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Colin Kaepernick's role has changed, but his message remains the same

Making his first start in almost a year, the 49ers quarterback vowed to keep fighting on the field and off.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

ORCHARD PARK, NY -€”- Buffalo Bills receiver Robert Woods said he was in an elevator with two young white kids before the Bills met the San Francisco 49ers here on Sunday at New Era Field. Woods, who is black, said the conversation quickly shifted to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

"Ooooohh," one of the boys said. "I don't like him!"

"Why?" Woods asked.

"It's that hair!" the other boy said.

The first one chimed in again: "It's how he's dissing the national anthem!"

Woods was startled by the intensity of it.

He later told me: "Wow! Who knew an afro could cause that much reaction? But you know, I think it's what it represents to some people. Black pride. Black power. That scares some people. Colin Kaepernick scares a lot of people. Some right here in Buffalo."

Kaepernick strode into Buffalo and rocked the place. He was ready.

But Buffalo was ready, too.

Kaepernick continued his protest against police brutality and racial oppression by kneeling once again during the singing of the national anthem. He was flanked by 49ers linebacker Eli Harold and safety Eric Reid. They knelt near the middle of the 49ers' sideline, behind the row of standing 49ers. Sort of tucked behind, yet visible for the world to see. As they knelt, a police officer stood behind all three with a striking, opposite, hand-to-forehead full salute.

Several Bills fans delivered their message to Kaepernick with boos when he entered onto the field and with a husky chant of "USA! USA! USA!" directed at him just before the anthem.

The Bills delivered a message in a 45-16 laugher that was Buffalo's fourth straight victory and San Francisco's fifth straight loss.

It was Kaepernick's first start this season. Everyone wanted to see how his protest might change. Everyone wanted to know how he would be treated in Buffalo.

His protest did not change.

The treatment sizzled.

San Francisco receiver Torrey Smith said: "This is the way it's been every game since Kaep started the protest. We hear some of the same stuff every week from fans when we enter a stadium. Let your mind wander. Let your mind wander to any and everything negative. Yep, we've heard that, too."

Kaepernick insisted after the game that all views should be balanced. He also insisted that he can balance being a starting NFL quarterback with protest.

"I had some Bills fans come up before the game to say they supported me, so, I think it all depends on who the person is," Kaepernick said. "I'm going to continue my fight. People are being affected on a daily basis. This is a real issue that affects many people. More conversation happening creates change. I don't understand what is un-American about fighting for liberty and justice for everyone."

Somebody asked him about a report that someone in the stadium may have thrown a bottle at him.

"If they did, they don't have a very good aim," he answered, laughing.

He wore a Muhammad Ali shirt as "homage." He said Ali did what he himself is trying to do and "what is right for people." He said the boxer turned civil rights icon "paved the way for this to happen." He said he will fight the same fight until "we accomplish our goal."

Bills receiver Marquise Goodwin was impacted. He raced onto the field after the game to meet Kaepernick and to trade jerseys with him. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor gave him a long, on-field, postgame embrace and a message.

"Colin is a friend of mine," Taylor said. "I just told him I was happy for him, that it's his team now, be the leader that we know that he can be, go out there and continue to keep fighting every day."

Kaepernick fought in this game. He threw his early passes too high, then settled into a running and passing rhythm. He threw for 187 yards (including a 53-yard touchdown to Smith) and led the 49ers in rushing yards with 66.

San Francisco trailed just 17-13 at halftime. But Buffalo won the third quarter, 7-0, and the final quarter, 21-3. The 49ers collapsed under the Bills' pressure, especially Buffalo's power running game. The Bills rushed for 312 yards and four touchdowns. LeSean McCoy was responsible 140 of those yards and three of those scores.

"It's embarrassing to get the ball run on you like that," the 49ers safety Reid said.

* * *

This was Kaepernick's first NFL start since Nov. 1, 2015.

"He hadn't played in over a year. This is his first game in a long time," Bills linebacker Zach Brown said. "So, you knew he was going to be rusty. So, you just had to get him out of the pocket, make bad throws, make him try and run the ball and make bad decisions."

Some of that worked, some of it didn't. There weren't many Kaepernick bad decisions. There was, however, a 49ers defense that snapped, a Bills offense that pounded them, and a testy Buffalo crowd that left having watched its Bills pulverize a team in a manner Bills fans have not recently seen.

Kaepernick couldn't answer what's next.

He was unsure if he had played well enough to start again next Sunday when the 49ers host Tampa Bay.

49ers head coach Chip Kelly said Kaepernick ran better than he passed and that the entire offense must improve. Of course, it's Kelly's offense and his sole decision whether Kaepernick remains the starter.

"We'll see," Kelly said.

We already know --€” whether starter or reserve -- that Kaepernick will ignite passions. It's up to the 49ers to figure out how to turn that and more into victories. And for Kaepernick to make sense of it all. To balance it all. To focus on football. To focus on protest. It's a delicate dance.

One in which Kaepernick persists he's all in.