TURLOCK, Calif. -- Start listening to the stories about Colin Kaepernick, and you’ll feel like a time traveler, spotting a magnificent young quarterback who worked construction after his first pro team cut him, who played semipro for six to eight bucks a game on weekends, who had to scrape for gas money to get to his life-changing Baltimore Colts tryout, and whose name, really and truly, was Johnny Unitas.
Come on. How can anyone believe that, even though it’s true?
Tales about the 49ers’ new quarterback lean toward 21st-century reality-show quirky, but they sound no less fictional. Kaepernick has a 120-pound tortoise, Sammy, and they have been together since Colin was 10 and Sammy fit in his palm. The turtle now has a Twitter feed. Within a month of taking over as the 49ers’ starter, Kaepernick found his lavishly tattooed arms and torso pulling him into America’s culture wars, and his biological mother, via a national sports column, expressing her unrequited desire to meet him.
Mix in the palace intrigue that follows any quarterback switch in the NFL, compounded by the fact that Kaepernick’s predecessor, Alex Smith, initially yielded the job because of a concussion, and the 25-year-old quarterback had a metastatic drama on his hands. Only an evil twin and a case of amnesia were missing.
Kaepernick stiff-armed most of it. The Sporting News column that equated his body ink with prison culture got a kiss-off. After a 50-yard touchdown run against the Dolphins, Kaepernick crooked his right arm and pressed his facemask to the bicep, where a tattoo artist had etched the word “Faith’’ near a Bible verse.
Thus was born “Kaepernicking,’’ a Twitter-fed phenomenon of fans copying the pose and then sharing photos of it. For the gesture to gain staying power, though, the innovator would have to establish a ritual. He has displayed no such inclination. Kaepernick made his point succinctly, wryly and wordlessly. Anything more would be too much.
Besides, he doesn’t need to create trends. As the 49ers head into Saturday’s playoff game against the Packers, Kaepernick has just seven NFL starts to his name. The second-round pick from the 2011 draft has a chance to win the Super Bowl in his 10th professional start. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only one quarterback, Jeff Hostetler of the 1990 New York Giants, has ever won a Super Bowl with fewer career starts -- four in the regular season. Hostetler got the gig only because Phil Simms broke his foot in mid-December. Kaepernick kept the job away from a now-healthy incumbent, a former No. 1 draft pick. It’s preposterous, but true.
Picture the stories if he wins it all. The turtle, the tats, the title. Imaginations already turned slightly feral after he won his first start, against the Bears on Monday Night Football.
Out in Turlock, the town 100 miles east of San Francisco where Kaepernick grew up, reporters tended to show up with distorted preconceptions about the famous Pitman High graduate, according to the school’s head football coach, Brandon Harris.
Harris would ask visitors why Kaepernick had become so fascinating to the larger world, sensing it was about more than his game. Predictably, they mentioned the tattoos. They also reminded him that Kaepernick comes from an extraordinary family, with white parents and two white siblings and then him, the brother and son who arrived via an adoption agency, biologically half-black and half-white, emotionally all-Kaepernick.
Harris understood the angles, but still he worried.
“I think [some reporters] thought he was from the streets,’’ Harris said. “I don’t know why, it’s like they wanted a ‘Blind Side’ story or something. I was getting frustrated. If you’re looking for the thug life, you’re in the wrong place. Just talk to him. It’s obvious.’’
Harris knew Kaepernick as an athlete smart enough to figure out the next play regularly, even before his coach signaled it in. He knew a quarterback who, on the rare occasions when told he could call any play he wanted, would forgo the big pass and hand off to his running back.
To this day, when Harris allows other quarterbacks the same privilege, he says he tells the other coaches: “Remember: Kap called sweep.’’
The stories about Kaepernick invariably make him sound too good to be true. The tales of his passion for school roll miles beyond credulity:
- Going into his senior year at Pitman, Kaepernick met with counselor Philip Sanchez, who told him that his course load and 4.3 weighted GPA easily met all of the NCAA requirements. So why not go easy, Sanchez suggested as they looked at an open slot on his schedule? Protect that perfect “A” record, and take a free period or work as a teacher’s aide. It’s what seniors do. “He said ‘I don’t want a free period. What else is there?’” Sanchez said. “And there was a psychology class, so he took that.’’
- He used athleticism to his benefit in the classroom. Amy Curd, now Pitman’s assistant principal, taught Kaepernick his junior year in Math Analysis, an advanced-placement pre-calculus course that only elite students take. Periodically, Curd would undo the seating chart and tell students they could pick their own spots the next time they came in. Several of them would race to the classroom after the previous bell, and Kaepernick’s long strides would usually carry him exactly where he wanted to be: in the front row, intently focused. “He’d get mad if he didn’t get A’s,’’ his Pitman running back, Anthony Harding, said.
- When he worked out problems on the chalkboard, Kaepernick liked to sign his name and add his jersey number. (Back then, it was 4, as in Brett Favre’s number with the Packers. The Kaepernicks moved from Wisconsin when Colin was young and his dad, Rick, became an executive at the Hilmar Cheese Co. near Turlock.)
What next? You can imagine learning that he fused atoms on the bench or took pre-med classes while killing time as Smith’s backup, just in case football didn’t pan out.
But we know that’s not possible because Kaepernick never looked for a Plan B.
Did we mention yet that he turned down an offer of at least $30,000 from the Cubs before his senior year at the University of Nevada? They had drafted him in the 43rd round a year earlier and now only wanted him to go down to their Arizona complex and throw for a month, just to see whether he could be a major league pitcher someday. He said no.
“We cracked up about it,’’ recently retired Nevada head coach Chris Ault said. “’Kap, look at this, you haven’t even played baseball in three years, and they’re still drafting you. It was amazing, but we didn’t really talk about it. There was no conversation on that deal.’’
He could have taken the Cubs’ offer without sacrificing his NCAA eligibility in football. John Elway famously did it with the Yankees and Stanford in the ‘80s; current Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson worked as a Rockies’ farmhand in the summers before his junior and senior years.
Kaepernick has the classic build of a power pitcher, long-limbed and lean, 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. But he had promised the Nevada coaches, the only people to offer him a football scholarship, that he would commit completely to becoming a quarterback. He didn’t want to go back on his word. Plus, his vision of an NFL career hadn’t wavered since childhood.
“He knew where he was going,’’ said Curd, his Math Analysis teacher, “and he was going to get there, no doubt about it.’’
It didn’t matter that baseball seemed like the more natural choice. He often chose the most difficult route. Or it chose him. They seemed to suit each other. Consider these Willis Reed/Kirk Gibson stories, more stuff of myth, almost all of which are true:
- The Nevada football coaches made their final call on Kaepernick by attending one of his basketball games. They had seen him throw at Ault’s summer camp in Reno and watched tapes from Pitman football, but that didn’t tell them enough. They wanted to assess his athleticism up close. On the night they attended, Kaepernick had a fever of 100 to 103 degrees, depending on who tells the story. He scored 26 to 30 points, depending on who tells the story. Regardless, he did everything, owned the court, feverish in a good way. Lead recruiter Barry Sacks, now the defensive line coach at Cal, had paid a similar visit to another quarterback prospect at a basketball court the night before. When he saw Kaepernick, he told Ault: “This is the guy.’’
- He threw a no-hitter in high school, then went immediately to the hospital to be treated for pneumonia. “He was coughing a lot on the bench, but except for that, it was a normal game for him,’’ Spencer Snodgrass, a Pitman teammate who earned a baseball scholarship to San Jose State.
- Sophomore year in college, Kaepernick played the whole second half of the Humanitarian Bowl with a badly sprained ankle, limping noticeably yet throwing for 370 yards and three touchdowns and even running for a 15-yard TD late in the fourth quarter.
- In the grip of bubonic plague, he won the Iditarod with Sammy riding shotgun in the sled.
“I think he’s at his best when he has something to fight through,’’ said Sanchez, the guidance counselor and a family friend. He met Teresa Kaepernick, now a retired obstetrics nurse, at the hospital during the delivery of his first child.
Kaepernick and his parents have pulled back from the media since shortly after the incendiary tattoo column, which prompted a firm rebuke from Rick and Teresa in USA Today. Colin does his mandatory news conferences with local reporters, reducing his previously minimalistic answers to clipped ones. The 49ers made him available to some broadcast outlets last week, and he covered old ground about waiting until the second round to be chosen and the chip predictably sitting on his shoulder.
The draft added sediment to a rock that stationed itself there at the end of high school, when college recruiters passed him over, with little idea how fast he could be. Pitman rarely asked him to carry the ball in its wing-T offense. The team had Harding, a future Fresno State scholarship player, in the backfield, and about 60 fewer pounds of Kaepernick than exists now.
“When he would run, our whole sideline would scream ‘Get down’ or ‘Run out of bounds.’ And it wasn’t because he was slow,’’ said Harris, who was the offensive coordinator back then. “His strides were so long, nobody could catch him. But I could just hear chainsaws, like someone was going to cut the franchise in half.’’
No one could have imagined then that Kaepernick would become the first college quarterback at the top-flight FBS level to rush for more than 4,000 yards and throw for more than 10,000 yards in his career.
But those 10,000 passing yards came out of a delivery that, despite adjustments from the Nevada staff, retained something of a sidearm slinging motion. The flaw was pronounced enough to prompt the Cubs to draft him; they’d been told by NFL scouts that Kaepernick wouldn’t make it. He’d have to play in Canada first.
The scouts also wondered about his touch passes. The Kaepernick arm discharged bullets, and folk-tale fodder:
- He became the first quarterback ever to dislocate one of Randy Moss’s fingers. A ball glanced off Moss’s hand in Kaepernick’s first start, and a national Monday Night Football audience saw and felt his pain. “I tried not to show any tears. I don't know if they caught me crying or not,’’ Moss said later. “But it did hurt. It really did.’’
- “I know what it’s like,’’ said Harding, who would work out with Kaepernick in the offseasons and catch countless passes. “One day I forgot my gloves, and my hand was sore for a week.’’
- “You could hear his football sizzle,’’ Sacks, the former Nevada assistant, said. “… I tried to stay out of the way. I never wanted to get hit by one of his balls.’’
- There’s nothing to make up here. Kaepernick made Randy Moss cry, or at least made him joke about crying. Fiction can’t top that.
The story turned bro-mantic when 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh showed up in Reno. They could be soulmates, these two. What did Spencer Snodgrass say about his old friend? “If Colin is walking down the street, he wants to walk down the street better than anybody else.’’ He could have been talking about Harbaugh.
When the coach described his ideal quarterback candidate to the Bay Area media, he said he’d like someone who could have been a soccer or basketball player as well.
“He was the kind of the player that made you think if basketball was his first love, he would have ended up in the NBA,’’ said Dave Walls, Pitman’s athletic director and a former basketball coach.
When Harbaugh arrived on the Nevada campus to go through a workout with Kaepernick, Ault watched them from his office window. There was a wind that day, and Harbaugh told Kaepernick to throw into it. Then the two started throwing together, competing, testing their spirals. The 49ers’ personnel people would hear all about it.
Conscious of the flaws highlighted in Kaepernick’s scouting reports, they set their doubts aside when Harbaugh returned, smitten. Nobody knew quarterbacks like their new head coach, who had called signals for 14 years in the NFL and overseen a future No. 1 draft pick, Andrew Luck, at Stanford. It was his call.
On the second day of the draft, they moved up nine slots to take Kaepernick at No. 36 overall. He had declined an invitation to go to New York and be introduced to the national media after his selection, so when Harbaugh called him in Turlock and tried to arrange a meeting the next day, Kaepernick said, in effect: “I can be there in two hours. Why don’t I come tonight?’’
His first big rookie play came off the field. He asked his parents to help find a charity he could support and he wanted one that helped children with heart problems. Colin became a Kaepernick after Rick and Teresa lost two sons in infancy to congenital heart defects. They wanted more kids, but a genetic counselor warned that they faced a 50-50 risk of losing any boy they conceived.
The Kaepernicks picked Camp Taylor, founded by Kimberlie Gamino in 2002 and named for her son, who was born with half a heart. When Colin and his parents visited this summer, she said, he stayed more than double the scheduled three hours, playing in the pool, singing and eating with everyone in the dining hall.
All NFL players are expected to engage in philanthropy. Few end up turning the requirement into a perfect circle around their family history.
Throughout his rookie year, the principles of getting a good seat in Ms. Curd’s math class applied. He had to arrive first, beat everyone else to practice.
“I get here early in the morning, every day,’’ center Jonathan Goodwin said. “Colin’s already here. He’s out there running. If he’s not the first, I don’t know who’s beating him.’’
Rod Hollars, the Pitman principal, says Kaepernick still rules the school seven years after he graduated. A TV crew from Sacramento came by recently, looking for visible signs of the connection.
“We had kids who were putting on temporary tattoos and Kaepernicking,’’ he said, laughing.
He would love it if all the students wanted to be like Kaepernick, the ideal pupil, the star who never caused a second’s trouble.
On his last visit, Kaepernick did get a little cheeky with his former principal. The 49ers’ quarterback dutifully wore a visitors’ badge, an absolute requirement on the closed campus, when he dropped by the office to say hello. As he headed out to see his old coaches, he told Hollars: “You know what, I don’t think I need this anymore.”
He said it with a sly grin. “Then he takes it off and puts it on my chest,’’ Hollars said. “I told him: ‘OK, you’re officially full of yourself.’
“I kept that badge on all day.’’