a public meeting, then CHSAA commissioner Paul Angelico said, “The world thinks Ed McCaffrey is out there as a self-appointed recruiter for Valor High School.” That comment didn’t sit well with McCaffrey, who hired a lawyer to demand the CHSAA retract the statement. (It didn’t.) “Look, I’m a man of integrity,” McCaffrey says today. “I’m an honest person who tries to do the right thing.” Although he was always one of Valor’s most ardent fans, attending nearly every football game, McCaffrey says he purposefully receded from the spotlight so his renown wouldn’t obscure his kids’ accomplishments.

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Despite the controversies, McCaffrey admired the energetic, uplifting culture of Valor football he’d witnessed from the stands during practices. So, he says, he was shocked when Rod Sherman, who led the program to three state titles in five years, left Valor this past offseason. To this day, mystery surrounds Sherman’s exit. In November, his Eagles were upset in the state quarterfinals, the school’s earliest playoff elimination since 2008. Some in coaching circles believe Sherman wanted a new challenge (he’s now the coach at Arapahoe High School in Centennial); others suggest he might have been pushed out. Heiner won’t say whether Sherman, who did not respond to an interview request, resigned or was fired, only that there was nothing scandalous about his departure. McCaffrey claims ignorance: “It was a decision made within the building and for various reasons, which I’m not privy to.” Regardless, Valor needed a new coach, and McCaffrey wanted the job.

Before Valor, there was Allentown Central Catholic High School in eastern Pennsylvania. In the 1980s, the McCaffreys ruled that institution’s courts and fields, with Monica and Bill, Ed’s younger siblings, earning basketball scholarships to Georgetown University and Duke University, respectively. But it was six-foot-five Ed Jr. who set the precedent for excellence, earning two state titles in basketball and Parade All-American status in football.

McCaffrey helped the Denver Broncos win two Super Bowls. Photo courtesy of Andy Cross/the Denver Post via Getty Images

McCaffrey became an All-American at Stanford, too, but spent the first five of his 13 years in the NFL as a backup before becoming a Pro Bowler in Denver. The franchise rewarded him with a $21 million extension. That payout meant McCaffrey didn’t have to get a day job upon retiring from the Broncos in 2004 at 35. He could afford to do nothing, and after a short stint in real estate, that’s exactly what he did. Nothing—except exercise incessantly (“benching over 400 pounds,” he says). But he wasn’t fulfilled professionally, a fact he realized following an hourslong video game binge shortly after he retired. He was rich and ripped—and felt adrift.

Since then, McCaffrey has been in anything but repose. He founded SportsEddy, which organizes sports camps for kids, and Dare to Play Football and Dare to Cheer camps, events that benefit the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. From 2012 to 2017, McCaffrey was radio station KOA’s color man for Broncos games.

He thought about coaching too. He’d enjoyed leading his kids’ little league teams, and he certainly knew football. But he’d decided to wait until his sons left home before taking a high school position. His kids’ happiness—and his relationships with them—came first. In fact, he resigned his post at KOA so he could devote the next few years to traveling to his children’s college and NFL games.

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Then Sherman left—and McCaffrey had to audible. Although his youngest would start for the Eagles this season, McCaffrey surmised that another opening at Valor might not appear for many years. He felt called. “It’s important to me to live a life of fulfillment,” McCaffrey says. “There’s not a lot of things I’m an expert at, but I feel like I’m pretty good at being a football coach.”

It’s a windy day in June, and McCaffrey draws his team around him near the 50-yard line. There’s no fiery speech; no rah-rahing. In fact, McCaffrey speaks so softly his words are nearly inaudible at times. Most of the roughly 70 boys leaning in to listen to the head coach are from metro Denver. Star running back Joshia Davis, for instance, hails from Littleton; the only McCaffrey who recruited him was Christian, whose exploits for the Eagles helped persuade Davis to enroll at Valor.

Other players, though, come from much farther away—so far, in fact, that it has inspired new grievances against the school. Murmurs in local coaching circles suggest a few Fort Collins kids were lured down I-25 to Highlands Ranch. Indeed, a local head coach confirmed—and expressed frustration—that three athletes who were headed to his Fort Collins–based school this past year instead went to Valor, 80 miles away.

A spokesperson for Valor says students aren’t recruited for sports and that the school doesn’t issue scholarships of any kind. (One in four students do get some sort of need-based tuition assistance.) Many Valor parents, the spokesperson adds, commute long distances so their children can attend Valor, whether for academic, religious, or athletic purposes. “[Valor has] such a reputation,” says Tom McCartney, the football coach at Fairview High School in Boulder, “people are coming to them.”

This season’s Valor team will feature a coterie of veterans fans will remember from last year. The coaches, however, will mostly be new to the Valor sidelines—though introductions may not be necessary. The resumés of McCaffrey’s assistant coaches read like a who’s who of the NFL. Retired Broncos such as defensive back Jimmy Spencer and wide receiver Brandon Stokley, for example, lead their former position groups. The atmosphere at practice has changed too. McCaffrey is more laid-back than Sherman, content to let his assistants run practices and step in when necessary. As far as tactics, McCaffrey says he will call the plays but, in typical coach fashion, declines to delve into the intricacies of his playbook.

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Deciding between a bubble screen and an inside draw might not be McCaffrey’s biggest challenge at Valor, though. In its stated vision, the school pursues a higher purpose than championships: to transform the world for Christ. But in light of the recruiting allegations and other perceived transgressions—such as running up the score on weaker opponents—the school’s detractors wonder whether the Eagles feel free to be less than holy on Friday nights so long as they’re appropriately pious come Sunday mornings.

McCaffrey worked quickly to establish a better rapport with the CHSAA. After being named Valor’s coach in February 2018, he met with commissioner Rhonda Blanford-Green. He gave her his cell phone number and encouraged her to call should anyone level an allegation against the program. “I appreciate that they didn’t like the relationship they had with the CHSAA in the past and wanted to change that,” Blanford-Green says. “He doesn’t want it to interfere with what he’s trying to accomplish there.”

When asked if part of that mission is to fix Valor’s reputation, McCaffrey says, “Absolutely.” But when pressed, the coach retreats to another, not unrelated, goal—mentorship. It’s the number one reason, he says, he’ll make a good coach: “I’ll treat them like I would my own sons.” And while opinions of the Eagles as a team differ from sideline to sideline, everyone can agree, it seems, that McCaffrey and his wife, Lisa (an accomplished athlete herself, having played soccer at Stanford), have done a pretty good job raising their children. The McCaffrey kids are not only gifted football players who’ve avoided scandals, but two are also lifesavers: In Castle Rock this past March, Christian and Max helped rescue a 72-year-old hiker who’d been seriously injured from a 20-foot fall.

Still, if raising four kids to be upstanding citizens is tough, nurturing dozens of adolescent boys into virtuous adulthood (while winning games) will be even more demanding. McCaffrey talks about instilling “what it means to work hard, what it means to be accountable, what it means to be a team player,” but that’s the gospel of every high school coach in America. Nevertheless, the clichés seem to be more than coach-speak to McCaffrey. “I can’t control what anybody does or thinks or says,” McCaffrey says. “I just know I’m going to do the best job that I can to serve this program and to serve these young men.”

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