When San Francisco 49ers HC Jim Harbaugh shelved starter Alex Smith in favor of a second- year cat from the University of Nevada (Reno), he had reporters questioning his sanity and fans asking, “Who the heck is Colin Kaepernick?”
With Smith nursing a concussion, Kaepernick got his first NFL start in a Monday Night Football game against the tough Chicago Bears in late November and gave fans a taste of his arsenal in a 32–7 win.
Fast forward to last weekend’s NFC Divisional game, and Kaepernick’s epic performance has the paparazzis clicking, the groupies whispering and the Bay area thinking Super Bowl.
Peep this: as a fourth grader, growing up in Turlock, Ca. Kaepernick wrote himself a letter predicting that he will “be 6 feet 4 and then go to the pros and play on the Niners.”
How wild is it that such an improbable dream is in full effect? The dude even has his own digital movement and devoted cyber following. Instagram is blowing up with chicks and dudes “ Kaepernicking,” which is an imitation of Kaep’ kissing his tatted-up, bulging bicep in admiration, after doing something sick like torching the Packers 45-31 to advance to Sundays NFC Championship game against the Atlanta Falcons.
With a brief QB controversy in his rear-view, Kaepernick accounted for four scores, setting an NFL playoff single-game record for most rushing yards by a quarterback with 181, breaking Michael Vick’s record of 173. Only Eric Dickerson (248 yards), Lamar Smith (209) and Keith Lincoln (205) ran for more in a playoff game. He also flexed his wing, flinging for another 263 yards.
Who knew this was coming?
Unless you are a draft geek or an historian of Western Athletic Conference football, Kaepernick came out of nowhere on some Jeremy Lin sh*t. He wasn’t expected to keep the starting job, and the way it went down ( Wally Pipp- style) put him in an uncomfortable pressure-cooker. But a glimpse into Kaepernick’s life reveals a kid that’s been making the most of situations that weren’t ideal since birth.
Kaepernick’s biological mom, Heidi Russo was a 19-year-old, living in Milwaukee, when she put him up for adoption in 1987. The family doesn’t divulge private information about his pops, but Kaepernick knows who he is too. His adopted parents, Teresa and Rich Kaepernick had a son and a daughter, but wanted more kids. Losing their next two sons to congenital heart failure led to some soul searching and they ultimately agreed to adopt, regardless of the baby’s health or race. One day, the agency called about a half-black, half-white baby boy and, at five weeks old, Colin became a Kaepernick. It turned out to be the right move, because, even as a kid, Kaepernick had that “it” factor and his parents have been patting themselves on the back ever since.
"We were so lucky to get Colin," Teresa said in a December USA Today article. "It's the smartest thing we ever did. We get this really perfect child. It blows me away to think that we're so fortunate."
He’s also on his way to becoming the perfect QB. As a racially mixed kid growing up in the predominantly white towns of Fond du Lac and Turlock, CA, Kaepernick noticed early on that his skin color wasn’t like the other kids’. But he didn’t let the things he couldn’t control bother him. It helped he had fiercely protective and supportive parents. You saw when they blasted the Sporting News ’ David Whitley for comparing Kaepernick’s body art to that of a parolee or how, when Kaep’ was in junior high and wanted “Allen Iverson braids,” his mom searched high and low for a salon that could braid “black” hair, finally finding one over ½ hour away.
So, of course, after Kaepernick started playing football at age 8 and his folks saw the gifts, they did what they could cultivate it. By the time he hit high school at H. Pitman H.S., he was three-sport phenom with a 92 mph fastball (he was drafted by the Cubs) and the hardwood skills to drop 30 when he wanted to. He was a huge fish in a small pond then, a legend now, but his national football profile didn’t have that prodigy-reach. He chose to attend Nevada because it was the only school to offer him a football scholarship – and that was only after an assistant coach saw him go H.A.M. in a basketball game while nursing a 102 degree fever.
What continues to make Kaepernick special is that the young man doesn’t disappoint. When it’s time to show-n-prove, he shows-n-proves. So, even though he played in a rushing offense in high school, Kaepernick mastered the pass-heavy “ Pistol Offense” that Ault created and went on to set FBS career passing and rushing records. He may have entered Nevada as a question mark, but by the time he was done perculating, he had worked his way up the 2011 draft boards, before being snatched by Harbaugh in the second round.
While the more high profile first-year starters (RG3, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson) had an entire season to get familiar with the NFL, Kaepernick was thrown into a bowl of grits, on a veteran team, with Super Bowl-or-bust aspirations. He’s had to quickly convince teammates, the media and opposing NFL defenses that he’s the truth, with chip thirsty fans breathing down his neck and a healthy, disgruntled ex-starter chirping behind his back.
Prior to his ill-timed concussion and subsequent benching, Alex Smith was 6-2 on the season and 19-5-1 overall under Harbaugh. He was first in the NFL in completion percentage (70%) and third in passer rating (104.1). Steady and efficient – that was Smith. He could chuck it a bit and do the Hollywood Shuffle, but he was and is not a star.
It wasn’t like Smith was a bum, but it’s now clear that Harbaugh felt he had maximized Smith’s potential last year in an NFC Championship loss to the Giants. Harbaugh is a former QB himself (over 26,000 yards passing, mostly for the Bears and Colts) – he knows the position, knows a special player when he sees one. He elevated Kaepernick to starter not on a hunch, but with the sole purpose of adding a more dynamic facilitator of his offense. With Kaepernick, he likely surmised that the 49ers’ ceiling went up a few floors. He saw a potential Super Bowl-winning diamond that, with the right tutelage, had the temperament, legs, 6’6 frame and Rambo rocket-arm to change the 49ers QB situation from manageable to magical.
Just as Kaepernick’s parents adopted him without ever meeting, then nurtured him into a well-adjusted human being, Harbaugh’s gut feeling about Kaepernick out-weighed his risk of public ridicule for benching a proven winner for an unknown entity.
The haters got especially mouthy after a December loss to St. Louis that dropped the Niners record to 8-3-1 , with the surging Seahawks on their heels . Several media pundits called for Smith’s reinsertion, but Harbaugh simply saw it as growing pains that come with speed-developing a young, exciting QB. Harbaugh has described Kaepernick as “savant-like,” expecting Kaepernick’s handling of his accelerated learning curve and game preparation to produce fruits like we saw last week against the Packers.
It’s hard to fathom now, but just a few years ago, Kaepernick was just Cam Newton’s faceless roommate at the NFL Combine. And, just a few months ago, he was some tall dude on the sidelines holding a clip board. Who, maybe other than Harbaugh, knew San Francisco had a Randall Cunningham/Warren Moon hybrid wasting away on the sidelines?
Now, Kaepernick towers his fellow young QB cronies as the lone playoff representative. People aren’t asking who the tatted-up cat with the funny name is anymore. Everything that transpired this season was meant to be, just like, it seems, Kaepernick’s life. If he can muster up a couple more epic performances, the common question for Harbaugh will become, “What the hell were you waiting for?”