In just three seasons and at only 24 years old, Christian McCaffrey is one of the biggest stars in the NFL. Coming off of his first Pro Bowl, a First Team All-Pro selection, and a historic statistical season in 2019, he’s widely considered by many analysts and fans alike to be the league’s best running back.

McCaffrey has received recognition for it too. He’s the highest paid running back in NFL history. He’s one of only five players starting off Madden 21 with a 99 overall rating (the second time he’s been in the 99 Club). He will be a No. 1 overall pick in an overwhelming number of fantasy football drafts in a few weeks (mine included). He’s the face of the Carolina Panthers franchise for the foreseeable future. And now he’s also one of the newest faces and stakeholders for BODYARMOR sports drinks.

Like many, McCaffrey is eager to return to the gridiron—the pandemic will have the entire league operating a bit differently during the 2020 NFL season—but McCaffrey and the Panthers will be dealing with their own set of unique changes like the departure of Cam Newton and the arrival of their second new head coach in as many years in Matt Rhule. But CMC remains optimistic. 

“You always root for your guys when they leave, but you have to remember that your team is the most important. So I'm excited about new guys and getting ready to work with them,” McCaffrey tells Complex.

We got a chance to speak to McCaffrey about his expectations for the revamped Panthers team ahead of this season, what it’s like to receive a 99 overall rating in Madden, his newest partnership with BODYARMOR, and more. 

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

As a new ambassador and a stakeholder with BODYARMOR, what excited you about this new opportunity?
Well, for me, it's a really easy product to endorse because I'm passionate about it myself, and I drink BODYARMOR. I have for a very long time now, so I love a lot of aspects of that. I love it being kind of a healthy food that there's no artificial sugars. It's a product that has all natural ingredients, and it tastes really good. So to me, it's kind of a no-brainer. I think when we see the athletes that also endorse BODYARMOR, it kind of gives you a sense that maybe it is something that you should consider. 

Many consider you to be the best running back in the league. How do you personally handle that pressure moving forward in your career?
I don't really look at it as pressure. I think a part of what makes football so fun is the ability for fans and other people to compare who's the best. And to me, it's fun, and we always want to chase greatness and we always want to chase being the top dog. It's become more about just really falling in love with the game of football, the process, the training, and letting the results speak for themselves.

When it happens, great. When it doesn't, great. I'm going to have fun playing football, and I've really learned that I have the most success when I treat the game that way. When I start to think of the pressure of staying on top and this and that, I actually play really bad. So I really just focus on the love for the game and having fun with my brothers on Sunday.

How has your game kind of improved going into this season? Is there anything that you specifically focused on in the offseason to improve your skill set?
I think there's always things you can get better at. And for me, I think there's an aspect of speed that you can never work too much. Being a running back, it's in the title of my job. But just working on efficiency, working on proper running mechanics. When the third and fourth quarter hit, man, you might've had a lot of touches. I can maintain efficiency, maintain fluidity. So running and really perfecting the aspect of speed, working with a couple track coaches, and translating that to football has always been the fun challenge for me in the offseason and as the season hits I feel like I'm ready to go.

The season's going to be different because of the ongoing pandemic. It's changed everything for everybody. But has COVID-19 impacted your offseason training or your day-to-day in any specific way that you've kind of had to figure out?
So for me, I was in Colorado the whole quarantine and obviously you want to make the most out of unfortunate situations. So with everything going on, I was actually able to be with my family and I got to train with my little brothers, which was something that, without it, I don't think I would have been able to do. My dad would go out there. My brothers would go out there. We'd all train together. And it was actually a benefit for me because I didn't have to travel anywhere. I got to stay in one place for a really long period of time, and training was about the only thing that I could do. So other than hanging out with all my loved ones, I was hitting the track, hitting the field, hitting the weight room with them, and I'm very lucky I had access to all those things. I definitely made the most of it. Not being at OTAs in the spring with the team is a bummer, but I think it's something that, going over all the virtual meetings and meeting with the coaches over the phone, I tried to take advantage of it as best as I could.

Another big difference this season in Carolina specifically is going to be the loss of Cam Newton. You started your career with him. Do you have you thoughts about how that will impact the team this season moving forward?
Football is such a revolving door of a sport, especially in the NFL. Guys come and go everyday, and whether it's you or one of your teammates, the team is never the same year to year. So for me, I kind of just approach it as a business and understand the business aspect of the game. Obviously, you don't want to see your teammates leave when guys like Greg Olsen and Luke Kuechly retire. And Cam. But it's also the beauty of it because you have an opportunity to play with some other amazing guys. Teddy [Bridgewater] coming in, I'm really excited about sharing the backfield with him because I know how great of a player he is. I know the way he approaches the game and how he goes about his business. As a running back, it’s exciting to share that backfield with him. So you always root for your guys when they leave, but you have to remember that your team is the most important. So I'm excited about new guys and getting ready to work with them.

Christian McCaffrey
Image via Getty/Kathryn Riley

You're also going to be operating with a new head coach as well this year. What do you think the team can accomplish going into this season? It's a tougher division now. You have Tom Brady joining the Bucs. Are there any goals that you've set, either personally or for the team?
I think our team has a lot of goals. I would say I have a lot of individual goals, but I think it's just about taking it day-by-day. Obviously we have a big division, but every team's good. Every team that we're going to play is good, and that's why the phrase "Any given Sunday” is so real. So for us, it's just taking it one day at a time and doing the best we can, focusing on the task at hand. I think you shouldn't think about winning, you should think about what it takes to win. And then from there, the results take care of themselves.

A ton of people recognize your play on the field. EA Sports has you starting on Madden 21 with a 99 overall rating, which is kind of a big honor. I know a lot of guys really care about that and really care about their ratings and nitpick it. Are you one of those guys?
I'll tell you what, I've been playing Madden forever, and I have two 99 trophies now. And for me, it is a cool honor because when I was a kid I used to create my players to be 99, and I put them 99 in everything. To actually kind of do it person is pretty special. You're right. It's funny how much we value a rating in a video game, but it's definitely a cool honor and something that I'll be able to look back on maybe one day with my kids if they're playing Madden, and show them that. They'll probably think it's cooler than me, but definitely a cool honor.

Aside from Madden, I'm sure you hear all the time about the fantasy football situation with the fans. I'm sure you're going to be a No. 1 pick in a few leagues. It’s another thing that I know a lot of players chime in about, but a lot of players kind of tune out. Do you pay attention to that aspect of the game at all and does it have any kind of effect on you throughout the season?
Fantasy football is so funny to me because, it's in the name, a fantasy. It gives fans an opportunity to create their own team and really be a part of the game in a different way and be their own coach, per se. So I don't really focus on it. I know a lot of fans appreciate it when I do well for their team, but at the same time, I just hope it doesn't take away from the art of the game. If it's a 7-6 win and the offense doesn't play great, but the defense plays unstoppable and you get a home win, we want our fans to be happy about the win, not that I sucked for their fantasy league. But at the same time, it's such a cool way to bring so many different people close to the game of football. 

I remember when I was at Stanford and there was people from all over the world who don't even know anything about American football. And when fantasy football was starting to make a rise, we had people from East India and Germany and Central Russia, they were all playing fantasy football, and I thought it was pretty cool. But without fantasy football, I don't know if they would ever even have watched the games. So it definitely was a cool thing to see it unite so many different people, but at the same time, I hope it helps the love for the game and true fandom stays.

Also Watch