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Scripted for Success

12 minute read
Sean Gregory / Modesto

Some people can’t help but use the F word.

It’s almost automatic while watching San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick torch his opponents with his dazzling sprints and finger-bending passes. While seeing him kiss his tattooed bicep post-touchdown–a practice now known as Kaepernicking. What do you call a player whose butt was on the bench until the middle of last season but who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in just his ninth NFL start, who was one possession away from completing a historic comeback against the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans? Who now has the top-selling jersey in the NFL? Yes, you hear it a lot, the F word: Colin Kaepernick is a freak.

Kaepernick doesn’t warm to the description; for him, that word has dangerous codes. “To me, when people say, ‘Oh, you’re a freak athlete'”–he pauses–“it’s bittersweet.” Kaepernick, 25, has just finished a round of golf at the Del Rio Country Club in Modesto, Calif. He headlined a charity tournament for Camp Taylor, a program that serves children with heart disease. Now he’s relaxing in the clubhouse and touching on a broad range of topics during a nearly hour-long conversation. “It’s a huge compliment to say, O.K., you have physical abilities that are kind of above and beyond,” Kaepernick continues. “But at the same time, I feel like it diminishes the mental side of the game. And I think it takes away from the time we study the playbook, the time we spend in the film room and the preparation we put in.”

As its teams head to training camps, the NFL could certainly use a genuine football hero. Since the Super Bowl, more than 30 pro players have been accused of crimes, including murder, assault and other mayhem. And Kaepernick could play the hero role easily given his abilities and size–a 6-ft. 4-in., 230-lb. action figure. Just don’t expect the central-casting model, either as a player or a person.

In Kaepernick’s mind, it’s no coincidence that young, dual-threat quarterbacks like himself, Robert Griffin III of Washington and Russell Wilson of Seattle–all black quarterbacks–are called freak athletes, while white QBs like the Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck are more likely to be dubbed cerebral pocket passers. Kaepernick, who was adopted by a white family, has a black birth father and a white birth mother. “It’s a touchy subject, ’cause I never want to take it there, where it seems like it’s all about race,” says Kaepernick. “But I feel like that’s something that comes along with the territory of being a black quarterback. When you have success–‘Oh, you’re a freak athlete.’ Not, ‘Oh, you’re a good quarterback.’ And I think that’s a barrier that needs to be broken down.”

Kaepernick’s tats–he started inking his arms in college–have fed the stereotypes. In November, a Sporting News columnist wrote that “NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility. He is the CEO of a high-profile organization, and you don’t want your CEO to look like he just got paroled.” The column was properly derided. “I almost want to say that’s very old school,” Kaepernick says now. “To me, tattoos are a way of people being able to express themselves and have other people look at them and get a little insight into who they are, without ever even saying a word to them.” Faith is inscribed on his right bicep, respect on the tricep. He also tattooed Psalms 18:39–“You armed me with strength for battle; you made my adversaries bow at my feet”–on his right arm. “All my tattoos, they’ve been thought out, thought over, been a work in progress for at least a year before I’ve got them,” says Kaepernick. “So I’m not walking into a tattoo shop, picking tattoos off a wall. It’s something that means something to me. It’s something that I believe in.”

That Sporting News column, though poorly executed, did raise a legit question: Are fans–particularly white fans–conditioned to expect a clean-cut quarterback? “I think it’s a perception that’s been around for a very long time,” says Kaepernick. “It’s a perception that I want to break. I don’t want people to think you have to look a certain way or be a certain mold to be able to be a quarterback.”

Just nine months ago, no one thought Kaepernick would change the face of football. In the 2011 season, San Francisco starter Alex Smith led the Niners to the NFC championship game; rookie Kaepernick carried the clipboard. But Smith suffered a concussion in Week 10 last year. Kaepernick took over. When Smith was ready to return, coach Jim Harbaugh stuck with Kaepernick, igniting a debate about whether a starter should lose his job because of injury. But Harbaugh, a former starting QB himself, was witnessing the birth of a star. (Smith now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs.)

Kaepernick was barely recruited by big-time Division 1 colleges. He took a last-minute scholarship offer from the University of Nevada; otherwise Kaepernick, who could throw over 90 m.p.h. in high school, would have pursued baseball. And if a kindhearted family from Wisconsin hadn’t suffered two gut-wrenching tragedies, it’s unlikely there would be a Colin Kaepernick shaking up the sport.

Tragic Blessing

In 1977 Rick Kaepernick, now senior Vice President of growth and development at Hilmar Cheese Co., near Modesto, and his wife Teresa, a retired nurse, were living in their native New London, Wis., when Teresa gave birth to Kyle, now 35. A second son, Lance, was born nearly two years later, but he died of congenital heart failure just 23 days after birth. The following year a third son, Kent, died of heart disease four days after birth. Devastated, the couple sought genetic counseling when Teresa was pregnant with their daughter Devon, now 31. A boy would have had a 50-50 chance of developing heart defects. The Kaepernicks then stopped having children. “It was pretty darned depressing to make a final decision like that,” says Teresa. “We always thought we’d have three or four kids.”

Six years later, the Kaepernicks adopted Colin when he was an infant. When he was 4, the family moved to California’s Central Valley, some two hours east of San Francisco, so Rick could take a job at Hilmar (which, by the way, is the largest single-site cheese processor on the planet).

Kaepernick has honored them by funding Camp Taylor. “I’m trying to word things correctly,” he says, reflecting on Lance and Kent. “Because it’s a very tragic situation. But at the same time, if that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be in this situation. I mean, I do have a great deal of sympathy for what my parents have gone through, and a great deal of sorrow. You can’t take that pain away. And I hope that the situation we’re in now is something that can bring joy to them.”

For the Kaepernicks, the family’s odd mix–four white cheeseheads and a long, skinny black kid–is a source of amusement. At hotels, the family would check in together, then the clerk would turn to Colin and say, “Can I help you?” When Colin was playing at Nevada, Rick told a fan in the stands that his son was on the team. “Oh yeah? What’s his number?” the guy asked. “Ten,” Rick replied. The fan spotted Colin on the field, helmetless, and looked back at Rick. “What’s his number again?”

Colin’s two siblings followed Rick into the family business; they both work at Hilmar. Colin, a straight-A student in high school, thrived in sports. “He always said, ‘I’m telling you, I’m not going into cheese,'” says Teresa. Colin never asked much about his birth parents except when it came to his athletic career. “I was just kind of curious about, O.K., I feel like I’m kind of tall, I can play sports pretty good, what did my parents do?” says Kaepernick. “Am I going to fit that mold where I might be able to play? That was about the extent of it.”

Kaepernick’s birth mother, Heidi Russo–now a nurse living outside Denver–is over 6 ft. tall. So that certainly helped. (The identity of his birth father is not publicly known.) At the time of Colin’s birth, she was a 19-year-old single mother who didn’t feel ready to raise a child. Russo and Kaepernick exchanged messages a few times while he was in college, but he cut it off. In February, Russo did an emotional interview with ESPN in which she described the day she gave Colin up. He wasn’t happy about it. “My immediate reaction was like, ‘Why?'” Kaepernick says. “The story had been told–we had gone over it. I had kind of let you know how I feel about it.” He called Teresa, who had seen the interview. “I was like, ‘Mom, look, I know who my family is. I know who my mother is. That’s not going to change. I love you.” Teresa broke down on the phone. “To me, that was the point where I felt like my mother was attacked,” Kaepernick says. “That was the point where, in my mind, I was like [a meeting] is never going to happen. This won’t happen because you went about it in such a way that you hurt my family, you hurt my mother. And that’s not something I’m willing to tolerate.” (Responds Russo: “I’m sorry that’s the way he feels. I’m certainly not out here to hurt him or his family. But I am out here trying to change the stigmas and stereotypes associated with birth mothers.”)

Kaepernick says he’s “clocked out” on Russo. “I don’t feel like you have any right to say you have any say in how things go,” Kaepernick says. “Because you weren’t the one working those night shifts, you weren’t the one driving me an hour and a half, two hours on the weekends to go work with a quarterback coach for an hour or two, and driving me back. My mom has gone above and beyond for so long, and I don’t feel she gets the credit she deserves for what she’s done.”

Big-Play Day

Kaepernick’s breakout half-season did not have a fairy-tale ending, and the Super Bowl loss has left a raw wound. The 49ers had the ball on the Baltimore 7-yd. line, first and goal, trailing 34-29 with 2:39 left. Seven stinking yards, four chances, and they’re almost certainly champions. Kaepernick audibly sighs before talking about the game. “It’s replayed in my mind a million times,” he says. “The last four plays of that game–it’s something I don’t think anyone on our team will ever just have that go away. I think all of us are, ‘What could we have done different?'”

What hasn’t been lost is that Kaepernick is leading a quarterback revolution against the NFL’s rigid plays. The pistol sets he runs with San Francisco turn the quarterback into a multitasking weapon, running the offense on the fly. “It had a big role in the NFL last year,” Kaepernick says. “And it’s kind of been a trend that’s been coming up more and more.” The basic concept is simple: It’s essentially a formation in which the quarterback stands a few yards behind the center, awaiting the snap. The running back stands directly behind him. In the traditional shotgun, the running back stands to one side. So if there’s a handoff, say, to the right, the ball carrier is likely running right.

But in the pistol, the defense can’t see the running back hiding behind the QB. So on a handoff, the D must guess the running back’s direction. Kaepernick can also fake a handoff, hold on to the ball and then either throw downfield or run it himself, a strategy known as the read option. The style is unorthodox, unpredictable and, with a player of Kaepernick’s ability behind center, a football fun house.

The NFL has its issues–see trauma, head, and behavior, criminal–but fans are living in a golden age of quarterbacking. Greats like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are atop their games. Wilson and RG3 also use the read option, and both rookies led their teams to the playoffs. (Washington’s big wishes: congressional cooperation and RG3’s recovery from knee surgery, not necessarily in that order.) The Colts’ Luck, who was the top pick of last year’s draft, had fans asking, “Peyton who?” And don’t forget another dual-threat QB, Cam Newton, who may have suffered a little sophomore slump early last season but set a rookie record for passing yards two years ago–before Luck broke it last season. “I think it’s a little bit of a new era of quarterbacks,” says Kaepernick, the voice of a generation. “A lot of quarterbacks are talented with their arms and legs. They’re not only pocket passers. They’re athletic. Defenses have to be honest. There’s a lot of big plays to be made.” Nothing freaky about that.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com