It began with football.
Colin Kaepernick wanted to play college football. He wanted to play college football more than he wanted to play professional baseball, even though he was drafted 43rd by the Chicago Cubs in the 2009 MLB draft. He wanted to play college football more than he wanted to play basketball (as a high school senior, he made the all-tournament team at the annual Oakdale Rotary Classic Basketball Tournament in 2006.)
When Chris Ault, then the head coach of the University of Nevada Wolfpack, asked Colin if he was thinking about signing with a professional baseball team, Kaepernick was clear. "He said, 'Coach, I've always wanted to play college football. I love football,' and that was the end of the conversation." On Feb. 1, 2006, Kaepernick signed a letter of intent to play for Nevada.
Ten years, six months, and 14 days later, on Aug. 14, 2016, before a preseason game against the Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem. He sat during the national anthem during preseason games against Denver and Green Bay. And after a conversation with former Green Beret and then-long snapper Nate Boyer, he knelt during the national anthem before the preseason game at San Diego.
Two days after his protest at Green Bay, he told reporters that he was willing to continue speaking out, sitting or kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality: "I'm going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. When there's significant change and I feel that flag represents what it's supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it's supposed to, I'll stand." He played in 12 games in 2016 after recovering from a torn labrum suffered in the 2015 season, finishing with a 90.7 QBR on a team that finished 2-14.
Five years after reaching the Super Bowl in his second season in the NFL (his first as a starter) and three years after signing a $126 million contract with the 49ers, Kaepernick has not played football as a member of an NFL team since the end of the 2016 season. After opting out of his contract amid changes to the 49ers offense under new coach Kyle Shanahan and rumors of a potential release, Kaepernick has spent the past eight months wandering in the NFL desert.
While Kaepernick has been on the free agent market, teams in need of quarterbacks have opted for someone, anyone other than Kaepernick, including Mike Glennon, Josh McCown, and Jay Cutler, whom the Dolphins will pay $10 million to replace the injured Ryan Tannehill. (This is the same Jay Cutler who needed to be convinced to play by his wife and joked that playing quarterback didn't require cardiovascular fitness.) The Ravens ownership is reportedly "praying" to decide whether or not to take Kaepernick on as a backup to Joe Flacco.
For Kaepernick, who will turn 30 on Nov. 3, having already passed for more than 12,000 yards and run for more than 2,300 yards since arriving in the NFL in 2011, the story of his football career seems to have veered into one about what athletes can say, or not say, or do, or not do. The questions Kaepernick's stand has asked of us as football viewers — of what we require from athletes in exchange for our attention, our admiration, or our support — have been responded to largely with mild ignorance or derision at best, and threats of violence at worst. He knelt, and spoke, and many of us seem to have lost our minds in response.
There is a lot to say about Colin Kaepernick. Colin Kaepernick is of mixed race descent. Colin Kaepernick is adopted. Colin Kaepernick is wealthy. Colin Kaepernick has tattoos. And Colin Kaepernick has beliefs, particularly regarding the flawed relationship between police and people of color in this country, and the role that race plays in determining the lives (and deaths) of everyday Americans. These are beliefs a lot of people have — and a lot of people don't, to be clear.
But Colin Kaepernick is also a football player. And to understand Colin Kaepernick — and, more importantly, to put Colin Kaepernick into the context of which he has been removed for nearly a year — it is important to begin with football, a game he started playing (as a defensive end and punter, originally) when he was 9 years old, and one that is currently being denied to him.
Kaepernick played quarterback in a Wing-T formation at Pitman High School — a run-first offense that rarely required him to drop back in the pocket. That got him very little attention from college coaches, despite the best efforts of both himself and his high school coach, Larry Nigro. His recruitment to Nevada began with a three-day quarterback camp in the summer of 2005 run by Ault and his staff. "When we got done," Ault said, "I saw a big tall lanky guy that was a good athlete, [but] not a very polished quarterback. But he was maybe 6'4 at that time, 6'3 and a half, and I said if he can't be a quarterback, he could be a defensive back or receiver."
It wasn't until Ault saw Kaepernick play basketball later that winter — a game Kaepernick played with a 102-degree fever — that he decided to offer him a scholarship. But Ault said that Kaepernick's instinctiveness and competitiveness had no competition. "I just thought," he said, "there's no gamble with this guy. If he can't be a quarterback, we'll just put him someplace else. He'll play for us."
Kaepernick took his first snaps for Nevada on Oct. 6, 2007, stepping in for starter Nick Graziano in the second quarter against Fresno State after Graziano broke his foot. He would complete 23 out of 26 passes for 384 yards and score five touchdowns in a 49-41 loss. You can see his first snap here. On third-and-long and with nobody open, he breaks contain and sprints for a first down, Fresno State defenders in his wake.
"We really didn't know how fast he was," Ault said, "and he didn't either. Nobody did."
The next week, Nevada went to Boise State to play the 5-1 Broncos, the same squad that would beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl that year. David Southorn is a beat writer covering Boise State football for the Idaho Statesman. He was in the press box at the Nevada-Boise State game in 2007. "In warmups," he said, "you saw a tall, skinny kid who could wing it, but thought he might break after a few big hits." He added that Kaepernick seemed unnaturally calm: "It was pretty obvious he wasn't going to be like 90 percent of the quarterbacks, let alone a redshirt freshman. [He wasn't] going to be intimidated."
The two teams would combine for 136 points that night, reaching quadruple overtime. Kaepernick threw for 243 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another 177 yards and two touchdowns. It might have gone to a fifth overtime had Boise State linebacker Tim Brady not caught Kaepernick's ankle on a two-point conversion attempt.
"It was like, 'Oh my god, who is this guy?" Southorn said of Kaepernick that night. "If a giraffe and a cheetah were spliced together, that's what it was like -- he took one stride when everyone else needed two."
The loss to Boise State was, in Chris Ault's view, the game when Kaepernick took total control of the team. "His decisions weren’t always right but his athleticism gave our offense another dimension," he said. "Most importantly, it showed his competitiveness and willingness to do whatever it would take to try and win. There wasn’t one time when I thought he wasn’t in control."
That year, the Wolfpack finished 6-6, losing in the New Mexico Bowl. But in 2008, Nevada finished 7-6, and Kaepernick was named WAC Offensive Player of the Year. Ault said that his work ethic never wavered. "He still was the first one in the weight room, he still was the last one to leave the practice field. There was never a time that I can remember that [Kaepernick] wasn't doing something with somebody during the course of the week or during the course of a practice to get better."
Kaepernick injured his ankle during the Humanitarian Bowl loss to Maryland, and was still too injured to participate in spring football practice the next year. So Ault and Kaepernick practiced by themselves instead. "I went out with him, seven, eight straight days out on the field, just he and me. We'd work for an hour, hour and a half, just on his throwing, on his ability to throw right, left, the things he missed during spring ball. And to be honest with you, we probably could have gone three hours a day, and he'd still be out there."
By his senior year in 2010, Kaepernick was leading a Wolfpack team that was ranked for the first time in 60 years and eighth in the country in total offense, averaging just over 40 points a game. In the last home game of the 2010 season, on Senior Night, Nevada faced the Broncos. Before the season, Kaepernick had told Southorn at WAC Media Day that "the road [to success] went through Boise State." Now, Boise State was ranked No. 3 in the country and the closest the Broncos had ever really been to a possible national title run.
Nevada was down 24-7 at half, but Ault said that in the locker room, Kaepernick was "calm, collected, and excited." In the third quarter, he escaped the pocket and did a spin move -- "the greatest move I ever saw with any of my quarterbacks," Ault said -- sprinting into the end zone to make the score 24-14. With 15 seconds left in the game, down 31-24, Kaepernick threw across his body into the left corner of the end zone to Rishard Matthews to tie the game.
Southorn said that that play, and the drive preceding it, was unforgettable. "You got the feeling there was only one guy capable of beating Boise State that year."
That game might best be remembered for Boise State's kicker missing two line-drive field goals. But Kaepernick, sprinting onto the field on a cold November night after Anthony Martinez hit a game-winning field goal in overtime to give the Wolfpack their first win over a top-10 opponent in school history, sealed that game. "He was like no quarterback I'd seen in the WAC," Southorn said.
The same year the Nevada Wolfpack went 13-1 behind Kaepernick, a 7-year-old girl named Aiyana Jones was shot to death by a police officer during a no-knock police raid on a house in Detroit, Michigan. The charges against the officer were eventually dropped. The year before, just about 90 miles west of the high school where Kaepernick played football, baseball and basketball, an Oakland resident named Oscar Grant was shot in the back in a BART Station by an officer who told investigators he mistakenly believed he was using his taser. Grant died a few hours later.
In the fall of 2011, Colin Kaepernick was drafted in the second round by the San Francisco 49ers. That same fall, police shot and killed a retired veteran and former corrections officer named Kenneth Chamberlain in his home in White Plains, New York. His LifeAid bracelet had gone off, triggering a response from police and firefighters. He told them he didn't need help. In response, the police broke down his front door, tasered him, and then shot him, first with a bean bag round, then with live ammunition.
A tape of the incident provided by LifeAid recorded Chamberlain trying to keep the police out of his home, telling the officers, "I'm telling you all I'm okay." To which an officer responded, "I don't give a fuck, nigger." Chamberlain died in surgery that night.
Deray McKesson got a call from Colin Kaepernick early in the 2016 NFL preseason, almost as soon as Kaepernick's national anthem protest began. McKesson is best known for his activism in support of Black Lives Matter, a movement which began in part as reaction to the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014.
"It was clear that he understood the issues well, that he was personally invested," McKesson said, "and that he was conscious about using his platform to fight for marginalized people. I didn't think it was a performance going into the call, and I came out of the call thinking that he was very committed to these issues."
McKesson said that Kaepernick was interested in understanding those who had been taking part in activism aimed at police brutality and racism. "I reminded him that every time he talked about these issues, he helped give a voice to people, which is one of the most powerful things that can be done. That initial call reaffirmed my belief in him."
David French is a senior writer for the conservative magazine National Review. Upon hearing about Kaepernick's protest, he said, "my first thought was, 'who really cares,' to be honest." He added that he "flat-out disagreed with him doing this [protesting the national anthem] on the merits," but said that he didn't believe it would become a cultural touchstone. "Then it got swept in the hot take culture."
French believes that for sportswriters, Kaepernick became a "heroic figure," and that to him, that was going to be a problem. "We started to see all of the worst aspects of what I would call some of the Social Justice Warrior hectoring culture, where views on this became a litmus test to see how 'woke' you were on underlying issues of race and justice." For French, the controversy around Kaepernick's protest is based on Kaepernick's attempt to violate a simple rule of American life: we should be able to watch a sports game together, regardless of race or politics, without the taint of external events. To Kaepernick, French would say, "take [your protest] off the field."
The idea that sports should be a "safe space," so to speak, is a popular one. Millions of Americans believe that sports can remain, or perhaps become for the first time, a venue free of politics. Sports has never been apolitical, to be sure, and yet we believe that it could be, and moreover that it should be. Sports is where we find joy, sports is where we find hope, sports is where we find something beyond and above ourselves, and can do so together with people with whom we have virtually nothing in common.
But for Kaepernick, the football field was, and is, his own safe space. Football took him from Turlock, California to Reno, Nevada, from a skinny kid thrown into the starting job at a university with little football history or glory to become perhaps the best football player in Nevada history to very nearly winning a Super Bowl in just his second season in the league.
Colin Kaepernick loved football. Colin Kaepernick still loves football. He did not speak with SB Nation for this piece, and has refused media interviews for the past several months, as he fights behind the scenes for his NFL career, for the ability to be able to play football again.
Colin Kaepernick loves football, and yet he risked his football career and his reputation to say something. Football shaped him and molded him and put him on the cultural map, and yet he was willing to defy football, and the entities that control it -- from coaches to NFL owners and alumni -- because he wanted to stand up for what he believed was right. Football is his context, the sport to which he devoted his time and energy and obsessive will to improve. And yet Kaepernick has allowed himself to be removed from that context, in order to say something, or more accurately, to get us to say something about America's law enforcement protocols, America's racial inequities, America's, as some have called it, "original sin."
We don't have to, of course. We could have ignored Colin Kaepernick, and his protest. His decision to sit or kneel during the national anthem played very little role in the 49ers' failure last season. He was not responsible for the team's complete lack of rush defense or terrible home record. We could even ignore Colin Kaepernick now, in free agency. We could allow him to become a third-string quarterback. Or get a starting job. The world would continue to spin either way.
And yet we didn't, and we don't. Or perhaps we can't. The questions that Colin Kaepernick raised in his protest were too big, or too scary, for us to answer. Questions about whose lives actually do matter. Questions about what a sport primarily played by black men has to say about the lives of black men. Questions some of us believe have no place in sports.
And so Colin Kaepernick remains in limbo. Ten years after winning the starting job in college, one year after sitting during the national anthem, Colin Kaepernick is still looking for work in the NFL. All because he asked America a question, and we simply had no good answer.