Colin Kaepernick, a football player, gained worldwide notoriety as a civil rights activist after kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games to protest racial inequity and police brutality in the United States. He set multiple school and college records while playing for the University of Nevada in the late 2000s. Kaepernick was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, and he led the team to Super Bowl XLVII less than two years later.
In 2016, Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem, a form of protest that was picked up by other players and became a hotly debated topic. He became a free agent at the end of that season and hasn’t played since. In 2017, Kaepernick filed a grievance against NFL owners for conspiring to keep him out of the league, and the two sides reached a confidential settlement in February 2019.
Early Life: Parents and Adoption
Colin Rand Kaepernick was born in Milwaukee on November 3, 1987. Rick and Teresa Kaepernick, who already had two children of their own but had lost two additional babies due to heart problems, adopted him when he was just a few weeks old.
Heidi Russo, Kaepernick’s original mother, was 19 at the time of his birth, and Kaepernick’s biological father departed as soon as he found Russo was pregnant. Faced with the idea of parenting her son on her own, Russo debated whether she should place her baby for adoption throughout most of her pregnancy. She opted to give up her small child after meeting the Kaepernicks through a mutual friend.
The Kaepernicks frequently attracted looks or weird comments as white parents of a multiracial child. At school, Colin’s classmates told him that the Kaepernicks couldn’t possibly be his parents. Teresa Kaepernick told The New York Times in 2010: “We’ve always been very open about the adoption, and we’ve always been very open about the skin colors.” “We pointed it out as a positive, and he saw his difference and was comfortable with it.”
When Kaepernick was four years old, his family relocated to California. He was athletic from a young age and began playing youth football at the age of eight. His powerful arm rapidly propelled him to the quarterback position. That same arm made him a standout high school pitcher, capable of throwing a fastball at 94 mph.
Football, however, was Kaepernick’s first love. He also sent a letter in fourth grade claiming that he would be the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. “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,” he wrote.
He earned a first-team All-District, All-Conference, and All-Academic selection at John H. Pitman High School in Turlock, California.However, Kaepernick, whose strong arm was limited by scouts’ perceptions of a weak throwing motion, was widely overlooked by major college football programs. There were also fears that the razor-thin athlete, who matched his 6-foot-4 size with only 170 pounds, would injure himself.
College Football Career
Only after a tryout at a camp hosted by the University of Nevada, Reno, did Kaepernick demonstrate enough to earn a scholarship, and he entered in the fall of 2007. Originally recruited to play safety, Kaepernick took over at quarterback in the fifth game of his rookie season when the team’s starter was injured against Fresno State. Kaepernick never lost his starting job, throwing for 384 yards and four touchdowns and finishing the season with 19 touchdowns.
During his four years with the Wolf Pack, Kaepernick put up impressive stats. He broke multiple school records and became the first Division I FBS quarterback to pass for more than 10,000 yards and sprint for more than 4,000 yards.
NFL Career with the San Francisco 49ers
Despite ongoing worries about Kaepernick’s throwing accuracy, the San Francisco 49ers selected him in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft. He was a backup to longtime starter Alex Smith during his first season, but he took over as the starter in 2012 after Smith was forced to sit out late in the season due to a concussion.
Kaepernick rapidly acclimated to the new competition, like he had done in college, impressing 49er fans and coaches with his unrivaled athleticism. After leading the team to numerous major wins in his second season, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh made the rookie quarterback his permanent starting quarterback. The choice was contentious because the club had been within a few plays of reaching the Super Bowl just a year earlier, and Smith had recently earned one of the league’s top QB ratings.
Throughout the season, Kaepernick drew criticism and support for sitting or kneeling during the national anthem, garnering both support and condemnation from fellow NFL players, politicians, and celebrities. On the field, he put up a great effort, tossing 16 touchdowns to four interceptions and rushing for 468 yards, despite the fact that the team went 1-10 in the games he started. He became a free agent at the end of the season.
As the 2017 NFL season began, Kaepernick was still without a team. Meanwhile, his own quiet form of protest had grown into something far greater, with many players on each NFL team kneeling during the anthem, as well as athletes from other sports, such as soccer player Megan Rapinoe, showing their support. President Donald Trump weighed in on the controversy, asking for kneeling NFL players to be fired during a rally in Alabama in September.
Kaepernick filed a claim against NFL owners for collusion on October 15, 2017. The complaint claimed that the NFL and its owners “have colluded to deprive Mr. Kaepernick of employment rights in retaliation for Mr. Kaepernick’s leadership and advocacy for equality and social justice and his bringing awareness to peculiar institutions still undermining racial equality in the United States.”
The next month, GQ published its December issue, which featured Kaepernick as their “Citizen of the Year.” The magazine’s decision was detailed in an accompanying news statement. “He’s been vilified by millions and locked out of the NFL—all because he took a knee to protest police brutality,” the statement continued. “Colin Kaepernick’s determined stand puts him in rare company in sports history: Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson—athletes who risked everything to make a difference.”
At the ACLU of Southern California’s annual Bill of Rights dinner on December 3, Kaepernick received the Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate Award. The next day, he was unveiled as a finalist for Time’s Person of the Year award. Although he did not win the prestigious award—Time honored “The Silence Breakers,” women who came forward to share their experiences with sexual harassment—Kaepernick quickly gained more attention as the recipient of Sports Illustrated’s Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, which is given to former athletes and sports figures who embody the ideals of sportsmanship, leadership, and philanthropy as vehicles for changing the world.
An arbitrator refused the NFL’s motion to dismiss Kaepernick’s case on August 30, 2018, finding that the quarterback offered sufficient evidence to sustain his collusion accusations.
The sportsman made headlines again in February 2019, when the Wisconsin State Assembly debated whether to include his name in a resolution honoring famous African Americans for Black History Month. The resolution was eventually altered to remove any reference of Kaepernick.
Shortly afterwards, on February 15, his legal struggle with the NFL came to an abrupt end when the two sides announced a confidential deal.
Nike unveiled Kaepernick as the face of their Just Do It 30th anniversary campaign on September 3, 2018. The advertisement showed a close-up of his face with the words “Believe in something.” Even if it means giving up everything.” Nike faced quick reaction for promoting the divisive quarterback, with some even destroying their Nike clothes. The commercial later won a Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Commercial.
The Wall Street Journal reported the following summer that Kaepernick persuaded Nike to change a shoe design that included the original U.S. flag due to concerns that the banner signified a link to a time when slavery was allowed.