Photo Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen with photography by Tony Avelar/Associated Press
The magician held the ball between his palms. His audience watched him intently. They knew his tricks. They'd studied him for days. There was the ball. The magician held it away from his body, for everybody to see. His movements were smooth. His audience was not kind — a mob of large men eager to pounce on him, to take the ball once they figured out his tricks. One slip up and the magician would find himself at the mob's mercy, possibly at the bottom of a dog-pile.
The audience saw the magician hand the ball to his assistant and trot off to the side with long strides. The audience converged, bloodthirsty, toward the assistant ...
Poof. The ball had disappeared. And so had the magician. The audience looked around, stunned.
Somehow, the magician materialized behind them. They flipped around and saw his back as he sprinted away. They would not catch him.
"Colin Kaepernick," announcer Joe Buck declared, pausing in amazement, "fooled everybody!"
It appeared to be a simple trick, nothing but a two-man con game for a 56-yard touchdown.
The San Francisco 49ers were playing the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional Championship. Winner got a shot at the Super Bowl. By the fourth quarter, the Packers had become intimately familiar with Kaepernick's sleight of hand. He'd pulled it on them several times now. So the defense must have been prepared when the 49ers ran the disappearing-ball trick one more time. Again, Kaepernick shoved the football into running back Frank Gore's gut. As he trotted away, though, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews was wiser. He jumped out to cut off Kaepernick; no blocker tried to stop him. He got within 6 feet of the quarterback. Matthews stared at him, measuring his movements, preparing to strike.
Poof. The ball had disappeared once again.
Matthews, in a panic, did a triple take, his head on a swivel. He turned back to look at Gore, whose hands were empty. Matthews completed a full pirouette before he realized that Kaepernick had had the ball the whole time. But by now the QB was downfield, cruising to the sidelines for an 18-yard gain.
"Clay Matthews, one of the game's best linebackers, was completely fooled by that fake by Kaepernick," Buck gushed. "Matthews is completely spun around by Kaepernick!"
It was Kaepernick's final run of the game, giving him a total of 181 rushing yards, more than any NFL quarterback had ever compiled in a single game.
"That's some of the best quarterbacking I have ever seen," declared Fox analyst and Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw after the 49ers' 45-31 victory.
"We're gonna look back 10 years from now and say that this was the point where quarterback evaluation in the NFL changed," added Howie Long, the Hall of Fame defensive end sitting next to Bradshaw on the post-game show.
Kaepernick's performance is both the product of and the spark for changes that resonate beyond NFL playbooks. After all, the quarterback is the most important position in America's most popular pastime. The quarterback embodies traits we most admire: leadership, intelligence, toughness, courage, poise under pressure. The quarterback is the All-American, the homecoming king, the franchise savior, the smile on the cover of GQ. He calls the plays and takes the blame. He stands still as 300-pound opponents try to destroy him, deciphering the complex defense meant to deceive him before making the final decision on where to send the football — all in a matter of seconds. So when what it means to be a quarterback changes, half a century of social conceptions changes with it.
Quarterbacks who run as fast as Kaepernick are not supposed to throw as accurately as he does, and vice versa. Quarterbacks as physically gifted as Kaepernick are not supposed to mentally confound defenses as he does, and vice versa. The scary and exciting thing about Kaepernick's signature performance in the biggest game of his career — only his eighth start in the league — is that it was not some glitch in the fabric of pro football. It was a nationally televised exclamation point in the defining story of the 2012 season: a new generation of young quarterbacks, with skills like Kaepernick's, redefining the position.
And two years ago, none of them were in the NFL.
There is D.C's Robert Griffin III, Seattle's Russell Wilson, Carolina's Cam Newton, and, presumably, unnamed others on their heels, rising through the amateur football ranks.
"Watching the NFL this season and the playoffs so far, I am convinced we are witnessing a seismic shift at the quarterback position," Fran Tarkenton, a legendary quarterback who was famous for his ability to evade defenders, wrote in an early January op-ed for the St. Paul, Minn., Pioneer Press. "They aren't wide receivers or running backs thrust by accident or desperation into the role of quarterback. They are all dangerous passers who just so happen to run like gazelles."
Leading his team to the Super Bowl, Kaepernick has emerged at the top of his group, becoming the face of this shift. By revolutionizing a quarterback's role in football, he challenges the underlying assumptions about the position. Kaepernick is not just the face of a changing sport, but the face of a changing America.
At the most obvious level, Kaepernick has changed quarterbacking through his athleticism. At a chiseled 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he is as big and strong as many of the linebackers trying to tackle him. He throws the ball with exceptional velocity — there is no official measurement, but it's worth noting that as a high school pitcher he threw a 94 mph fastball. He runs a 4.43-second 40-yard dash, faster than many defensive backs who chase him in the open field, and he can accelerate to full speed within a few strides. On any given play, it's a good bet that Kaepernick is the most physically impressive player on the field.
It is these traits that most overwhelm defenses and astound spectators. These are the combination of talents that fill seats and highlight reels. So perhaps Kaepernick's fundamental deception is one of narrative. He is a transcendent athlete who is not defined by his athleticism. This has been the centerpiece of his story: We are told to look past what his body can do and instead focus on the quirky and intelligent mind beneath the helmet.
As early as May 2011, a month after the 49ers selected Kaepernick in the second round of the NFL draft, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Scott Ostler's story focused on the quarterback's academic prowess and idiosyncrasies: He has a pet tortoise named Sammy that now "weights more than 100 pounds and eats the backyard"; he was a straight-A student in high school who never got in trouble, "as in: zero. No chewing-gum-in-class incidents, not a single tardy"; and "Dartmouth, Harvard, and Yale recruited him hard."
The morning of the Niners' playoff game against the Packers, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel noted that "Drooling over his physical tools somewhat cheapens the product" because "arguably his best attribute is his smarts."
"Don't let the tattoos and everything fool you," Brandon Harris, Kaepernick's offensive coordinator at Pitman High School, told the paper. "This guy's an intellectual."
Before Kaepernick's rookie season, an ESPN researcher, looking for a story, headed out to Turlock to find out about this speedy, tattooed, adopted black kid who wanted to play QB in the NFL. "Look," Harris told her, "He's a 4.3-GPA guy, from Wisconsin, with a pet tortoise. If you're looking for a story about a player overcoming thug life, you've got the wrong guy."
As the researcher must have learned, Kaepernick strips away the stereotypes. This is most apparent when it comes to his race. Kaepernick's race wouldn't matter if he played any position in any sport other than quarterback. But being black and a quarterback has traditionally come with a load of prejudice.
Kaepernick is biracial — half-African American, half-European American. As an infant, he was adopted by a white family from Wisconsin. When he was 4, the family moved to Turlock, where Kaepernick's classmates were almost exclusively white. He once asked his mother,"How come I'm brown?" As Teresa Kaepernick told USA Today, she responded, "Yeah, that's not fair, you've got that pretty brown color, and look at me, Mom looks like paste! You look great!" Freed from the constraints of family lineage and homogenous decent, his identity was shaped by his own interests. He was a big Allen Iverson fan, so he wore braids. He inked his upper body, with Bible verses on his biceps because, as his father Rick explained to the paper, "Colin's a fairly religious kid, but he's not in your face about it."
He came of age at a time when race was, finally, no longer a barrier to playing quarterback. When Kaepernick was born, in 1987, a black quarterback had never won the Heisman Trophy and a black quarterback had never played in a Super Bowl. In 1991, before Kaepernick could grip a regulation football, Steve McNair, one of the top high school quarterbacks of his class, turned down scholarship offers from powerhouses like Miami and Florida, because those schools wanted him to switch to defensive back. If he wanted to play quarterback in college, he had to sign on at a smaller school. So he ended up at Alcorn State, a historically black college in a division lower than the programs we see on Saturday afternoon TV.
It was a common story. Gary Cobb, a former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker, once noted that his youth league coach didn't give him a chance at quarterback because "black athletes weren't looked at as cerebral athletes. They talked more about their athleticism."
Discussing big and fast quarterbacks like Kaepernick and Newton, Mike Farrell, a college football recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, says, "Twenty years ago, those guys might have been switched to tight end or wide receiver."
In those 20 years, though, a sea change hit football. In 1988, Doug Williams was named Super Bowl MVP. In 1989, Andre Ward won the Heisman Trophy. Charlie Ward won it in 1993. In the early '90s, Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham were superstars. At the turn of the millennium, as Kaepernick was reaching puberty, McNair, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, and Dante Culpepper were among the best quarterbacks in the league. Over those decades, people watched those quarterbacks tearing up defenses every week on TV. Perceptions changed. Pop Warner and high school coaches were not hesitant to give the reins to their offense to a quarterback of color. "Let's say people have become smarter, their coaching has expanded," says Floyd Keith, a former college football coach and the director of Black Coaches and Administrators, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing minority participation in sports management positions. "The successes of talented [minority] quarterbacks, that opened a lot of doors."
By the time Kaepernick enrolled at the University of Nevada-Reno, two generations of black quarterbacks had eroded decades of prejudice. But entrenched stereotypes crumble slowly. A few days after the Packers game, Kaepernick told reporters, "I feel like my whole life I've been categorized as a runner." He's certainly not the first.
A 2010 study examining how Sports Illustrated writers analyzed NFL draft prospects from 1998 to 2007 found that "black quarterbacks were primarily described with words and phrases that emphasized their physical gifts and lack of mental prowess," while "white quarterbacks were described as less physically gifted, but more mentally prepared for the game and less likely to make mental errors." A similar 2008 study assessing draft coverage since 1990 concluded that "draft experts buy into and perpetuate racial stereotypes about blacks," and that "evaluations that have promoted the school of thought that black quarterbacks possess poor mental skills have caused many potential NFL black quarterbacks to drop past the first round, go un-drafted, switch positions, opt for the Canadian Football League, or fall by the wayside altogether."
At the peak of his career, Donovan McNabb, one of the most accomplished quarterbacks of his era, felt such an obligation to combat these stereotypes that he chose to run less often. "Everybody expects black quarterbacks to scramble," he said.
There is no better representation of race's complicated relationship with sports than the term "black quarterback." There are no "black pitchers" or "Mexican teachers" or "Chinese lawyers" or "Filipino accountants" — just pitchers, teaches, lawyers, accountants. The term exists because it describes both a quarterback's skin color and his style of play. Black quarterbacks, so the stereotype goes, are athletic, fleet-footed scramblers who can dart for the first down when there is nobody to throw to.
Kaepernick highlights the absurdity of these conceptions. He became a "runner" sort of by accident. In high school he was a skinny, fragile-looking kid, and rarely scrambled. When he did, his coaches would scream "Get out of bounds!" His only major college scholarship offer came from Nevada — other schools were scared off both by his unorthodox throwing motion and by the chance that he would decide to play professional baseball.
But Nevada's head coach Chris Ault, as it happened, was developing a new offensive scheme called the "Pistol," in which the quarterback takes the snap from a few feet behind the center, and the running back lines up a few feet behind the quarterback. It's an offense based on deception, where the quarterback has the choice to hand the ball to the running back, run it himself, or drop back to pass. Kaepernick turned out to be a perfect fit. He became the only quarterback in NCAA history to throw for more than 10,000 yards and rush for more than 4,000 in a collegiate career. As Harris told the Chronicle, "We'd see him run at Nevada and ask each other, 'Did we miss something?'"
When Jim Harbaugh named Kaepernick the 49ers' starter in November, he reconstructed the offense around the quarterback's running ability, including installing the Pistol formation. Kaepernick had spent his college career mastering the set's deceptive nuances. This was clear against the Packers. On many of those plays, when he took the snap, he eyed the defensive end. If the defensive end stepped out to tackle him, Kaepernick handed the ball to the running back and then accelerated toward the sideline, pretending he still had possession. If the defensive end lurched inside toward the running back, Kaepernick kept the ball. It was part chicken, part chess.
This sleight of hand extended past the playing field. Kaepernick was presenting to us what we expected to see: an athletic black quarterback running around defenses, showcasing his "physical gifts." But then it became something else.
As he baffled defenders, a familiar truth materialized. Kaepernick's success rested on the quarterback's intellect, his ability to decipher the complex defense meant to deceive him before making the final decision on where to send the football — all in a matter of seconds. Old conceptions of what it means for a quarterback to run the ball — that running somehow implied a lack of intelligence — were antiquated. Kaepernick revealed a false and silly dichotomy. Before he ever outran the defenders, he outsmarted them.
It was the realization of McNabb's dream. Whereas McNabb felt he had to stop running in order to escape stereotypes, Kaepernick's running shredded them. He shattered the notion of "black quarterback" while doing what "black quarterbacks" are expected to do.
Colin Kaepernick undermines long-held prejudices not by avoiding the components that generate the assumptions, but by embracing them. On Nov. 28, less than two weeks after Kaepernick made his first NFL start, a Sporting News columnist wrote that seeing a successful quarterback with tattoo sleeves covering his upper arms "must make the guys in San Quentin happy."
"NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility," David Whitley wrote. "He is the CEO of a high-profile organization, and you don't want your CEO to look like he just got paroled."
That Sunday, after the 49ers beat the Miami Dolphins, a fan Tweeted a photo of Kaepernick kissing his bicep after a 50-yard touchdown run. Kaepernick (as @Kaepernick7) retweeted an image with a photoshopped headline: "Score a touchdown. Kiss your tattoo! #Kaepernicking." In the Tweet's message, he wrote "Love my tats, even if you don't."
An Internet meme was born. Across the globe, images of people kissing their biceps beside "#Kaepernicking" popped up. Kaepernick himself played along with the trend he created. After the Packers game, he posted a photo to his Instagram account showing him kissing his bicep. He wore a red shirt with a message: "Kaepernicking." Just as he toyed with the role of the quarterback, so too with the idea of celebrity, breaking through the fourth wall that detaches the spectators from the actors, teasing the notion of his own mythology.
It is a self-awareness that makes narrative-building uncomfortable. Sports are all about narratives, with characters, drama, and conflict. Boiled down, sports are the intersection of statistics and physics, but at the center of that intersection are the players. People at their rawest, most uninhibited state — in the fire of competition, tested and measured against an adversary. We see them laugh, shout with joy, fight, rage, panic, choke, cry. We form emotional bonds with them. We understand that we don't really know them, of course. All we have are bits, anecdotes and interviews, which we fit together and interpret into stories — Horatio Alger tales of upward mobility, perseverance through obstacles, young men achieving dreams.
Naturally, to fill the holes within the narratives, we use only what we have: assumptions and social conventions we've built up over the course of generations. We extrapolate from sign posts. Tattoos, race, playing style, the clothing an athlete wears in a post-game press conference, and so on. (All the details about Kaepernick in this story are bits.) Minuscule slices of an entire life, formed into a narrative arc that attempts to give meaning to a man most of us will never meet.
Kaepernick, better than most, must understand the flaws in the assumptions that glue narratives together. His narrative is one that strays from sign posts — If you're looking for a story about a player overcoming thug life, you've got the wrong guy ... Drooling over his physical tools somewhat cheapens the product ... Don't let the tattoos and everything fool you ...
His narrative is about the fallacy of narrative.
After the Sporting News column about his tattoos was published, the backlash came swiftly. The writer was "savaged on the Internet and called a racist," as the San Jose Mercury News reported. USA Today ran a story headlined "Tattoos but a fraction of Colin Kaepernick's story." Yahoo! Sports reasoned that Kaepernick's parents were "justifiably annoyed by [the] hack article." A Fox Sports story considered whether Kaepernick was "painted as a bad guy over tattoos." Sporting News' editor published a column explaining that his writer's sentiments stemmed from innocent generational tastes rather than malice. News stories tracked down the artist behind the quarterback's tattoos, noting that his business had been "booming."
Instantly, Kaepernick had changed from one writer's symbol of America's degenerate youth to a figure of America's progression, a symbol of how we live in a country where outward appearance is not a measure of a person's ability to lead. It was a serious cultural debate that we made sure to take seriously.
To the man at the center of the discourse, though, it was just another absurd conception to dress down. To tweet about. To mold into satire. As we gathered, hollering and holding pitchforks, around the columnist, Kaepernick was sitting in the tree above us, winking.
"I don't want to be categorized," Kaepernick told reporters in the week before the 49ers' NFC Championship game against the Atlanta Falcons. He meant this within the context of his abilities as a quarterback. So it's important to tidy one thing up: He is not just "a runner." He made that clear against the Packers.
In between running for more yards than any NFL quarterback, Kaepernick zipped the ball around with Joe Montana accuracy. He rifled a touchdown pass through a prison-cell-sized window between two converging defenders, a 20-yard jet stream that would have hit the receiver in the head had he not put up his hands: "That was a perfect throw," said color commentator and former quarterback Troy Aikman. He launched a parabolic dime that arced 40 yards into his sprinting receiver's palms, centimeters over the defender's outstretched fingers. "Colin Kaepernick couldn't walk it down the field and hand it to him any better than that," said announcer Buck.
By redefining the limits of a quarterback's skill set, Kaepernick effectively hit a reset button on the popular idea of what a quarterback looks like. The biracial brown kid with tattoos on his arms and a funny name is now the face of leadership, intelligence, toughness, courage, poise under pressure.
In the lead-up to the NFC Championship game, the talk of the sports world was over how the Falcons defense would try to contain Kaepernick's running ability. Experts analyzed how the Falcons had defended other athletic quarterbacks like Newton and Wilson. The Chronicle ran a feature contrasting the styles of Kaepernick and Falcons QB Matt Ryan, "the prototypical drop-back passer: tall, strong, and perfectly content to stand in the pocket and fire passes downfield."
Ryan's Falcons surged to a 17-0 lead. No team had overcome such a deficit to reach the Super Bowl. But then, as the defense keyed on the 49ers' running attack, Kaepernick orchestrated one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history with his arm, anticipating over and over again the moment a receiver would turn up open within the chaotic muddle of the defense.
The game's turning point occurred with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. Down 21-24, Kaepernick's squad was 9 yards from the end zone. Although Kaepernick had run just twice for a total of 23 yards, the defense remained vigilant. What better time for the stud QB to unleash his speed, the Falcons must have thought.
There was the ball in his hands. He held it out for Gore to take it. The defenders had seen this one before, probably a million times in dark film rooms. They'd seen the trick in slow motion, from multiple angles. Falcons defensive end John Abraham leaped outside to stop Kaepernick. He saw what happened to Clay Matthews. He wouldn't make the same mistake. Wouldn't look like a drunken fool, spinning in circles like that. Kaepernick accelerated toward him ...
But the ball had vanished.
Gore had had it the whole time. He sprinted up the middle of the field, through the gap that opened up when Abraham jumped, scoring the game-winning touchdown and sending the 49ers to their first Super Bowl in 18 years.
Kaepernick had, once again, fooled everybody.