It was a brutal pick-six, but not entirely unexpected. Colin Kaepernick had spent the week assuring people that last Saturday's divisional playoff against the Packers was "just another game," that he felt no added pressure. But he had to be hiding something, right? Strong-armed and speedy though he was, the kid could not suspend the laws of nature. He'd started only seven games as a pro. His eighth would be in the crucible of the NFL postseason. There was this added layer of angst: Plenty of people around the Bay Area weren't sold on him. They believed Alex Smith gave the Niners the best chance to make a Super Bowl run.
So when Kaepernick scrambled left on the game's fourth play, unleashing a dreadful, misbegotten pass across his body and into the waiting arms of Packers cornerback Sam Shields, who sailed 52 yards for a touchdown, the Candlestick crowd was mortified but not particularly surprised.
While enjoying the ride—Kap had won five of his seven starts since replacing Smith, who'd gone down with a concussion on Nov. 11—many Niners fans couldn't help worrying that success had come too easily for the second-year QB out of Nevada-Reno. It felt as if some reckoning awaited. These weren't the Idaho Vandals across the line of scrimmage. They were the Green Bay Packers, led by a Super Bowl--winning quarterback with the best passer rating in history, a team many experts tabbed to win it all.
With his fluidity, accuracy and what former Niners quarterback Steve Young calls his special ability to execute a wide array of throws and make intricate adjustments on the ball during his release, the 6'4", 230-pound Kaepernick often makes offense look easy. It's not easy in the playoffs; but it seemed that way in San Francisco's 45--31 victory over Green Bay, after Kaepernick had rushed for more yards—181—than any other quarterback in any NFL game, and thrown for another 261, with four TDs all told. Kaepernick, 25, had outplayed Aaron Rodgers, vindicated coach Jim Harbaugh and stamped his complete ownership on this team.
He'd also displayed the resilience that is becoming one of his trademarks. Entering the huddle on the series after his pick-six, Kaepernick was his usual cool self. "We're all looking at him," recalled right guard Alex Boone, "and all he says is, 'All right, let's go!' No big deal. We didn't need a speech. He just led us down the field"—eight plays, 80 yards and a touchdown. "I love that about him."
Leaving the stadium after the game, Kaepernick waded into a scrum of friends and family. Rick Kaepernick embraced his son, then stood to the side, happy but not particularly surprised. Colin, he explained, has been doing this for years. The numbers he put up against the Pack practically mirrored those he had in his first collegiate start, against Boise State.
While Colin posed for pictures, Rick needled him about the 15-yard taunting penalty he'd drawn for a minispike after a scramble for a first down. "You were just trying to hand the ball to the ref, right?" said Colin's older brother, Kyle. There they were, a father and two sons who look nothing alike.
Let me correct you," Teresa Kaepernick tells a reporter who had referred to Colin as her adopted son. "He is adopted, we are his adoptive parents, but he's our son, period."
They are cheeseheads from way back. Teresa and Rick Kaepernick were married in Wisconsin in 1975. He managed a dairy plant. She was a registered nurse. They had a son, Kyle, and a daughter, Devon. However, the couple had lost two infant sons to congenital heart defects, and after Devon, doctors advised them to stop having children. "But I'd always wanted three or four," says Teresa. "Things just felt incomplete; it didn't really feel like our whole family was there." One day, she recalls, "I woke up feeling very strongly that we need to start contacting [adoption] agencies."
Six years later, five-week-old Colin joined the family. "He was actually kind of sickly," Teresa says. "He had upper respiratory infections all the time. We tested him for cystic fibrosis, just to stay on top of it."
When Colin was four the family moved to Turlock, Calif., a two-hour drive east of San Francisco, in the central valley. Rick had been hired as the operations manager for the Hilmar Cheese Company. Diehard Packers backers, they brought foam cheeseheads, Packers jerseys, Green Bay bobblehead dolls and green-and-gold pennants—most of which regalia has since been discarded.
Cleaning Colin's closet several years back, Teresa came across a letter he'd written to himself as a fourth-grader at Dutcher Elementary. It said, in part: I hope I go to a good college in football, then go to the pros and play on the niners or the packers even if they aren't good in seven years.
That acorn of self-belief grew into the mighty oak of confidence that has defined Kaepernick's budding career—a confidence which, before last Saturday night, many 49ers fans did not share. That 14-year-old note also demonstrates that football has long been his first love, despite the fact that he showed far more promise in another sport.
A righthander with a 94-mph fastball, Kaepernick "could've gone anywhere in the country for baseball," says Rick. "But his passion was football." When a man from Major League Baseball's scouting service visited him at home after his senior year at Pitman High, Colin politely told him, "I appreciate your coming here, but you need to put unsignable next to my name. I promised Chris Ault I was going to play football at Nevada."
Ault was the Wolfpack's legendary coach, best known for being the father of the Pistol formation, in which the quarterback lines up in a shallow shotgun, with a running back directly behind him. The summer before his senior year Kaepernick had attended Ault's camp. The coach was intrigued but hardly overwhelmed. "Colin was a wing T guy who didn't run the ball that much in high school," Ault remembers. "Because of his pitching background, he threw with a sidearm motion." Eventually Ault offered Kaepernick a scholarship. The kid was a good athlete. If he didn't pan out as a quarterback, he could play wideout or safety.
Teresa remembers her son's deep disappointment when he was beaten out before the 2007 season by sophomore Nick Graziano. In his own mind Colin was the better quarterback, she recalls. She adds, diplomatically, "I don't think the coaches knew what they had in him."
On the Wednesday before the fifth game of that season a glum Kaepernick met with Ault in his office. "Coach, am I going to get a chance this year?"
Ault and his staff regarded the redshirt freshman as "a good athlete, but raw"—still learning the intricacies of the Pistol. Their conclusion: "He wasn't ready."
What is it about Kaepernick that makes people believe he's not ready? Midway through the second quarter of Nevada's next game, against Fresno State, Graziano went down with a season-ending foot injury. In relief, Kap threw for 384 yards and four TDs and ran for 60 yards in a 49--41 loss. A week later, in his first collegiate start, he piled up 420 yards of total offense (243 passing, 177 rushing) and five TDs on the blue turf at Boise State, where the Wolfpack had been a 25-point underdog. Nevada lost 69--67 in four overtimes, but a legend was born.
Three seasons later, in an upset that sent shock waves rippling across the republic, Kap led Nevada to a 34--31 overtime victory over Kellen Moore--led Boise State, knocking the third-ranked Broncos out of contention for the BCS title game. His battles with Boise bookended a record-setting career: Kaepernick is the only player in NCAA history to surpass 10,000 yards passing and 4,000 yards rushing. In his senior year Nevada went 13--1 and finished 11th in the nation, the school's best season ever.
Kaepernick had been flying under the radar in July 2010, when he and Rick arrived at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La. All the top QBs were there—Moore, Stanford's Andrew Luck, Florida State's Christian Ponder, plus what seemed like half the starters in the SEC. "And here comes Colin, from the University of Nevada," recalls Rick, who when the time came to drop his son off wished him luck.
"He looks right at me, doesn't blink an eye, and says, 'It isn't about luck anymore. You either have it or your don't. You worked at it or you didn't.'"
Colin strode onto the practice field with his customary confidence, body language proclaiming: This is exactly where I belong. The first guy he tossed with was Luck. They hit it off. Later that summer, while being debriefed by his Cardinal coach, Luck told Jim Harbaugh that he'd been highly impressed by the kid from Nevada. Harbaugh put that nugget in the vault and retrieved it six months later when he took the Niners' job.
In the run-up to the 2011 draft Harbaugh—an NFL quarterback for 14 seasons—flew to Reno and worked out Kaepernick himself. They went into Mackay Stadium and engaged in a series of contests. Who could throw the ball through the goalposts from the greater distance? Who could hit this or that target? Who threw the tighter spiral?
No one will say who won the competition, but Harbaugh clearly liked what he saw. When Kap was still available early in the second round, the 49ers traded up nine spots to snag him, dealing their second-, fourth- and fifth-round picks to the Broncos. Five quarterbacks went before he did: Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Ponder and Andy Dalton. Kaepernick is the only one who has played deep into January.
If youhave to tell someone how good you are, how good are you, really?
This mantra, repeated often to his children by Rick Kaepernick, helps explain Colin's reluctance to talk about himself. Asked after the Green Bay game what he'd been feeling following that catastrophic interception, for instance, he replied, "I had to bounce back."
Kaepernick's stinginess with the spoken word belies what is, by all accounts, a powerful intellect. (He was recruited by various Ivies and scored an exceptionally high 37 on the Wonderlic test at the combine.) More likely he is mirroring Harbaugh's tendency to provide the media with no more than is absolutely necessary. The coach, one suspects, has challenged his quarterback to keep press conference replies under five words. Kaepernick's reaction to being named NFC Offensive Player of the Week in mid-December: "Excited about it." Could he characterize the work he'd been putting in after practice with tight end Vernon Davis? "Just extra throws."
He's not being uncooperative so much as he is striking a balance. As a second-year player and a first-year starter on a team loaded with accomplished veterans, he doesn't feel it's his place to do a lot of talking in the locker room. "He yells at times," says tight end Delanie Walker, "but mostly he leads by example, being the first person here every day, coming up to me in the morning excited because he's already watched film, telling me, 'Oh, man, if we can get this guy, this play is gonna be big.'"
"At quarterback, obviously you're going to have to speak up," said Kaepernick, in a long-winded-for-him reply, "but you can lead more by your actions, showing people you're prepared, and the decisions you make."
It wasn't clear, in the days after Smith's concussion, with the Bears coming to the 'Stick, that his understudy would get the chance to lead. "We had no idea who was going to [start] until very late in the week," says 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman. That made Kaepernick's debut, which Roman describes as "almost flawless," all the more stunning. Against an opportunistic Chicago D, Kaepernick led the Niners to touchdowns on their first four possessions en route to a 32--7 rout.
An injury should not cost a player his starting job when he returns to health. That, at least, has been the time-honored custom. In Smith's case Harbaugh was willing to make an exception. Dispensing with tradition—and alienating the large bloc of Smith fans—Harbaugh went with "the hot hand," as he put it. The job was now Kaepernick's to lose.
Between big plays of the Niners' 31--21 Week 12 win in New Orleans, teammates could hear Kap barking four-letter epithets at the Saints. That hardly tracks with his humble, G-rated off-field persona, or the Bible verses tattooed on his biceps, which he theatrically kisses after each touchdown in a celebration that has been dubbed Kaepernicking. In addition to adding an extra dimension to the offense with his legs, Kaepernick brings more of an in-your-face edge than Smith ever did. Even when silent, Kap exudes a nonverbal, athletic swag that has energized and electrified the Niners.
Regarding his performance against Green Bay, Niners middle linebacker Patrick Willis said, "You never really see him open up like that in practice. To see him do it in a game, it amazes me. I'm just saying, 'Wow, did he just do that?'"
Yes, that was Kaepernick fooling the Green Bay defense, the cameramen and the world with a superb fake to running back LaMichael James, pulling the ball from LaMike's belly, then engaging the afterburners to score a 56-yard third-quarter touchdown that put the Niners up 31--24.
The truth is, beneath the serene, smiling exterior, Kap is still upset. He's angry at the college coaches who didn't find him worthy of a scholarship; at the NFL teams that needed a quarterback and didn't draft him; at the San Francisco fans who preferred Smith.
"I had a lot to prove," Kaepernick shouted on the field after the game. "A lot of people doubted me and my ability to lead this team."
What few doubters remain can kiss his biceps.
Rick Kaepernick was happy but not surprised after the win: His son, he said, has been doing this for years.
Five quarterbacks went before Kaepernick in the '11 draft. He's the one playing deep into January.
Complete coverage of the AFC and NFC championship games, including Chris Burke's scouting breakdowns, Peter King's picks and Jim Trotter on Frank Gore, this week at SI.com/mag
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
HE'S A KEEPER Running read-option out of the Pistol formation familiar to him from his Nevada days, Kaepernick (7) gouged the Pack for 181 rushing yards, the most for an NFL quarterback in any game.
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
EXPLOSIVE Once possessed of a 94-mph fastball, Kaepernick still brings the heat: His 44-yard strike to Vernon Davis (85) set up a late TD that helped send Green Bay packing.
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
KAEPERNICKAN REVOLUTION The quarterback switch has been kind to Michael Crabtree, whose two TD receptions against Green Bay gave him seven in the last eight games.