Five Years After Stirring Emotions at SB XLVII, Kaepernick Still Looms Large

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 30, 2018

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) answers reporters questions during media day for the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Colin Kaepernick rolled into Super Bowl XLVII in late January 2013 as the NFL's hottest new phenomenon. He enjoyed a week of media adulation, came within a few goal-line stops of winning the Super Bowl and left New Orleans looking like the new face of American sports superstardom: successful, marketable and almost completely uncontroversial. 

Just five long winters have passed since then. You may still have socks you wore in that simpler era before Fake News and the white nationalist "alt-right" movement, the fairytale time when the quest for social progress didn't feel like a rearguard action and the NFL finally appeared to be ready to move beyond its hang-ups about black quarterbacks.

Just five years ago, Kaepernick faced the international media under the brightest spotlight in American sports, and it caused neither a tiki-torch riot nor a presidential tantrum, two things that were unheard of in those days. The only hint that Kaepernick and the NFL would soon be plunged into the middle of a culture war took the form of a tizzy about tattoos.

"To understand the sizable chip on Kaepernick's right throwing shoulder, it helps to examine it closely—along with every inch of his torso," Mercury News columnist Elliott Almond wrote before media day for Super Bowl XLVII.

"The Bible verses and artwork that adorn much of the 49ers quarterback's upper half talk about being respected, taking on enemies without fear, letting God be the guide against doubters."

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Other columnists described Kaepernick's hourlong media-day onslaught in detail. There were the typically silly questions about cartoons and candy bars posed by costumed attention-seekers, as well as more serious ones about replacing starter Alex Smith in midseason and growing up in a nontraditional family.

Colin Kaepernick amid the Super Bowl media day chaos.
Colin Kaepernick amid the Super Bowl media day chaos.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Kaepernick communicates in short sentences," syndicated columnist Mark Purdy reported. "He doesn't give speeches." An uncredited article from the Times-Picayune added, "Colin Kaepernick may be dynamic on the field, but when he talks to the media he keeps things basic."

In its own way, the coverage of Kaepernick foreshadowed what was to come and how he was already being painted in some corners of society. The chip on the shoulder. The inscriptions from biblical prophets, describing being beset by enemies and doubters as they dared to defy tyranny and evil. A soft-spoken figure, whose actions do most of the talking, in the eye of a maelstrom.

Kaepernick endured little during the lead-up to Super Bowl XLVII that Carson Wentz would not go through if he were starting this week, or Jimmy Garoppolo might experience if he quickly leads the 49ers to a Super Bowl.

Steve Young assured fans that Kaepernick could get the job done. 49ers general manager Trent Baalke was hailed as a genius for nabbing Kaepernick in the second round of the draft. (Another time capsule from a bygone era.) It was typical Super Bowl hysteria, heavy on noise but light on signal, let alone subtext.

Except for one thing that seemed like an innocent enough curiosity at the time but, in hindsight, set the stage for Kaepernick's image today. Kaepernick fielded over a dozen tattoo questions at media day. His artists were tracked down and interviewed.

This was 2013, not 1993: Suburbanites and high school principals had sported ink for years, so the fixation felt forced, like they were serving as a proxy conversation for something else, symbols of conscientious defiance that still made a subsection of America uncomfortable.

But back in 2013, the early hours of Barack Obama's second presidential term, when both the United States and the NFL appeared to be progressing on racial issues, it was both easy and fashionable to tune out the dog whistles.

Kaepernick rode the crest of a football revolution to success five years ago. The 2012 season was the Year of the Read-Option. Kaepernick, Cam Newton and rookies Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson all enjoyed success running new tactics that rewarded quarterback mobility instead of treating it like some radical, destabilizing nonconformity.

Embracing diversity often goes hand in hand with embracing innovation, and football was more fun when Kaepernick, and young quarterbacks of all shapes and skills, sometimes faked a handoff and kept the ball themselves.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 12: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers rushes during the game against the Green Bay Packers at Candlestick Park on January 12, 2012 in San Francisco, California. The 49ers defeated the Packers 45-31. (Photo by Micha
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

Unless you were a Packers fan, of course.

The 45-31 divisional-round victory over the Packers just three weeks before Super Bowl XLVII felt, at the time, like a turning point in NFL history. Kaepernick's unapologetic dual-threat style vanquished both a championship-caliber pocket passer (Aaron Rodgers) and a legendary defensive tactician (Dom Capers).

It looked as though quarterbacks like Kaepernick could finally thrive without having to squeeze themselves into a mold cast in 1955.

And with Kaepernick, the mixed-race son of adoptive parents, leading a vanguard of franchise quarterbacks of color, it was tempting to believe the whole nation was ready to move beyond lazy, binary racial stereotypes. The soft-spoken, electrifying Kaepernick stood poised to symbolize the values of a new America.

That eventually happened. But in a Twilight Zone way no one could have anticipated at the time.

The tale began to twist when Kaepernick's 49ers lost the Super Bowl to the Ravens. A doomed final drive spoiled a comeback that would have labeled Kaepernick a heroic eternal champion, with all the rights and privileges thereof.

The loss did not lead to an immediate free fall. Kaepernick starred in McDonald's commercials and led the 49ers back to the NFC Championship Game, only to lose to Wilson's Seahawks. Brimstone orator Richard Sherman and the insistently silent Marshawn Lynch caused much more of a stir at Super Bowl XLVIII than Kaepernick did the previous year. Racial tension bubbled beneath the surface of everything, but we ignored the boiling kettle.

Then the 49ers collapsed, and Kaepernick's game went with it. Griffin also crashed quickly to earth, thanks in part to a devastating knee injury. Narratives about arrogance and a "failure to develop" (because, you know, some people think they can get by on talent) were slathered atop their rise-and-fall narratives. And yes, both could have become better quarterbacks.

But the fate of young black quarterbacks mirrors the fate of young minority citizens when competing with the privileged on the job market: a superficially equal opportunity up front, but long odds when anything goes wrong after that.

Soon the read-option would be declared dead and each black quarterback would again be his own exception, as Randall Cunningham and Michael Vick were in years past. Before long the NFL would shrug at its own Rooney Rule and pundits would appraise the Heisman-winning lone black quarterback in the draft pool as a better fit at wide receiver.

Meanwhile, in the real world, African-American adults and children were being shot by police officers on increasingly flimsy pretexts, causing communities to erupt in outrage and law enforcement to double down. And a bellicose billionaire/reality-TV gadfly mobilized a voting bloc with a limitless tolerance for intolerance, one that was far more committed than anyone anticipated.

Of all the memorable images of recent years, Kaepernick's decision to kneel for the national anthem seems to have upset many NFL fans the most.
Of all the memorable images of recent years, Kaepernick's decision to kneel for the national anthem seems to have upset many NFL fans the most.Daniel Gluskoter/Associated Press

And so it came to pass that in 2016...

A year when protests against police brutality led to violence and arrests in cities across America;

A year when a major presidential candidate insulted the family of a war hero, dodged multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and yet was hailed as a populist champion;

A year when millions of citizens willingly, proudly accepted the "deplorable" label;

A fading 28-year-old quarterback on a terrible team sat (the kneeling came later) through the national anthem before a preseason football game.

Somehow, that tiny gesture before a forgettable event is the moment from the chaos of last year that resonates most powerfully today, the one that causes pizza barons to spurn the advances of neo-Nazis, prompts wrestling impresarios to launch ill-advised reboots of failed ventures and forces the NFL to dodge White House harangues and special-interest efforts to buy their way into a Super Bowl at which Kaepernick himself is no longer welcome.

Somehow, silently kneeling for a few moments before a few football games made Kaepernick the absent protagonist of the American drama, the touchstone of a broad social movement, the reminder that nothingnot even the Super Bowl—can ever be apolitical again until we become serious about addressing social injustice and healing the rifts caused by the bigotry we naively believed was already defeated.

It's tempting to pretend that all was well in the winter of 2013, that we blinked into some funhouse mirror universe ruled by racist frogs and propaganda robots when the lights went out at Super Bowl XLVII. In fact, we were always destined to wind up here. There are problems that cannot be solved by winning a Super Bowl, sores that must be brought to a head and painfully burst before they can heal.

Sang Tan/Associated Press

In the seeming 500 years that have passed between 2013 and 2018, most fans have forgotten that Kaepernick used to kiss his bicep tattoos in the end zone after touchdowns. We called it "Kaepernicking" back then, a sequel to "Tebowing," which ironically meant kneeling.

"It's my way of saying I don't really care what people think about my tattoos," Kaepernick said of the gesture five years ago. "God has brought me this far. He has laid out a phenomenal path for me. And I can't do anything but thank him."

The path of the righteous is like the dawn, burning brighter until the full light of day, and Kaepernick burns brighter now than he ever did when he was just the NFL's Next Big Thing. The light is a reassuring beacon to some and a blinding flare to others, a piercing searchlight for a nation that likes to hide its shame in shadowy corners. But five years after Kaepernick's football high-water mark and more than a year after his final snap, no one should ignore him, no matter how hard some try.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.


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