Unheralded Colin Kaepernick the quarterback of 49ers future
This isn't the way Colin Kaepernick would have drawn up the start of his NFL career: locked out of the 49ers facility, unable to contact his coach, prevented from going to work.
"It's an odd situation," Kaepernick said, sitting outside a weight room at San Jose State University, where he and other 49ers have been working out on their own.
But Kaepernick can roll with it. Because there's a lot about Kaepernick's football career that hasn't gone exactly the way he would have planned.
For starters, there was the fact that he was constantly told he wouldn't ever even have a football career.
"Not athletic enough, arm not strong enough, too skinny, not competitive enough, throwing mechanics aren't the way they should be," Kaepernick said, ticking off the list of problems his detractors pointed out to him over the years.
But on the second day of this year's NFL draft, the San Francisco 49ers moved up to acquire the University of Nevada quarterback.
New 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh sees only upside in Kaepernick.
"I like how well he plays in games," said Harbaugh, who noted that he has no plans to change Kaepernick's throwing mechanics. "He's a superior athlete. He has a very strong arm. He's really smart. He's kind of an All-American type of kid.
"As far as what people are rapping him for, in the NFL, you're always scrutinized and questioned. You can't take anyone else's opinion."
But you can use those opinions for fuel. Kaepernick, 23, doesn't just have a chip on his shoulder, he has inked a me-against-them mentality onto the tops of his muscular arms. He has tattooed two psalms:
"You armed me with strength for battle; you humbled my adversaries before me," on one arm and "Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear' though war break out against me, even then I will be confident," on the other. Bridging the psalms, tattooed across his chest, are the words "Against All Odds."
"I had so many people saying I wasn't going to be successful," Kaepernick said. "For me, it's trying to prove those people wrong. They won't tell me whether I'm going to be successful; I'll determine it by how hard I work."
Which is why Kaepernick, 23, is very eager to get to work. But for now, his only hands-on instruction has come from Alex Smith, the man whose job he's trying to take. Smith has been the force behind 49ers informal practice sessions, organizing workouts and distributing the team's playbook.
"Alex had done a great job of translating to the best of his knowledge," Kaepernick said.
Kaepernick had a minor surgery on his left leg in the spring -- which he chooses not to discuss -- and this week is the first time he can fully participate in drills. That's why he opted to skip the rookie symposium held in Florida to work out at San Jose State.
"This is my first opportunity to be out here with my teammates, and being able to do everything," he said. "So I thought it was very important to be here."
Harbaugh has made a great show since taking the 49ers job of publicly wooing Smith, who is in free agency limbo during the labor impasse. Smith's lockout leadership is a clear indication that -- despite six years of futility and frustration -- he's planning to return to the 49ers for a seventh year and is willing to help groom his successor.
"It hasn't been awkward at all," Kaepernick said. "He's helped me with everything, he's been very welcoming. The situation that we're in doesn't have to define our relationship."
But Kaepernick -- who has been within driving distance of the 49ers home city most of his life -- knows full well that there's a wide-open opportunity in San Francisco.
He grew up most of his life in Turlock, an agricultural community in Central California about two hours southeast of San Francisco. Despite the proximity, he wasn't a 49ers fan. When his family moved from Wisconsin when Kaepernick was four, they brought their Packers allegiance with them.
Rick and Theresa Kaepernick started their family in rural Wisconsin. They had two children, a son Kyle and a daughter Devon, but then lost two sons shortly after birth to congenital heart defects.
"It was really tough," said Rick. "We were 25 and had lost two children. We always wanted to have more kids so we decided to adopt."
The Kaepernicks adopted Colin days after his birth, never worrying about raising a child with darker skin than their own (Colin's birth father was African-American, his mother white). But they found that their move to California --prompted by Rick's job in the dairy industry -- was an unexpected benefit.
"In Wisconsin Colin stood out; he was the only black kid in town," Rick said. "His preschool class in California was totally diverse."
When Kaepernick was a freshman, he was slated to go to a new high school void of athletic tradition while most of the top athletes in town were enrolling in Turlock High.
"He wanted to blaze a new trail," Rick said. "He looks for things that can drive him. If you tell him that he can't, he'll show you that he can."
Kaepernick, a three-sport star, led Pitman High to two Central California championships, beating crosstown rival Turlock in the process. Yet no Division 1 schools seemed interested in recruiting him for football. Kaepernick -- a pitcher whose fastball topped out around 94 mph -- was recruited by top schools for baseball.
"Going into my senior year I went to every football camp I could, to get in front of coaches," Kaepernick said. "But I heard every excuse in the book. People told me I was stupid to wasting a chance to play major league baseball. But that wasn't what my heart was set on."
A stellar student, he drew interest from some Ivy League schools but -- with no athletic scholarships available -- he knew the financial burden would be too much for his family. Still, he passed up his first chance to play pro baseball, holding out hope for football.
"For me, there's something different about football, a different passion for the game, a different camaraderie," Kaepernick said.
Finally, just days before the final signing day of his senior year, Nevada offered him a scholarship. Kaepernick said yes on the spot.
Kaepernick went on to a standout career in Reno, leading the Wolfpack to four straight bowl games. But he still had to convince others he was committed to football. The Cubs drafted him in 2009 and the summer before his senior year, Chicago offered him $30,000 to come to Arizona and throw bullpen sessions for a month.
"When you're a college kid, that's a lot of money," Kaepernick said. "And my first instinct was to go. But as the quarterback you can't leave your team a month before camp starts. That just doesn't work."
His commitment to football paid off his senior year. In 2010, Nevada beat Boise State in overtime to knock the Broncos out of BCS Championship contention and went on to defeat Boston College in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Kaepernick finished his college career as the only Division I quarterback to pass for over 10,000 yards and to rush for over 4,000 yards in his career.
Still, in the buildup to the draft, the doubters were back in force. Kaepernick wouldn't translate to a pro system. His throwing motion needed to be overhauled. He declined an invitation to attend the draft at Radio City Music Hall, preferring to stay in Turlock surrounded by the people who supported him.
He spent the first evening watching 30 teams pass on him, while four quarterbacks were drafted. On the second day of the draft, Kaepernick went to a nearby gym to work out his frustrations. His father got a call on his cell phone while he was shopping in Target that Colin's name was in play and rushed over to the gym to find his son.
Within the hour, Kaepernick was the new quarterback of the future for the 49ers.
"This is one place that everyone in the family was hoping I would land," Kaepernick said. "Not just because of how close it is to home. It's a very good situation as far as the opportunity and the weapons on offense. And when I met Coach Harbaugh I felt that if I had a choice, this is who I would want to play for."
Kaepernick has switched his team colors, but he remains inspired by the journey of Aaron Rodgers, another central California product who started his collegiate career at a community college.
"Coming out of college a lot of people told him he didn't have the tools and now he's a Super Bowl [winning] quarterback," Kaepernick said.
The 49ers, with a new coaching staff and new playbook, may be hurt more by the prolonged lockout than teams with more continuity. Harbaugh has followed his players' workouts in the media and has been encouraged by their proactive response.
"They have to find a field, get the balls, figure out who's doing what, what plays are they going to run," Harbaugh said. "It can be beneficial, giving them a chance to get to know each other and build trust.
"It's encouraging that guys love football and are committed to getting together and planning for their future."
Kaepernick is committed and eager to get to work. It might not have gone the way he planned, but he's confident of the path he's on now.
"We can't always figure out why things happen," said Rick Kaepernick, "but we think things happen for a reason."