The Awakening of Colin Kaepernick


The N.F.L. and its 32 franchise owners, none of them African-American, may be the most conservative fraternity of leaders in major American sports. They bathe their games in overtly patriotic ceremonies and discourage players, mostly hidden behind masks and uniforms of armor, from individual acts of showmanship. At least seven donated $1 million or more to Trumps election campaign, far more than any other sport’s owners.

In Kaepernick’s absence, other players will kneel. Demonstrators will protest. Some will boycott. His jersey will be seen, more as a political statement than a sporting allegiance, as the game goes on without him.

Living mostly in New York, Kaepernick has stayed out of the spotlight, friends said, because he wants the conversation to be not about him, but about the issues he has raised. (He declined several requests to speak to The New York Times for this article.) That is why he will, reportedly, stand for the anthem this season, if he joins a team.

Among those who will play this weekend is Brandon Marshall, a linebacker for the Denver Broncos. He was a teammate of Kaepernick’s at Nevada, and it was his idea to join the fraternity. He was not sure Kaepernick would do it with him.

“He actually showed up to the meeting before me,” Marshall said in an interview this week. “He’s like: ‘Where you at? I’m here.’ He was real prompt. I was like, O.K., Colin’s serious about it.”

Kaepernick’s curiosity and worldview were expanding, growing inside him rather quietly. No one knew then that he would become one of the league’s most thrilling players or that he would lead a team to the Super Bowl just a couple of years later. And they certainly did not expect that he would make even more noise with a now-famous silent gesture.

“Being part of that fraternity opens you to a new world,” Ogundimu said. “I would not doubt that it is where he started becoming either more curious about his own background, or where he just started seeing more things — just realized that things weren’t always so easy for the rest of us.”

‘How Dare You Ask Me Something Like That?’

Turlock is a pleasant and unremarkable place in California’s flat, interior heartland. It is stifling hot in the summer and can be cool and rainy in the winter. Like many sprawling cities of central California, it features suburban-style neighborhoods and strip malls slowly eating the huge expanses of agriculture that surround it. And, like neighboring cities, the population of about 73,000 is overwhelmingly white and increasingly Latino. In Turlock, fewer than 2 percent of residents identify as African-American, according to the census.

Photo

Kaepernick walked onto the field with his parents, Rick and Teresa, on senior night in 2010 at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Credit
Patrick Cummings/Associated Press

Kaepernick moved there when he was 4. He was born in Milwaukee to a single white mother and a black father and quickly placed for adoption. He was soon adopted by Rick and Teresa Kaepernick of Fond du Lac, Wis., who were raising two biological children, Kyle and Devon. They had also lost two infant sons to congenital heart defects.

The family moved to California because Rick Kaepernick took a job as operations manager at the Hilmar Cheese Company, where he later became a vice president.

The boy became used to strangers assuming he was not with the other Kaepernicks. When anyone asked if he was adopted, he would scrunch up his face in mock sadness. “How dare you ask me something like that?” he would reply, and then laugh.

“We used to go on these summer driving vacations and stay at motels,” Kaepernick told US magazine in 2015. “And every year, in the lobby of every motel, the same thing always happened, and it only got worse as I got older and taller. It didn’t matter how close I stood to my family, somebody would walk up to me, a real nervous manager, and say: ‘Excuse me. Is there something I can help you with?’”

Kyle nicknamed his younger brother Bo, after Bo Jackson, because Colin was good at football and baseball. Colleges were interested in him as a baseball pitcher and a football quarterback, but he made it clear that football was his priority. Kyle burned DVDs of Colin’s high school highlights and sent them to college teams across the country. Only Nevada offered a scholarship.

It was in Reno that Kaepernick’s potential as a quarterback was realized, and where his curiosity in African-American history and culture began to foment, mostly as he met teammates with vastly different experiences from his growing up.

“I saw him transform, develop, whatever you want to call it,” said John Bender, an offensive lineman during Kaepernick’s tenure and a frequent classmate. “Finding an identity was big for him, because in some aspects in life, he would get the racist treatment from white people because he was a black quarterback. And some people gave him the racist treatment because he was raised by a white family. So where does he fit in in all this?”

Kaepernick was a starter for most of four seasons. He became the first N.C.A.A. player to throw for more than 10,000 yards and rush for more than 4,000 yards. He scored 60 touchdowns and threw 82 more. In 2010, Kaepernick’s final collegiate season, Nevada went 13-1, beat No. 3 Boise State in overtime and finished No. 11 in The Associated Press poll at season’s end.

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