Here is Colin Kaepernick posing with Michelle Obama a few weeks after the Super Bowl, both of them smooching a bicep in the quarterback's trademarked gesture. There he is on the cover of GQ, opening a leather jacket to reveal one of the tattoos that ignited a cultural conflagration. And there he is at the Country Music Awards; in a new Jaguar ad; in a tomato-red blazer and shades onstage at the ESPYs; at a Fourth of July party in a Miami Dolphins cap; in the buff for ESPN the Magazine's annual Body Issue.
This time last year, Kaepernick was invisible, sitting behind Alex Smith on the 49ers' depth chart while NFL pundits cooed over first-round rookies Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, apparently destined to become the quarterbacks of their generation. By mid-November, they had company, the kind that takes over the master bedroom and never leaves.
Kaepernick, a 2011 second-round draft pick, debuted as a starter on Monday Night Football, set a rushing record for quarterbacks with 181 yards in his first playoff game and ended the season just five yards from a winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. His No. 7 jersey soared to the top of the NFL sales chart during the spring. As the perks of instant fame began rolling in, so did predictable punditry concerns that his head would swell, and his teammates would be turned off.
Typically, an NFL player with only 10 starts on his resume cannot balance a celebrity circuit with the demands of growing in his job and maintaining his teammates' respect. In Kaepernick, however, we are looking at something of an original: a 25-year-old with deep wells of maturity about the things that matter and a healthy disregard for the things that don't; a quarterback who thinks, throws and runs with equal power; and a personality that ranges from teacher's pet to edgy fashionista.
"What can really be confusing to most people is that Colin is a very private, quiet kind of kid, and obviously, this summer it doesn't appear that that's the case," his father, Rick, said.
"But a lot of the things Colin did, he did at the request of his agents or the 49ers. And he got a great business degree from University of Nevada, where they taught him well. He understands what it is to market yourself."
Among the invitations he passed up was a night at the Grammy Awards, which took place a week after the 49ers lost the Super Bowl. Kaepernick had arranged to start training at CES Performance in Atlanta, and a glamorous event wouldn't deter him. He attended an industry party the night before the ceremony, then bailed out of Los Angeles.
"I was like 'Nooooo,'" his older brother, Kyle, said in mock exasperation. (He and his wife, Lindsay, ultimately went to the Country Music Awards with Colin.) "I think it was too close to the Super Bowl, and he just wasn't up for it. But could he have waited to get on the plane till Monday instead of Sunday? I think so, but he was: 'Nope, I've got to get to Atlanta to start working out.'"
A couple of months later, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh uttered his lone skeptical remark about off-season excesses from Kaepernick. He worried about the quarterback's fondness for the weight room.
"It's something we've talked about," Harbaugh told CSN Bay Area. "'I don't want you getting too jacked-up, Colin.'"
After training-camp sessions this summer, as most of the 49ers dragged themselves off the field, Kaepernick routinely galloped toward the locker room, beating everyone there and beaming as he did it. In the spring, when the 49ers worked out together, one of the beat writers, Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, noticed that a certain car always sat in the space closest to the entrance, an indicator that the driver had been the first arrival. It was Kaepernick's white Jaguar, compensation from the most elite of his new sponsors.
He was repeating a pattern set at Pitman High School, where he'd race through the halls to get a seat up front in Amy Curd's pre-calculus class.
Curd has frequently told that story to reporters, making it difficult to fret over Kaepernick's staying power in the mentally challenging job of an NFL quarterback. How many sensational athletes turn an advanced placement math teacher into a go-to interview subject?
"Not only is he super-gifted physically, but he's very, very cerebral," 49ers left tackle Joe Staley said. "He is Tom Brady and Peyton Manning-smart with the athleticism of … I don't know who to compare him to."
Focusing on only the physical gifts, some people have compared him to Michael Vick. But at this stage of his career, Vick did not have an accurate arm. His entire six seasons in Atlanta, he never completed more than 56.4 percent of his passes; Kaepernick completed 62.4 last year. Vick has also admitted he did not apply himself to studying the game. No one would accuse Kaepernick, the A student, of that.
"What I see, on top of all the talent, is football IQ," said ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski. "The ability to decode defenses, when he's at the top of his drop, to know where to go with the football. Now, is this every time? Absolutely not. But a guy as inexperienced as he is on the field, when I see grasp the concepts of the 49ers' offense, I think he has a really high football IQ."
Greg Roman, the 49ers' offensive coordinator, says that Kaepernick's study habits reinforce a gift for processing information.
"He's the kind of guy that once he sees something, it gets embedded," Roman said.
When Jaworski predicted two weeks ago on ESPN that Kaepernick "could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever," the hyperbole police went on high alert. They skirted the "one of" phrase while chiding Jaworski for ignoring the small sample size of Kaepernick's skills.
Jaworski only said what became startlingly obvious over those 10 starts, adding the credentials of a former NFL quarterback to the observation. He saw the potential very early in Kaepernick's November debut against the Bears, replacing the concussed Smith. The first point of sale came on a 57-yard pass midway through the first quarter.
"The Kyle Williams corner route against a man-coverage press in the slot was a phenomenal throw, just a phenomenal throw," Jaworski said. "He read the coverage, anticipated the throw, threw him open, just a perfectly thrown ball and a perfect read."
The closest parallel to Kaepernick's development would be the arrival of Brady, who also became the starter early in his second season for a strong team that ended up in the Super Bowl. In 2001, Brady started 18 games for the Patriots, finished three with a passer rating over 100, came in below 70 six times, and didn't top 90 in any of his three postseason starts. In 10 starts, Kaepernick compiled a passer rating over 100 five times, hit a low of 72, and posted a rating over 90 in all three postseason games.
Remember: The passer rating discounts Kaepernick's 181 playoff rushing yards against an utterly flummoxed Green Bay and his 679 yards for the season.
Kaepernick balks at attempts to classify him as a running quarterback, and he pointedly told GQ that he had negative rushing yards in high school, mostly because his coaches did not want him to get hurt.
"I could just hear chainsaws, like someone was going to cut the franchise in half," his coach at Pitman, Brandon Harris, has said.
In this exhibition season, the 49ers' coaches limited him to just 40 snaps and 23 pass attempts, less than half of Peyton Manning's 54 attempts in his second preseason with the Broncos. Clearly, the coaches weren't worried about whether he had lost focus in the off-season.
"There's definitely something that really drives him to be great, to be successful," Harbaugh said. "We hand out a goal packet every year and guys list their individual goals and their team goals. Just for fun, I went back and looked at his goals from last year, and it was darn near verbatim what he achieved."
Asked to explain the goals, the coach followed a pattern of withholding specifics, a modus operandi the quarterback has adopted in his own formal media sessions.
In Harbaugh, an NFL quarterback for 15 years, Jaworski believes that Kaepernick has found something of a football soulmate. He is not alone in that opinion.
Immediately after he was drafted, Kaepernick and his parents, Rick and Teresa, drove the 100 miles from their Turlock home to the 49ers' complex. Colin would stay in the Bay Area and visit Harbaugh's home that night. "We were just hanging out to get to know each other,'' Kaepernick said. Before his parents departed, the coach
handed a phone number to Rick Kaepernick and asked him to call it. The next morning, he and Jack Harbaugh, Jim's father and a longtime college coach, spent about an hour talking.
"That was a lot of fun. We had some good discussions about Jim and Colin growing up and comparing the two and how competitive they are," Rick Kaepernick said. "I think the two of them are alike, a lot alike."
Friends and teammates argue that the pair's off-field personas diverge too greatly for anyone to confuse them. "Kap's got 400 pairs of shoes, Harbaugh's probably only got two," said a grinning Ricardo Lockette, a wide receiver who has roomed with the quarterback for most of the past two years. "Kap plans his clothes out every day, and Harbaugh wears the same thing all the time."
Lockette then smiled and added cheekily: "You know Kap has a lot of hats, right?" Ah yes, the Dolphins cap. The lamentations about its connotations became the dumbest controversy of the NFL offseason.
"Chalk it up to a slow time in the media cycle," Harbaugh said, spot-on in his dismissiveness. In his playing days, such an accessory would have been deemed traitorous. Then again, in his day, accessorizing wasn't much of a priority. The coach understands that Kaepernick is very much of his generation, and that the two can be miles apart in style and of one mind about football.
In a game or practice, they're apparently quite in sync. "If the tempo is just a little bit off, they both simultaneously get on everybody," guard Alex Boone said. "At this camp, not once has Kap missed a beat on anything."
As a lineman, Boone said, he appreciates that his young quarterback will ask the coaches to move a practice along to get the big guys off their feet sooner. Kaepernick also interceded when reporters surrounded center Jonathan Goodwin after a soggy night in New England led to four fumbled snaps. Crossing the locker room, Kaepernick told the media: "Don't ask Goody about it. It was my fault."
Kaepernick has established a pattern of meticulously showing gratitude to the people who take care of him. When his high school coach decided to leave Pitman to move closer to his ailing mother, Kaepernick appeared on stage at graduation ceremonies and brought Harris to tears with a surprise goodbye. The Grammys, he could skip. Not this.
After the draft, Kaepernick asked his parents to help him find a charitable organization that he could support. He wanted one devoted to children with heart defects, honoring the memory of two Kaepernick sons -- Lance and Kent -- who died shortly after birth. Still longing for a child to join Kyle and their daughter, Devon, Rick and Teresa adopted Colin. The family moved to California a few years later and moved on as much as possible, but Colin didn't overlook his family's loss.
"When we would take the kids back to Wisconsin, we would always stop at the cemetery, but we never really dwelled on it," Rick Kaepernick said. "We just said 'These are your two brothers, and this is what they died of,' and we'd go back home and we didn't talk about it. So there were some tears from me and Teresa when he told us what he wanted to do."
The Kaepernicks chose Camp Taylor, based near Turlock, and the involvement bloomed beyond Colin's donations. Teresa recently spent a long weekend volunteering at a gathering for families of the ailing children.
Since Colin's quick ascent, his family has done a lot of storytelling on his behalf. The history was too big to cover in the quick interviews allowed during a football season: how a white family gained a biracial son; how he rebuffed MLB teams hoping to draft him as a pitcher in favor of the sport that yielded just one Division I scholarship offer; how he chose a tortoise destined to live a century and reach 115 pounds as his pet; how he always, always ended up being different and still fitting in anywhere he wanted, and why his tattoos did not make him, as a Sporting News columnist infamously wrote last year, "look like he just got paroled."
The columnist, David Whitely, now says he wishes he could take a mulligan on the piece, focusing on what Kaepernick's prominent body art means in an era when institutions like the military still restrict visibility of tats. "I would have dropped my usual lame satire," he said by e-mail, "and been far more serious and precise in attempting to make the point."
Kaepernick's parents stood up for him in USA Today, and plenty of people who knew the quarterback pointed out that the tattoos consisted largely of Bible verses. Their son responded wordlessly, pressing his facemask against his inked right bicep after a touchdown. Social-media users coined the term "Kaepernicking." The quarterback and his agents trademarked the term. The First Lady, now dethroned as the owner of America's most renowned biceps, struck the pose when Kaepernick joined her and several other athletes at an event promoting physical fitness in Chicago.
"It's ironic that the tattoo article actually ended up springboarding a lot of his opportunities after the season," his father said.
Kyle Kaepernick said his brother sometimes seemed taken aback by the extent of his new fame. The two went to a grocery store not far from their parents' home on Fathers' Day, and a mobbing ensued. "It's not like he went to LSU or Alabama, so he was used to all of it," Kyle said. "People knew who he was in Reno, but it was never like that." Lockette, the longtime roommate, said the two would try to devise disguises to get Kaepernick out of the house without creating a scene.
"He'd say 'You know, maybe nobody will recognize me if I just put some shades on,'" Lockette said. "I'm like 'OK, so if Obama walked into the mall and he put shades on, you think no one would recognize him?'"
His family isn't quite so surprised. His brother and father both suspected that history and personality would make him a source of fascination.
"He never really fell into norm," his father said. "He would do the Punt, Pass and Kick (when he was young), and he'd win it every year. Then the last few years, he said, 'I don't want to do it anymore. Let someone else win it. I don't care.'"
Very soon, Rick Kaepernick wants to retreat from the stage and just enjoy being a dad to three successful children. (Kyle and Devon work at the Hilmar Cheese Co., where Rick is a vice president.) "Most of the story's been told," he said, "and I think it's time for us to get out of the spotlight and let the rest of it happen. When he's 40, it should make a really interesting book."
The family has been approached about a biography, he said, but declined for the same reason that Colin demurred when told that Jaworski had projected him as an all-time great.
"I'm very flattered by it,'' he said. "But at the same time, I haven't played a full season yet."