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The Amazing Kaepernick: Play-Faking the Culture 

Wednesday, Jan 30 2013

Page 2 of 4

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, 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."

About The Author

Albert Samaha


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