Knee High

Colin Kaepernick's former coaches know that to understand him—and why he's still unsigned—one must wade in deep
April 10, 2017

AFTER FOUR weeks as a free agent, Colin Kaepernick is unemployed. This is not a typical case of unemployment, of course. Kaepernick has made millions. He may yet make more millions. He will be fine. Still, he is only 29, he has been an NFL starter in each of the last five years, and nobody has signed him.

There are many theories behind this. Teams are punishing him for kneeling during the national anthem. They fear he will do it again. They don't think he can play anymore. Football isn't a priority for him. He isn't worth the distractions. Each theory makes some sense ... until you talk to the men who have coached him.

"He's big, athletic, he can hurt you both throwing and running," says Chip Kelly, Kaepernick's coach with the 49ers last season. "The last couple of years, he was banged up. I think he is going to be better next year."

In 2016, Kaepernick was 17th in the NFL in passer rating. That's certainly not Pro Bowl quality. But it wasn't bad for a player recovering from surgeries on his right thumb, left knee and left shoulder, and playing on an offense full of castoffs and afterthoughts.

"There was zero distraction," Kelly says. "He met with the team immediately after [his first protest]. He explained his position and where he was coming from. And literally, that was it. Colin was focused on football."

Jim Harbaugh, who almost won a Super Bowl with Kaepernick in San Francisco, had a similar experience. "Every day his car would be the first one in the parking lot," says Harbaugh. "He'd be studying film, and he'd be working out in the morning. I mean, no later than 5:45."

There are 32 NFL teams, which means there are 64 quarterback jobs. Harbaugh still believes Kaepernick can be an elite player. Kelly says, "Do I think he is one of the top 64 quarterbacks in the world? There is no question. Does he have the ability to play quarterback on a winning team in the NFL? There is no question."

Yet here is Kaepernick, unsigned.

We could blame NFL teams for being obtuse or Kaepernick for being obstinate. We could argue that the NFL only cares about public relations or that Kaepernick is un-American. But saying Kaepernick is unemployed simply because of politics or publicity is like saying Adrian Peterson is unemployed simply because he was accused of child abuse. It may be a factor, but it's not the only one.

If we view Kaepernick's free agency as a referendum on his protests, we make the same mistake people keep making with Colin Kaepernick. We simplify a complicated issue, and we get mad instead of trying to understand.

OVER THE LAST few years, I've been reporting on Kaepernick, which has provided a window into his personality. One thing he does not like is publicity. This sounds preposterous; Kaepernick caused a national debate in the middle of a presidential campaign, landing his name and face everywhere, through actions of his choosing. But it's true: He declined to talk to me for this story, and he has declined one-on-one interview requests from virtually every major media outlet.

This aversion to publicity places him in an awkward position since the cause he has championed needs publicity. He wants us to listen to his message about oppression and police brutality and justice, and pay no mind to the messenger.

But America wants to talk about the messenger. We always do. Critics throw various darts his way: He hates his country; he hates the police; he hates the military; he resents being adopted by a white family; he is trying to draw attention to himself because he isn't a star anymore. He is a naive pawn in a political game he doesn't understand.

None of it is true. Kaepernick is bright, thoughtful, quiet and fiercely independent. You could sooner talk a tree into making you a sandwich than talk Kaepernick into anything he doesn't want to do. When college scouts said his future was in baseball, he declared he would make it to the NFL. When his mother asked him to skip a high school baseball game because he had pneumonia, he pitched a no-hitter. When a writer criticized his tattoos, he responded by kissing his tattooed biceps after touchdowns.

Kaepernick may not have anticipated the firestorm he caused, but once he caused it, he was never going to back down. That stubbornness may explain how he went from a lightly recruited college prospect to an NFL star. Harbaugh says that when he coached Kaepernick, "it got to the point where nobody could challenge him in a workout. Otherwise, he'd bring them to their knees. Like in running workouts, nobody could hang with him."

Kelly says Kaepernick did not miss a day of the 49ers' voluntary workouts last summer. Remember, Kaepernick was recovering from three surgeries and was not happy with the organization for leaking negative stories about him and firing Harbaugh. But he was unrelenting, and he remained that way all fall.

AND THIS BRINGS us to two seemingly contradictory statements about Kaepernick:

1) He is 100% committed to playing in the NFL.

2) If NFL teams demand he put aside his social justice work, he might walk.

Kaepernick wants to be some team's hardest worker, but according to those close to him, he will not change who he is to do it. This is why the concept of "risk" is limited with Kaepernick. His performance is a risk. Fan backlash is a risk, especially in certain markets. But his character is not. The notion of Kaepernick's loafing is laughable to anybody who knows him. "When Colin is with us, he is 100% football," Kelly says. "There's not, 'Hey, Coach, I don't have time for this.' [The protest] never affected how he worked or what our workplace was like. And that's a credit to Colin."

Players see much more than outsiders. They know who shows up late to meetings hung over and who likes to hit strip clubs. This is why Kaepernick's protests did not affect his standing in the locker room: Teammates saw how hard he worked.

But we cannot discount what the public sees. ESPN reported recently that Kaepernick will stand for the anthem this fall, but he has not confirmed that. NFL teams are businesses, owned by prideful billionaires. Owners want to win, but they also do not like to be embarrassed, which some of them would be if their guests looked down from the owners' box and saw the starting quarterback kneeling during the anthem.

THE "STAR-SPANGLED BANNER" evokes visceral reactions in many of us. When a fellow American declines to stand for it, that evokes another visceral reaction. Harbaugh may be Kaepernick's biggest advocate in football, but he bristled when Kaepernick began his protest. "I was like anybody: I didn't really like this," Harbaugh says. "I wish he had chosen a different way to do this, a different action."

But then Harbaugh did what too many have not done: He thought hard about it. He had no choice. Some of his Michigan players supported Kaepernick and raised their fists during the anthem. "It wasn't a distraction because we were listening to what they were saying," Harbaugh says. "And they had a valid point."

For a moment, do what Harbaugh did: Listen.

"The issue is, the more money you have, the more access you have to justice," Harbaugh says. "The less money you have, the less access you have to justice." Harbaugh has seen this through his work with the Legal Services Corporation, which funds civil legal services for poor Americans.

Harbaugh's point is that if you step away from simplistic online screaming, you see a complex, systemic problem. And this is what Kaepernick is trying to address. You can reasonably disagree with his actions, but there is common ground if people look for it. Kaepernick is not against America; he is for a better America.

THE MATH SEEMS clear: If Kaepernick is one of the 64 best quarterbacks, somebody should have signed him. But Kaepernick's unemployment, like his political stance, is not that simple. Let's assume at least 20 teams are set at quarterback. And let's assume that Kaepernick wants a chance to compete for a starting job. That eliminates 40 of the 64 jobs right away, because 20 teams won't sign him as a starter.

Now there are 24 jobs available on 12 teams. Some of those teams hope to nab their quarterback of the future in the draft. Some may not have been impressed by how he played last year. Some don't think he fits their system. Some may not have the money. And yes, some may be shying away because of the protests.

Kelly says, "If you're not part of those 32 teams, it's very difficult to know what is going on." Harbaugh thinks Kaepernick will be signed after the draft, when teams have a better sense of what their rosters look like.

After Kaepernick started protesting, some fellow NFL players joined him. So did plenty of college players around the country. You just don't hear their names on cable-news shows. "He is singled out because he was first," Harbaugh said. "He is going to be the one that people hold a grudge against."

This is a choice he made, whether he realized it or not. Colin Kaepernick will be a controversial topic in America this fall, and perhaps for the rest of his life. A smart NFL team will distinguish between the conversation topic and the man.

Each theory about Kaepernick makes some sense, until you talk to the men who have actually coached him.

"We were listening to what they were saying," Harbaugh says. "And they had a valid point."

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