BUFFALO – Colin Kaepernick was not happy, for a simple reason that should be obvious but has been forgotten: He is a football player who desperately wants to win. He never lost that part of himself, and this may help you understand the rest of him.
Kaepernick will not be reduced to a headline and will not be dissuaded by boos. He will not let his social activism distract him from football, and he will not stay quiet just to advance his career. He will be exactly who he wants to be. In a league that literally chops down its most talented players on a weekly basis, Colin Kaepernick is as sturdy as they come.
There he was, after his first start of the season for the 49ers, getting dressed next to the entrance to the visitors’ locker room at New Era Field. He stuffed the jersey of Bills receiver Marquise Goodwin into his bag. (Goodwin had asked to exchange them after the game.) He put on a Muhammad Ali tribute shirt, a stylish black suit with sneakers, and combed his Afro. Activist, fashion plate, proud African-American, football player. He will not hide one aspect of his life to showcase another.
Bills fans chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!” right before he kneeled for the anthem. It was like trying to taunt a vegetarian by waving a carrot. Kaepernick was born in Wisconsin and raised in California. Never, during all of his Black Lives Matter protests or calls for change, has he hinted that he would rather live in another country.
“I don’t understand what’s un-American about fighting for liberty and justice for everybody, for the equality that this country says it stands for,” he said afterward. “I see it as very patriotic and American.”
By any objective measure, Kaepernick is in a stronger position today than he was on Aug. 26. That was the first night he declined to stand for the national anthem. Back then, remember, he was not leading a movement among athletes; in a way, he was the movement. He did not know how many of his colleagues would publicly and privately support him, including some who have kneeled during the anthem themselves.
And Kaepernick is smart. As he said Sunday, “I knew the consequences of what could come with this. I was prepared for that.” He is a famous millionaire who willingly subjected himself to death threats and hate speech.
So when he was told that somebody outside the stadium was selling t-shirts implying he should be shot, or that a fan was rumored to have thrown a bottle at him, he was undeterred. (“If they did, they didn’t have very good aim,” he said.) That was the stuff he expected. He would rather focus on all the people who have told him they support him, including some fans here.
“Some of us are able to do certain things without consequences and others of us can’t,” he said. “Those are all things that need to be addressed. Me as a black man that plays football, and is considered a celebrity, I’m treated differently than a black man that is working 9 to 5 in the ’hood. And it shouldn’t be like that. We’re human beings.”
This seems like a sentiment upon which most Americans can agree: We’re human beings. But of course, Kaepernick’s message is not as controversial as his means of delivering it. And he knew that when he started this anthem protest, too. But would anything else have been so effective?
Late August seems like a lifetime ago, but if you can go back there for a moment, you will remember: one of the first epithets thrown at Kaepernick was not traitor or a racial slur, but backup quarterback. Why would we pay attention to a backup quarterback on one of the NFL’s worst teams?
To some, it smelled like Kaepernick was protesting as a way to cope with his failing career. It was an insult on several levels. It minimized the cause and his belief in it, and anyway, it’s not true anymore. Kaepernick showed Sunday that he should be the 49ers’ starter for the rest of the season.
There were plenty of moments Sunday when he looked like the player we saw in 2012, doing things that very few players in NFL history have done. He turned a sure safety into a run for a first down. He extended plays and fired passes to receivers, though a few were dropped. He also missed some throws, and his arm strength does not appear to be what it was before surgeries; nobody is saying he is a Pro Bowl player right now. But overall, this was encouraging. (Kaepernick's final numbers: 13/29, 187 yards, 1 TD, no turnovers.)
We don’t know if Kaepernick will be a star again, or even a long-term starter. But he obviously gives the 49ers a better chance to win than Blaine Gabbert. That is another sentiment upon which most Americans can agree.
The 49ers lost 45-16. They fell to 1-5. They may not win four games all year. But Kaepernick had a simple answer for how the 49ers can get better: “We work.” And he had an eloquent one for why he wore his Ali shirt:
“To pay homage. He was someone that, he fought a very similar fight, and was trying to do what’s right for the people. For me to be able to have someone like that come before me is huge. He is someone that helped pave the way for this to happen. What he did and what he stood for, people remember him more for that than they do as a boxer. I can’t let him die in vain. I have to be able to try and carry that on, and try and fight that same fight until we accomplish our goal.”
As Kaepernick walked out of the stadium, people kept asking him to stop pose for a pictures. He kept stopping, kept smiling. If you thought Colin Kaepernick would go away, you were wrong. There he was in Buffalo, kneeling for the anthem, scaring the Bills for a half, inspiring Marquise Goodwin and connecting with fans—reminding us, in every way, that we have not heard the last from him.