Colin Kaepernick is a real American

Why him? Why now? The roots of the quarterback’s political awakening run deep — beyond his college days at Nevada, beyond his childhood in California — to the core of the country

It’s nearly 11 p.m. on a Monday night in the home locker room at Levi’s Stadium, and Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest is keeping his teammates from getting to the shower. His corner locker is surrounded by a crowd waiting to speak to a man who had precisely nothing to do with his team’s season-opening win over the Rams, and a few dirty, irritable and bruised offensive linemen — tired of pushing their way through bodies for the past three hours — are having none of it.

A solution is proposed, and Kaepernick moves to the center of the room. The group, an ectoplasm of microphones and cameras, moves along with him. All around the room, men who made tackles and caught passes and scored touchdowns stand alone at their lockers, watching the show.

As the questions arrive, Kaepernick’s close-set eyes widen into a plea. Why you? he is asked. Why now? “I couldn’t see another hashtag Sandra Bland,” he says, his words like blades. “Hashtag Tamir Rice. Hashtag Walter Scott. Hashtag Eric Garner. This list goes on and on.”

He is practically shouting, strafing his eyes across everyone gathered before him. “At what point do we do something about it? At what point do we take a stand as a people and say this isn’t right?” It’s a remarkable scene. For the past two seasons, these same reporters and this same man engaged in a humorless battle with language. The guy who scored 38 on his pre-draft Wonderlic test — higher than Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers — gave the simplest and shortest answers to every question. He was detached and defiant, wounded and challenging, a man who seemed trapped by his profession. And now here he is, inviting questions and talking right through a PR guy’s attempt to end the discussion.

Why Kaepernick? Why now? The story of his emergence as a symbol of protest is a well-timed snapshot of a world in which reasoned debate has dissolved into a screeching band saw of argument and discord. We’re constantly told we live in polarizing times, but it’s not the poles that are in dispute. We need a word that describes the complete absence of middle ground.

As soon as Kaepernick’s intentions were revealed — nobody noticed until he had sat through at least two preseason anthems — an entire ideology was ascribed to him. He was anti-American, anti-military, and in the most pustular of the internet’s lower intestines, it was suggested he was radicalized by a Muslim girlfriend. The issue, it seems, was never the issue; it was his suitability to be the one addressing it. He grew up as an adopted, biracial son of a wealthy white family. He had every advantage. He went from being a Super Bowl quarterback to a $12 million backup, and that word — backup — was fired with malice, meant to sting, as if the worth of a message can be gauged by playing time.

But then teammate Eric Reid knelt beside him in the final preseason game in San Diego. Soon, high school teams knelt. A high school band knelt — while playing the anthem. Peaceful protesters in Charlotte, North Carolina, facing police in riot gear, took a knee to link their cause with a quarterback who hasn’t taken a meaningful snap in nearly a year. A gesture began to feel like a movement, and soon backup lost its sting.

The gesture was intended to impose discomfort, and America’s grand systems were forced to respond. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said something beige about players’ rights and patriotism. Donald Trump told him to find another country. The Seahawks, in a made-for-NFL-Films moment, linked arms in a team-building, trust-fall form of anti-protest that looked like the sideline version of neighborhood gentrification.

In football terms, Kaepernick was dismissed as a distraction, that functionally vague term that suggests players are paid to be dutiful golden retrievers, chasing the ball until someone tells them to stop. Under this construct, being part of a team and kneeling for the anthem are mutually exclusive; one negates the mere possibility of the other.

There’s another, easier definition of distraction: something the team doesn’t want to be forced to deal with.

“I’ve seen my team grow a lot,” Kaepernick says as he stands above the ectoplasm. “It’s the open discussions. I think in a lot of cases there are barriers up because you don’t know my background and I don’t know yours. You just assume things based on race, based on where you’re from, based on what I’ve heard your past is.”

These words: They sound generic enough. They could have slid by without much notice. But look closer. Zero in. Assume … barriers … race … where you’re from.

Maybe those words connect to Turlock, California, an agriculture-and-railroad town that evolved into a semirural, semisuburban outpost for those willing to brave a twice-a-day Donner Party commute to escape Bay Area housing costs. Kaepernick grew up here, the adopted son of Teresa and Rick, a cheese-company executive. Turlock is wide and flat and blistering hot in the summer. What it isn’t, and never has been, is a popular place for African-Americans; there were 601 African-Americans among Turlock’s 70,000 residents in 2010.

Why Kaepernick? Why now?

Maybe it can be traced to hotel hallways, back when Kaepernick was a kid taking vacations with his family. Can the seeds of his stance be found in the looks he got from some hotel employees? The way he felt their eyes, and felt his own difference, as they stared at this tall, skinny black kid walking behind this older white couple? “Excuse me,” they would say. “Can I help you?” Colin would drop his head and point and say, “I’m just going to my room with my parents.”

Or maybe the roots lead back to Pitman High School, where former football coach Brandon Harris describes him as “incredible in the classroom, incredible on the field, an incredible leader.” Everybody remembers the time Kaepernick let his hair grow out and his parents drove him an hour to the closest place that did cornrows. Does he remember the looks of his friends and teammates? The words that made it clear that it never occurred to them he would ever do anything that would outwardly proclaim his race?

“If you knew him the way we knew him, it was a shock,” says Justin Plagenza, a Pitman teammate. “We said a couple of things about it, and the next day he showed up at school with a shaved head.”

There’s a pause as Plagenza runs that sequence through his now-adult mind, perhaps recognizing for the first time that Kaepernick’s upbringing was not without its complications. There was an assumption at work: Kaepernick was raised white, so he was white. “I think he was always trying to find his culture,” Plagenza says. “I realize now that it couldn’t have been easy.”

There’s a framed photograph of a post-touchdown Kaepernick kissing his biceps in the office of Anthony Harding’s gym in a metal warehouse in Turlock. Nearby, Main Street Footer’s, a hot dog spot, has redacted the name of the item formerly known as CK7. “I’m not one of those people to turn my back on somebody,” says Harding, who, with Kap, was one of three black players on Pitman’s team. Harding went on to play running back at Fresno State and is built like someone whose job is to stand in front of overweight people and inspire them to exercise.

San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Santa Clara, Calif.

San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Santa Clara, Calif.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo

“Growing up black in this town, it’s not like you’re trying to fit in with anybody,” Harding says. “Turlock is 2 percent black, so who am I trying to fit in with? Back in high school, we were just trying to do our own thing. I don’t know if it’s an issue of racial identity or not.”

Even kids in a town with a Blue Diamond Almond plant and a poultry pathology lab listened to hip-hop. They all took the same classes, lived in similar neighborhoods, competed for the same girls. How could you distinguish yourself culturally?

“They were the only two black guys,” Plagenza says. “Anthony was really whitewashed, too. I hate to use that term — it sounds really bad — but I’m being honest because that’s what we used back then. It was never in my mind that they had a black culture. Colin was just testing when he grew his hair out, trying to find his identity.”

I ask Harding if he and Kaepernick talked about race, or belonging, or their unique place as high-profile black athletes in an overwhelmingly white town. He’s shaking his head as the question is being asked and says, “No. Never. Not at all.” I interpret the look on his face — half-amused, half-disgusted — as saying: We were kids, man, not characters in a novel.

John Bender makes no apologies for his loyalty. On his phone, the contact for Kaepernick still says one word: Franchise.

The former University of Nevada offensive tackle has stories. He and Kaepernick came to Nevada at the same time, had the same major, shared the same huddle. They did team projects together in class because “nobody wanted to work with the football players,” he says, laughing. “But we almost always got A’s. We won the leadership challenges and team challenges.”

Black students make up about 4 percent of undergraduates in Reno, and it was a joke among the football players that black male students routinely tried to impress girls by saying they were on the team. “Girls would come up to me and say, ‘Do you know that guy over there? He says he’s on the team,’ ” says Bender, who is white. “I’d never seen him before in my life, but guys could get away with that lie up there. If you were black, it was assumed you were on the team.”

After his junior year, Kaepernick joined Kappa Alpha Psi, a historically African-American fraternity that emphasizes community service and leadership. “Some people join fraternities to make friends,” Bender says. “Colin had enough friends. He didn’t do it for that reason. He did it to make a difference. I believe that helped form him.”

It was a preseason tradition among Nevada football players to call season-ticket holders. One time before his senior year, Kaepernick was following the script …

“Hello, this is Colin Kaepernick from the Nevada Wolfpack, and we’re calling to let you know how excited we are for the season. We hope you are, too.”

… when an older woman responded to his greeting by saying, “I want to cancel my season tickets.”

When Kaepernick asked why, she said, “My husband died and we’ve been going to the games together for 20 years. I can’t go without him.”

As Bender tells it, the call stuck with Kaepernick. He told his parents, who bought a season ticket for the woman and made sure it was the seat right next to theirs.

“You talk about being raised right,” Bender says. “That’s Colin.”

So maybe it’s not what happened to him that causes him to kneel and speak out. Maybe it’s an accumulation of what has happened to everyone else.

They used to count the words he spoke in news conferences. That’s how bad it was in San Francisco. For the better part of two years, Kaepernick’s public persona — perhaps dictated by coach Jim Harbaugh — deteriorated from outward defiance to barely concealed disgust. Back in Turlock, that was the guy they didn’t recognize: headphones around his neck, thousand-yard stare, monosyllabic answers.

“The first time I saw him on TV with his headphones around his neck, the glasses, giving one-word answers, I thought, ‘This doesn’t even look or sound like the same person,’ ” Plagenza says. “I couldn’t figure it out. I just shook my head and thought, ‘Big Money Colin.’ ”

Harbaugh was out after the 2014 season, replaced by the inelegant and overmatched Jim Tomsula. Kaepernick played like someone with trust issues, either holding the ball too long — 28 sacks in nine games — or heading upfield after a cursory look at his receivers. He went from a Super Bowl quarterback to one who lost his job to Blaine Gabbert, whose specialty is the 3-yard pass on third-and-4. When it was announced that he would undergo season-ending surgery on his nonthrowing shoulder before Week 11 of last season, his motivation was questioned. How could he go from playing the role of Russell Wilson with vigor one day to ending his season the next?

Bender has a theory about the attitude. He and Kaepernick took a course as freshmen at Nevada: First-Year Experience for Athletes. The class taught them to deflect credit and absorb blame. Hardly revolutionary, but Bender says, “Colin knows football really well. He couldn’t just stand up there and say the things he wants to. Can he stand up there and rip the O-line? No. Can he rip the coaches? No.”

It’s easy to imagine that someone being told there’s more to life than football so many times eventually starts to believe it.

“He’s obviously found who he wants to be,” his teammate Reid says. “I can’t speak to his journey, but I know there’s been growth. He’s at peace with himself.”

San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks, September 25th, 2016, Seattle, WA

San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks, September 25th, 2016, Seattle, WA

John Lok for ESPN

Kaepernick has remained somewhat guarded — open but not particularly forthcoming. He considered and then politely declined a one-on-one interview for this story, saying his advisers recommended against it. (Repeated phone calls to family members went unreturned.) One of the few glimpses he has provided into his own experience concerns an incident in Reno when he and another African-American football player were moving a friend out of an apartment. He said someone in the mostly white neighborhood called the police on them, and officers entered the house with guns drawn.

His feelings about the police, at least sartorially, have been evident for more than a year. In a feature on the fashion website Mr. Porter, Kaepernick is described as getting out of a white Jaguar wearing “blue, nearly knee-high socks adorned with cartoon piggies wearing cop uniforms.” The interview took place after the Cardinals beat the 49ers in Week 3 of last season. The socks, as described, are similar to ones he wore during a 49ers practice in August.

“As outspoken as he seems right now, he’s kind of a vault,” says Harris, Kaepernick’s high school coach. “If there is a specific moment in time that caused this to happen, nobody is going to know about it until Colin wants him to. It’s part of the pattern. He was very mysterious coming into the league. He let people believe what they wanted to believe. He had the tattoos, and when people called him a thug playing quarterback, never once did you hear him say, ‘Really? Because I was in all AP classes and had a 4.4 GPA.’ He kept it all in. That’s who he is. I always laughed at the thug thing. I told people, ‘He had a pet turtle. He’s not a thug.’ ”

“Yes, Mr. Kaepernick, you are the man to follow in the tradition of Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and W.E.B. Du Bois, who were willing to face consequences, unafraid.” — message from the Rev. Amos C. Brown, pastor of Third Baptist Church of San Francisco, Sept. 4.

Activism is not without its complications.

On Sept. 3, it was announced by Third Baptist Church of San Francisco that Kaepernick would be speaking at its service the next day. A media contingent dutifully showed up to hear Brown say that Kaepernick’s training schedule had made him unavailable.

“They made a commitment without talking to him,” Reid says. “I talked to him about it. He said, ‘I didn’t even hear about this thing.’ ”

After the service, in which Brown said, “If you’re familiar with Hebrew numerology, the number seven [Kaepernick’s jersey number] means completion, perfection, totality,” I ask the pastor if he felt uneasy elevating Kaepernick, still just 28, so soon.

Brown answers quickly: “Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 years old when he led the Montgomery movement.”

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the game against the Seattle Seahawks, September 25th, 2016, Seattle, WA

John Lok for ESPN

His words discourage further questions, but it’s fair to ask: How did this happen so quickly? Those same societal and technological elements that allowed for the instantaneous transmission of #SandraBland and #TamirRice into the public consciousness made Kaepernick’s protest a national flash point before he could refine a message. At the time of Brown’s service, Kaepernick was still in his beauty pageant phase. (He answered a question after the Chargers game by saying, “My dream result would be equality and justice for everyone.”) He was a few days away from announcing he’d donate all of his personal proceeds from his then-No. 1-selling jersey. He was more than two weeks from detailing his plans to donate $100,000 per month for 10 months — a total matched by the 49ers — to community groups working to combat police brutality and racial inequality.

On the day he announced the donations, Kaepernick spoke dispassionately — and chillingly — about the possibility of death threats becoming reality. It was a remarkable scene: a 28-year-old man openly discussing the possibility of his own assassination. “If something like that were to happen, you’ve proved my point,” he said. “It will be loud and clear why it happened, and that would move this movement forward at a greater speed than what it is even now.”

I read Brown’s passage — the one connecting Kaepernick to Robeson, Robinson and Ali — to Kaepernick’s high school coach. Harris is quiet for a moment before making a sound like a wave approaching the shore.

“Wow,” he says. “No pressure there, huh?”

But as I watch Kaepernick direct the cameras and microphones to the center of the room, it becomes obvious: This isn’t pressure. Pressure was giving one-word answers that fit within the autocratic confines of his profession. Pressure was playing the role of the golden retriever. But now? Now he will be the one to spread discomfort. He will stand before you and dare you to ignore him. He will kneel and question and challenge the world to address the space between the poles.

This story appears in the Great Debates issue. Pick up a copy on newsstands starting Oct. 7.

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he grew up in Northern California and had a brief and inconsequential college baseball career.