NFL quarterbacks of color carry a heavy burden.
Not long ago, coaches thought African-American men weren't smart enough to play quarterback, as the late, legendary Grambling State head coach Eddie Robinson once said. Not long ago, players who overcame that prejudice played "black quarterback"—a separate and unequal position, according to the mouths of fans and pens of the media.
Today, we'd like to think things have changed. In some ways, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's story proves we live in a different time. In others, our society hasn't progressed as much as we pretend.
To even make it to the NFL, a kid who isn't white has to be given the chance to play quarterback in grade school, chosen to start at quarterback in high school, be recruited to play quarterback at a college where he'll be taught the passing game and then excel at the college level, all in a system set up to steer them away from doing any of those things.
Then, willingly or not, they become a standard-bearer for their race.
Former ESPN analyst Rob Parker lit a match to this social powder keg last year, calling Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III a "cornball brother" for being "not really black" and "not down with the cause." Parker was fired for his comments, but he and the national discussion afterward made it clear: In the minds of many who love football, regardless of their own race, a black man playing quarterback still carries the burden of being a "black quarterback."
Kaepernick has carried that burden all the way to the Super Bowl.
Uh, he has, right? At least half of him has, probably? Google ought to know for sure... Oh.
Looks like a lot of people are trying to figure out Kaepernick's ethnicity. For the curious: Kaepernick's birth mother is white; his father, about whom little has been reported, is said to be African-American.
A quarter-century ago, Doug Williams quarterbacked the Washington Redskins to the Super Bowl and was named MVP after their blowout victory. The color of Williams' skin, and the historical significance of a "black quarterback" leading a team to an NFL championship, dominated every minute and inch of sports coverage for weeks before and after Super Bowl XXII.
Famously, during media week, then-Rocky Mountain News columnist Bob Kravitz asked Williams when in his quarterbacking career his race became important to others. As ESPN.com's Greg Garber reported, Williams incredulously repeated the question back as, "How long have I been a black quarterback?"
That's how the question was relayed to the world, and it's sometimes recalled as an example of how much ignorance Williams had to overcome.
It's almost as incredible that people found that version of the story plausible; if a pool reporter today asked Kaepernick how long he'd "been a black quarterback," they'd be looking for a new career before they finished the question.
Yet Google Trends cannot be denied:
More than anything else related to Colin Kaepernick, America wants to know what his ethnicity is.
Is it so they can figure out if they should put him in their mental "black quarterback" pigeonhole, squeeze his on-field game into an "athletic" box and demand his off-field persona be evidently "down with the cause?" Is an entire nation Googling to find out whether they should chain their idea of Kaepernick to Doug Williams and the decades of history he overcame?
Or are we just seeing a dynamic, charismatic player of some color on their screen and wondering what heritage that color represents?
Kaepernick's play on the football field hasn't always demanded attention.
Kaepernick was a three-sport star at Pitman High School in Turlock, CA, and his low-90s fastball got the attention of colleges and major league scouts. But his play on the football field seemed to go unnoticed.
According to The New York Times, Kaepernick's older brother Kyle took a highlight reel of Colin, made 200 DVDs of it and sent them to 100 FBS colleges—twice. Still, Colin wasn't offered a football scholarship.
It wasn't until he participated in the University of Nevada's camp that he caught somone's eye. Innovative head coach Chris Ault got a look at the tall, skinny Kaepernick, his cannon arm and ridiculous wheels and had the foresight to envision him...as "a free safety or wide receiver," said Ault on the Petros and Money Show (via SportsRadioInterviews.com).
Though Ault was certainly right that Kaepernick would have made "a heck of a free safety," Ault wisely continued to develop Kaepernick as a quarterback. When Ault added the zone read to his new Pistol offense, Kaepernick's deadly combination of foot speed and arm strength tore WAC defenses to shreds.
Over four years as a starter, Kaepernick threw for 10,098 yards and 82 touchdowns and ran for another 4,112 yards and 59 touchdowns. The first Division I FBS player to top both the 10,000-yard mark in passing and 4,000-yard mark in rushing, Kaepernick's incredible potential had become football reality.
When NFL scouts looked at this record-breaking combination of height, speed and arm strength, they didn't see him as "a heck of a free safety or wide receiver," as would have been the case in the not-too-distant past. They also didn't see a turnkey starting quarterback.
When Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller scouted Kaepernick in 2011, Miller had concerns about Kaepernick's accuracy, though he noted it should naturally improve once Kaepernick's wonky, baseball-influenced mechanics and delivery got "a ton of work."
Miller also pointed out that as a mobile quarterback, Kaepernick needed to "add muscle" to his lean frame if he were to successfully run in the NFL. Further, it was hard for Miller and other NFL evaluators to pinpoint how much of Kaepernick's excellent field vision was Kaepernick's own, and how much was a result of the Pistol offense he ran.
This has been the NFL's great problem with "athletic" quarterbacks; the temptation for coaches to use that athleticism as a weapon is overwhelming. Often, quarterbacks of color succeeded in college (and in high school) without being groomed and polished as a pocket passer, but no quarterback can succeed in the NFL without being a polished pocket passer.
There have been quarterbacks of color who've been given the chance to succeed as pocket passers over the years.
Some, like Warren Moon, established themselves as quality pocket passers before they ever reached the NFL. Some, like Randall Cunningham, hit their stride as pocket passers once their running stride slowed. Some, like Michael Vick, had coaches who finally found the balance between letting them run and developing them as a franchise quarterback.
In Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers, Kaepernick has found the latter. When the 49ers traded up in the second round to draft him, as an unnamed analyst recently told SI's Peter King, "Harbaugh drafted himself."
While Kaerpernick added muscle to his frame and worked on his mechanics, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman worked on making Kaepernick comfortable. After a rookie season where he saw the field only briefly, the 49ers installed Pistol packages for him.
The football world got a small taste of what was coming when Kaepernick saw mop-up duty in a blowout of the Buffalo Bills. Lining up in the Pistol, Kaepernick slashed through the Bills defense for a 16-yard touchdown.
It didn't take long for the rumblings to start. After Alex Smith played poorly in a 26-3 loss to the Giants, Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith wondered aloud if Harbaugh and the 49ers needed to push Kaepernick into starting duty.
Harbaugh had his mind made up for him.
In a game against the St. Louis Rams, Smith suffered a concussion. Kaepernick led the 49ers to a tie in that game, and to two big wins shortly thereafter. When Smith was ready to return, Jim Harbaugh went with "the hot hand": Kaepernick was No. 1 on the depth chart.
The 49ers finished 5-2 with Kaepernick as a starter. His 8.6 adjusted yards per attempt led the NFL; his 98.3 passer efficiency rating would have slotted him seventh, just behind Tom Brady, if he'd had enough attempts on the season to qualify. He threw 10 touchdowns to just three interceptions, removing all doubt about his ability to read the field and run an NFL offense.
Kaepernick's standout performances finally earned him the national attention his talent deserved—and the permanent starting gig.
With the attention came the curiosity. He's adopted? Why won't he have a relationship with his birth mother? Then, finally, the firestorm: AOL FanHouse columnist David Whitley wrote a column bashing Kaepernick for his tattoos, comparing his Bible-verse-illustrated arms to the skin of prison inmates.
Quarterbacks, Whitley wrote, were like "little Dutch boys" holding their finger in the dike to save the NFL from a "raging sea of ink."
"It's not just a white thing, I hope," wrote Whitley, immediately before explaining that (white) Carolina Panthers owner told (black) quarterback Cam Newton to keep his body tattoo-free.
Whitley was drowned by a raging sea of criticism, prompting a response from Sporting News editor-in-chief Garry D. Howard. Howard explained that Whitley's aversion to tattoos is a generational issue, not a racial one.
Acceptance of different cultures is a generational issue. Whitley's vivid image of a little (white) Dutch boy holding back a sea of (black) ink speaks for itself. What Kaepernick and his incredible run to and through the playoffs has done is blow that dike separating white from black to bits.
Against the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick's zone-read runs tore up the field, rolling for 181 yards and two scores. Against the Atlanta Falcons, Kaepernick's pinpoint 16-of-21 passing deconstructed a ball-hawking Falcons secondary. His playoff performances even challenge how we measure quarterback performance; one player just isn't supposed to be able to play both of those games.
Kaepernick's incredible run from obscurity to the NFL's most terrifying talent smashed through imaginary barriers and upturned old ideas about what a quarterback is supposed to look like. How Kaepernick plays, and who Kaepernick is, defy all attempts to categorize, pigeonhole or stereotype.
People Google "Colin Kaepernick race" because they want to know what he is. What he is, regardless of his race, is a great quarterback—not a "black quarterback."
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