In today’s NFL, nothing is left to chance. Indeed, coaches who go with their gut often find themselves out of a job. That’s what makes Colin Kaepernick’s story so unusual. In one of the biggest gambles in pro football history, Jim Harbaugh played a hunch midway through the 2012 season and installed Colin as the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. Harbaugh’s bold move left him open to all sorts of second-guessing—and put the pressure squarely on Colin to reward his coach’s faith in him. He took the opportunity and ran with it, quite literally. A decidedly dangerous dual threat, Colin used his legs and his arm to lead the 49ers within a victory of the team’s sixth championship. Now he’s ready to finish the job. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Colin Rand Kaepernick was born on November 3, 1987 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) Colin was a mixed-race baby whose mother put him up for adoption. He was adopted at five weeks by Teresa and Rick Kaepernick and spent his early childhood in the town of Fond du Lac, about an hour from Milwaukee.

Rick worked for a cheese company and Teresa was a nurse. Colin had two older siblings; the Kaepernicks had two other children before Colin, but both died from heart defects, which is why they decided to adopt. Colin’s health was far from perfect. He suffered from chronic ear infections as a boy, and his parents thought at one point he might have cystic fibrosis. 

The family moved to the West Coast in the early 1990s. Colin began competing in youth sports leagues soon after. Strong, fast and coordinated, he took to football right away. He handled his team’s kicking chores and played on the defensive line. By the age of 9, he was playing quarterback.

When Colin wasn’t on the gridiron, he pitched in Little League and also played basketball. In Dutcher Elementary School, Colin was given an assignment to write a letter to his future self. He wrote that he hoped he had gone to a good college, and that he had been drafted by the San Francisco 49ers or Green Bay Packers. Colin could see himself replacing Brett Favre for the Cheeseheads.

By the time he enrolled at Pitman High School—which had just opened in 2002—Colin had developed into a promising athelte. He could fling the ball to home plate at over 70 mph and produce tight spirals of 50 yards or more. His throwing mechanics were a little quirky, but he more than made up for this with a powerful arm.

It was at Pitman where Colin earned all-state recognition in his three favorite sports and led the Pride gridiron squad to its first-ever state playoff victory. He also came to the attention of college football scouts, who found themselves in competition with baseball recruiters. By this time Colin had twirled a pair of no-hitters (one while suffering from pneumonia) and could get his heater up into the low 90s. Indeed, he received baseball scholarship offers from Tennessee, Arizona State and Notre Dame.

But football was where his heart was, and Pitman coach Larry Nigro put together a highlight CD, which was sent around to more than 100 schools after Colin’s junior season. He got zero response, in part because everyone thought of him as a baseball prospect and also because Nigro had chosen to limit his running plays. Colin was 6-4 and weighed 160 pounds in high school, and the coach feared he would be injured if he carried the ball too often.

Hoping to get some noteriety, Colin attended several college football camps over the summer. He impressed the coaches at the University of Nevada-Reno with his strong arm and remarkable foot speed. Head coach Chris Ault believed his staff could fix Colin’s throwing motion, and once he assured the school that baseball was no longer in the picture, a scholarship offer eventually came. The tipping point was Colin’s performance in a basketball contest, when one of Ault’s assistants happened to be in the stands. Colin took the floor with a high fever and singlehandedly won the game.

ON THE RISE 

The plan was for Colin to play safety and also practice with the offense to begin his development as a Division-1 quarterback. He red-shirted in 2006 while adding muscle to his lanky frame. In the fifth game of the 2007 season, starter Nick Graziano was injured in the first half and Colin found himself the emergency signal-caller.

In what has now become part of Wolfpack lore, Colin torched Fresno State for 384 yards and four touchdowns. In his first start, against nationally ranked Boise State, he came up two points short in a thrilling overtime struggle 69–67. The Wolfpack had been four-touchdown underdogs heading into the game.

Graziano spent the rest of the year on the bench. Colin finished with 19 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He ranked behind just four other quarterback in the nation—Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Colt Brennan and Dennis Dixon—with a 161.06 QB rating.


 

 

 

 

 


Brett Favre, Black Book Partners archives

     
 

The 2008 campaign saw Colin become just the fifth player in NCAA history to amass 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season. Vai Taua, the starting halfback, ran for more than 1,500, giving Nevada its first backfield with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. In all, Colin passed for 2,849 yards and ran for 1,130. He accounted for a whopping 39 touchdowns, 22 through the air and 17 on the ground. At season’s end he became the second sophomore in WAC history to be named Offensive Player of the Year—Marshall Faulk was the first.

Colin hoped to lead Nevada to the Western Athletic Conference title in 2009, but the best he could do was a second-place finish behind Boise State. The Wolfpack went 8–5 and Colin was named team MVP for the second season in a row. He threw for 2,052 yards and ran for 1,183 more, becoming the first player in NCAA history to have back-to-back 2,000–1,000 campaigns. Nevada had an awesome ground game, with Taua racking up 1,345 yards and Luke Lippincott chipping in 1,034. It marked the first time a college team had three 1,000-yard rushers in the same backfield. Their achievement earned them a display in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Colin’s senior year produced a shared WAC title. More important, he engineered a victory over Boise State in their November showdown. The 34–31 overtime win came in his final home game and was with little doubt the high point in the entire history of the school’s football program. During the game, Colin extended his own personal double-threat record, becoming the first player with three 2,000–1,000 seasons. One week later, against Louisiana Tech, Colin joined Tebow and Cam Newton as the only passer's to throw and run for 20 touchdowns in the same season.  

In the 2011 NFL draft, Colin was predicted to go late in the first round or early in the second. When he was still on the board after the first round, the 49ers traded up and grabbed him with a pick that belonged to the Denver Broncos. The deal cost San Francisco three lower draft picks. Colin came to camp as the back-up to Alex Smith. He watched the much-maligned starter enjoy a career year, taking the team all the way to the NFC title game. For his part, Colin saw action in a handful of games, completing 24 of 50 passes and throwing five interceptions. 

In 2012, coach Jim Harbaugh planned to use Colin more in Wildcat formations. His strong arm and sprinter’s speed created all kinds of problems for enemy defenses. The season went pretty much as planned until Week 10, when Smith took a hit to the helmet and left the game with a concussion against the St. Louis Rams. Colin filled in and played well, earning a start the following week in a Monday Night game against the Bears. San Francisco fans fretted that the vaunted Chicago defense would eat Colin alive, but he was brilliant in a 32–7 victory that demonstrated that the 49ers had more than just a heavily tattooed backup in the huddle. Indeed, Colin completed 16 of 23 pass attempts for 246 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

MAKING HIS MARK


Marshall Faulk, 1992 Future Stars
     
 

With Smith ready to return in Week 12 against the New Orleans Saints, coach Harbaugh had to name a starter. He chose to give Smith another week to rest up and gave Colin the start. Colin played well again, creating time for his receivers with his scrambling ability and making several good runs. He threw for one TD and ran for another in an impressive 31–21 win.

Harbaugh decided to stay with the hot hand and stuck with Colin as the starting quarterback. He beat the Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals over the final five weeks to give the 49ers a 11–4–1 record and the NFC West title. Colin’s final numbers were 1,814 passing yards with 10 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He also ran for 415 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 6.6 yards per carry.

In his first playoff game, against the Packers, Colin threw for 256 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 45–31 win. It was his legs that made the difference in the game. He ran for over 100 yards on designed plays and picked up another 75 yards on wild scrambles. Two of those desperate runs resulted in touchdowns of 20 and 56 yards. He finished with 181 yards on the ground—breaking Michael Vick’s record of 173 rushing yards by a quarterback (which he set during the 2002 regular season). Green Bay simply had no answer for Colin.

In the NFC Championship Game, Colin found himself in a 17–0 hole against Atlanta. Playing in the Georgia Dome, the Falcons appeared to have the game wrapped up. But Colin picked away at the Atlanta defense and slowly brought his team back. He led the 49ers on an 80-yard drive, highlighted by a long completion to Vernon Davis and capped off by a 15-yard scoring run by LaMichael James. Before halftime, Colin engineered another scoring drive, finishing it off with a short TD pass to Davis. Atlanta added a Tony Gonzalez touchdown with less than a minute left to take a 24–14 lead into the locker room.

The San Francisco defense stepped up in the second half and shut down Matt Ryan. Meanwhile, Colin hit Randy Moss with two long passes on the opening drive and handed off to Frank Gore for a touchdown. Gore scored again in the fourth quarter for a 28–24 victory and a berth in the Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens. The Falcons managed to contain Colin on the ground, but he completed several clutch throws and finished the game with 233 yards on 16-for-21 passing.


Jim Harbaugh, autographed photo
     
 

Super Bowl XLVII made history before it even started--Jim and John Harbaugh would face each other in the first coaching matchup of brothers. That helped take some of the pressure of Colin, as he prepared for the biggest game of his life. But there was no doubt that Colin was on the hot seat.

The game looked like it would be a Baltimore blowout until a power outage turned the tide. When the lights came back on, Colin and the San Francisco offense started to roll. Colin led the 49ers to a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter, one on a 31-yard pass to Michael Crabtree and the second on a 6-yard run by Gore. In the final period, Colin capped another scoring drive with a 15-yard TD run. With a chance to tie the game, San Francisco failed on a 2-point conversion. Baltimore added a late field goal and held on for a 34-31 victory. Despite the loss, Colin had played very well, piling up nearly 400 yards and two touchdowns in total offense.

Several weeks later, Harbaugh and the 49ers made bold move when they dealt Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs. The trade ended the quarterback controversy in San Francisco once and for all. Colin was now the unquestioned leader of the team’s offense.

Colin may not be a classic pocket passer, but success in the NFL is no longer predicated on this stereotype. Like Steve Young, another San Francisco quarterback with sublime phyiscal skills, Colin has all the kind of talent that keep opposing coaches up at night. Like Young, he has also been handed the keys to an offense with multiple threats. If Colin follows in the lefty’s footsteps, he has at least one Super Bowl in his championship, not to mention a ticket to Canton.

COLIN THE PLAYER

Few NFL quarterbacks make defenses look as bad as Colin does. Part of his success in 2012 was the result of his being an unknown quantity. But as opponents started analyzing film and scheming against them, they learned how wide his talents range.

Colin has the arm strength and accuracy to drill balls through defenses. He scans the field, makes good reads and rarely makes the kind of bad throws young quarterbacks a prone to make. As a runner, he is superb at scrambling out of trouble and picking up big yards. But he can also call his own number on options and execute that part of the playbook.

Colin’s leadership skills are exceptional as well. Taking over for Smith was no easy task, especially considering that the 49ers were already Super Bowl contenders. But Colin handled the situation with poise and confidence. The response from his teammates speaks for itself.


Colin Kaepernick,
2013 ESPN The Magazine
     

 

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