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Black Quarterbacks

Before Colin Kaepernick sat, he ran and threw and ruled

The activist was a dynamic quarterback in his day

It’s easy to forget how great of a football player Colin Kaepernick once was.

After the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback refused to stand for the national anthem in August 2016, he became a political and social lightning rod, known more for what he did on the sidelines than what he was capable of on the field.

On that August night, during San Francisco’s third preseason game, Kaepernick sat on the bench behind his teammates during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in protest of a country “that oppresses black people and people of color.” What’s happened since that day is Kaepernick becoming the most polarizing figure in recent American history, an inconceivable label after the elections of the first black president and Donald Trump.

But before Kaepernick sat, he ran. And threw. And ruled.

Before the 2012 season, barely anyone outside of the Bay Area or Nevada had heard of (or could pronounce the name of) Colin Kaepernick. A second-round draft pick out of Nevada in 2011, Kaepernick had attempted just 16 passes before stepping in for an injured Alex Smith, the 49ers’ starter.

On Nov. 19, 2012, against a vaunted Chicago Bears defense that led the league in interceptions, Kaepernick made waves across the nation on Monday Night Football. He threw for 243 yards (126 in the first quarter) and two touchdowns in his first career start, hanging 32 points on one of the best defensive units in the NFL. Initially used as a gimmicky, wildcat decoy whenever the team needed a spark, Kaepernick commanded the offense like a seasoned vet against the Bears, progressing through his reads and showing poise in the pocket while zipping the ball down the field. Smith — not the unrecognizable version in Kansas City who lets the ball fly to Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt — has long been perceived as the safe, conservative option, never risking a turnover but also never a threat to beat you deep. Kaepernick was his antithesis, the game CEO to Smith’s game manager.

As the Green Bay Packers learned over the span of three games between 2012-13, Kaepernick could beat you in any number of ways. Try to limit the passing game? Kaepernick will run for nearly 200 yards against you. Try to specifically target him in the running game (as Packers linebacker Clay Matthews infamously once tried to do), and he’ll light you up in the air to the tune of 400 yards. Try to stop both of his strengths? The football equivalent of death by a thousand cuts: marching his way down the field using his arms and legs. (From 2012 to 2013, Kaepernick had the fourth-most games with at least 150 passing yards and 50 rushing yards while playing in at least four fewer games than the men ahead of him.)

Through the last seven games of the 2012 season, after supplanting Smith and never handing the keys back over, Kaepernick threw for more than 1,600 yards with 12 total touchdowns (10 passing, two rushing) and just three interceptions. The 49ers ended the season 11-4-1, reaching the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994.

Kaepernick’s unexpected ascendance was right out of the Tom Brady handbook (no, not that one). Replacing Smith due to an injury was a near mirror image of the Drew Bledsoe-Brady storyline from 2001: little known second-year quarterback replaces heralded-yet-flawed veteran and leads team anchored by top-ranked defense to Super Bowl berth. Kaepernick even outdueled Brady in a shootout during that 2012 season, with Kaepernick throwing four touchdowns to Brady’s one (and two interceptions) in a 41-34 victory.

No matter what is said about Kaepernick today — the 1-10 record in 2016, the career 59 percent completion percentage, the “his defense carried him” argument — he was one missed pass interference call and Stephon Gilmore-like pass deflection by Richard Sherman away from not only a Super Bowl title, but back-to-back appearances, something only two quarterbacks (Brady, Russell Wilson) have done since 2000.

Hyperbole aside, Kaepernick was a rock star headed toward uncharted waters after his first two seasons as the man in San Francisco.

There was the Beats headphones commercial (a bit more prophetic when you rewatch in 2018) where he was dubbed “The Man.” Then-ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski predicted he “could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever” after just 10 career starts. Kaepernick got so big so fast that there was a mini-controversy over the correct spelling of his nickname (“It’s Kap not Kaep”).

His celebrations even became a thing. After touchdowns, Kaepernick would lean forward, raise his arms to his face mask and mimic kissing his biceps like he was Big Poppa Pump. “Kaepernicking” was what the Dab or Dirty Bird or Discount Double Check were in their heyday. Then-first lady Michelle Obama even did it.

As quickly as Kaepernick was built up by the press and fans, he was just as swiftly taken down. Even as a man of biracial identity with two white adoptive parents, Kaepernick was still a black man. Weeks after his first career start, a Sporting News columnist compared him to a convicted felon due to the quarterback’s abundance of visible tattoos. Another reporter chastised him for wearing his hat backward. After the 49ers lost its head coach, star running back, receiving corps, and most of the members of its league-leading defense (whether to off-the-field issues or, on multiple occasions, early retirement) in short order, the team went from NFC championship mainstay to NFC West bottom-dweller. After losses, Kaepernick was the Angry Black Man, not allowed to be upset like his contemporaries. He was called arrogant and selfish even though he was most humble in the press, thanking his teammates and coaches even when he was the one setting the league on fire.

That was never more clear in the constant comparisons to Wilson. The Seattle Seahawks quarterback, and divisional rival, was the married Christian who spent his downtime volunteering for those less fortunate. Kaepernick was the tatted-up bachelor who would rather show his abs and hang out with rappers than do any good in the community. Sports Illustrated played into this dichotomy on one of its magazine covers:

(For what it’s worth, Wilson supported Kaepernick’s decision to kneel, applauding his former rival for “trying to stand for something really good.”)

After 23 wins between 2012 and 2013, the Kaepernick-led 49ers only won 15 games over the next three seasons, culminating in the once Next Big Thing being benched for Blaine Gabbert ahead of the 2016 season (never mind that Kaepernick was reinserted into the starting lineup the second he was no longer a financial liability).

Since sitting for the national anthem, Kaepernick has taken it upon himself to fight on behalf of African-Americans and people of color for equality in America, a daunting task that few in the history of America have stepped up to do. The “Muhammad Ali of this generation” put “the people” before his paycheck, being passed over (and to many, blackballed) by the league’s 32 team owners due to a supposed backlash from NFL fans. In his time away from the league, Kaepernick has donated nearly $1 million to various social justice-focused organizations across the country, including more than $100,000 in a 10-day span during January.

While he never lived up to the on-field expectations of the Ron Jaworskis of the world, Kaepernick, in a way, still revolutionized the NFL. It wasn’t from changing the idea of what a quarterback can be or look like (though he did) or becoming just the second black quarterback to win a Super Bowl (Wilson did that a year after Kaepernick emerged). But he did change the conversation around what it means to be both black and an athlete.

There were many athletes who stood for social justice long before Kaepernick was born (Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Althea Gibson, to name a few), but because of him, athletes across the globe have found their voice when it comes to the ongoing fight for justice for all.

Because of Kaepernick, no athlete ever has to sit on the theoretical sidelines again.


Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"