SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers embrace their history like few franchises in professional sports. A wall entering their locker room features a mural of Niners greats Dwight Clark, Steve Young, Roger Craig, Joe Montana, Patrick Willis, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice. A tour of the 20,000-square-foot 49ers Museum in Levi’s Stadium is a mandatory part of training camp for rookies. Their official slogan all but obliges fans to invest in nostalgia: “Faithful Then. Faithful Now.”

The 49ers are in the Super Bowl for the seventh time, and the quarterback who last led them there is mostly out of sight, if not out of mind. Colin Kaepernick’s presence here is complicated, in ways both unique for the franchise and common to the rest of the country. Kaepernick is a global presence, an American lightning rod, an activist both revered and reviled. In the Bay Area, Kaepernick has an even more layered legacy, one many fans have shoved aside as the 49ers built a burgeoning powerhouse in the wake of his departure.

As a football player, Kaepernick was a comet who led a short-lived revival for the franchise, a dazzling quarterback whose athleticism contributed to the evolution of the position. He set a playoff rushing record for quarterbacks and brought the 49ers within five yards of a Super Bowl-winning touchdown, within five yards of a victory that would have etched his name next to Montana’s and Young’s.

“Obviously, he had a few really, really good seasons for us,” 49ers owner Jed York said Sunday evening after the NFC title game. “And he deserves to be up there with some of the greats who played for our team.”

Kaepernick, of course, became much more than a football player in San Francisco. In the summer of 2016, as the national anthem played during a preseason game, Kaepernick sat down in protest of police brutality and racial injustice. He continued his protest all season, switching his method to kneeling out of respect to U.S. military members. Entering the third week of the 2017 season, when Kaepernick remained an unsigned free agent, President Trump inflamed the situation at a campaign rally in Alabama, suggesting NFL owners should throw any “son of a bitch” who knelt out of the NFL. Kaepernick remains out of the league.

More than three years after his last game, Kaepernick still hovers over the NFL. In November, the league arranged an unprecedented tryout for Kaepernick at the Atlanta Falcons’ facility, at the behest of Commissioner Roger Goodell, only for the workout to crumble because of mistrust on both sides. (Kaepernick staged his own workout at another location outside Atlanta.) Several musical acts declined invitations to perform at last year’s Super Bowl over misgivings about Kaepernick’s treatment. In August, the NFL partnered with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation to help with the selection of musical acts and social justice initiatives.

“I don’t sit there and think, ‘Oh, my God, Colin Kaepernick is not playing,’ every day,” said 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, who as a member of the Seattle Seahawks swatted away Kaepernick’s final playoff pass attempt. “But it’s unfortunate, for sure. It’s unfair. The guy can play. He had a cool game. He definitely had the talent to play in this league. At the end of the day, [players] have said their piece about how he’s been done. The people that [reporters] need to be asking questions to are the people that make decisions whether he’s employed or not. You guys are asking questions to people who can’t do anything about it. And the people who can do something about it probably won’t answer your questions.”

'Citizen of the world’

On the Friday afternoon before the 49ers won the NFC championship game, University of California Berkeley sociology professor Harry Edwards walked through the San Jose Museum of Art. A new exhibit honored the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which Edwards helped organize in 1967 with Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the sprinters who protested during the national anthem on the podium at the Mexico City Games. In one hall, 138 bronzed arms, each with a gloved fist, hung from the ceiling.

Edwards has been a paid consultant of the 49ers for more than three decades. He explained how Kaepernick’s social awareness fit into the context of the team. Bill Walsh was an early champion of minority coaches, hiring and promoting assistants such as Ray Rhodes, Sherman Lewis and Dennis Green. Under Walsh, Edwards helped established programs aimed at player welfare, including financial services and counseling.

“As far as Kaepernick is concerned, there’s no animosity at all concerning him,” Edwards said. “It’s in the tradition of the 49ers to be forward-looking in terms of these kinds of issues.”

When Kaepernick first protested, Edwards said, his conversation with the 49ers’ ownership was, “How do we manage this intelligently going forward in such a way that we both honor the intent of the protest and at the same time manage the politics and dynamics [of] social issues and protest in NFL football?” In all of his roles — professor, 49ers employee, activist — Edwards has worked to increase understanding of how sports impact society and how to make “what’s coming over the stadium walls” benefit everyone.

“That’s essentially the challenge of the whole issue with Colin,” Edwards said. “How do we frame up that contribution within a broad context of developments? Is he identified with the 49ers the way Joe Montana is identified with the 49ers? No. Is he identified with the 49ers the way that Ronnie Lott is identified with the 49ers? No. Is he a significant personality in the history and culture of the 49ers? Absolutely.”

It may be impossible to gauge Kaepernick’s impact on San Francisco and the 49ers because his influence has spread so far beyond the league and the sport, let alone the franchise. When an athlete achieves greatness, no matter how fleeting, he comes to feel as though he belongs to the place where it happened. Kaepernick led the 49ers to the Super Bowl and reached heights a tiny percentage of NFL players ever attain. Does he belong to San Francisco?

“I don’t think the question is relevant,” Edwards said. “It’s like saying, ‘Do you think that Muhammad Ali belongs to [Louisville,] Kentucky?’ Muhammad Ali became the most recognizable face on Earth, became a hero to people on countries that didn’t even have a boxing sport. I get a call from Amnesty International, and they want to make [Kaepernick] the awardee in 2017 of their citizen of the world.”

Mixed company

Sunday morning, just inside Gate A of the Levi’s Stadium parking lot, Mauricio Lopez sauntered across the pavement, walking with a cane and wearing a No. 7 Kaepernick jersey and matching red pants. He is from Turlock, Calif., where Kaepernick grew up, and he still loves the quarterback he felt a kinship with.

Lopez said he attended Kaepernick’s first playoff game, perhaps his finest moment on a football field: Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards as the 49ers steamrolled the Packers, 45-31, on Jan. 12, 2013. He and friends carried a banner wishing Kaepernick support from Turlock. Somehow, Lopez and his group after the game wound up near a pack of celebrating 49ers. They spotted Kaepernick, Lopez said, surrounded by a group of women. They showed Kaepernick their banner and shouted: “Homie! Homie!” Kaepernick smiled.

“He left those beautiful ladies,” Lopez said, “and made a beeline for us.”

While Lopez said he always will support Kaepernick, he senses antipathy toward Kaepernick from fellow 49ers fans. “A lot of haters,” Lopez said. “It’s all political because of that a------ in the White House.”

The 49ers’ fan base, based on voting patterns of its home city, is perceived as overwhelming liberal, a contrast to most in the NFL. The reality is far more muddled.

During an hour-long pregame stroll through the Levi’s Stadium tailgating lot, just five Kaepernick jerseys were spotted. In their team store, the 49ers sell jerseys of players from their most glorious years — Montana, Rice, Deion Sanders, Keena Turner, Ricky Watters, Clark, Lott — but no Kaepernick paraphernalia. One sales clerk said customers “very rarely” ask for Kaepernick gear. His jersey, like those of other 49ers from his era, is available through custom sales.

The week before the NFC championship game, brothers Nick and Andrew Arata of Menlo Park were browsing in the store. A reporter asked about Kaepernick’s presence among 49ers fans.

“He’s an a------,” Nick Arata said after trying on a pullover. Nick said he resented Kaepernick for “not standing up for his country.” Andrew added that Kaepernick had disrespected both the troops and the police.

“I think if he was as good as he thinks he is, he’d be playing still,” Andrew said. “Nobody wants him. He made his own bed.”

The Arata brothers, lifelong 49ers fans who come from a family that has held season tickets since the pre-Candlestick days of Kezar Stadium, attended the Super Bowl in New Orleans that Kaepernick’s 49ers lost. Their feelings about Kaepernick do not taint their memory of reaching the Super Bowl; Andrew called it “a blessing” to watch him play. But they have no desire to associate the 49ers with Kaepernick in any way other than memory.

“I’d rather go 0-16 without him than go 16-0 with him,” Nick said.

Just as Kaepernick reveals ideological divides in the country, there is not a consensus view of Kaepernick among 49ers fans. Some remember him as a football player, and others say his legacy is rooted in activism. Some support his stances, and others bemoan how he mixed football with politics. Some say they never liked him as a quarterback, and others remain fans.

“I wish we had him back in our organization,” David McCormick said. “He stood up for what was right.”

“My father, he’s a die-hard Niners fan,” Josh Castrence said. “But he boycotted the whole NFL for that situation. He only came back this year.”

“Personally, I understood what he stood for,” Justin Johnson said. “I just don’t like the way he did it. I’m a very patriotic person. I think his cause was good, and his delivery was not the best.”

“Honestly, bro, I didn’t like him from the beginning,” Chuey Bautista said. “I don’t miss him. I never really cared for him, and I’m from Merced. I should be a supporter, but I didn’t really like him. Don’t get me wrong. When he started kneeling and all that, it kind of seemed like that’s the downfall of our team.

“I haven’t heard Kaepernick’s name in a couple seasons, until you mentioned it. I haven’t heard that name in a while.”

Section 4

At the 49ers Museum, the first room customers enter is the Hall of Fame, with a life-size statue of each inductee in an iconic pose. Rice is in mid-sprint, arms over his head, a football in one hand. Walsh is talking strategy with Montana. Kaepernick has a place in 49ers history, but it probably won’t be in this room.

“No, no,” said Bill Boggie, a museum docent who gave his opinion. “I see no possibility. He almost destroyed the team. … I don’t think he has much of a fan base with the 49ers. That protesting — you play football. You don’t bring those things into the stadium.”

The 49ers Museum contains no mention of Kaepernick’s protest, but it acknowledges Kaepernick’s play. One placard details the playoff drubbing of Green Bay in front of a game ball.

Another display, titled “Colin’s Time Kapsule,” shows the contents of a time capsule Kaepernick created in fourth grade. It includes a Punt, Pass & Kick medal, a 1997 Turlock Vikings pee wee trophy and a letter he wrote to his future self. (“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,” the letter reads. “My Friend are Jason, Kyler, Leo, Spencer, Mark and Jacob.”)

In some ways, as the 49ers return to the Super Bowl, Kaepernick’s presence is unavoidable — when running back Raheem Mostert set a new 49ers high for rushing yards in a playoff game Sunday, he broke a record held by Kaepernick. But he simultaneously feels forgotten, like a figure half in the frame.

“There haven’t been that much talks, man,” former 49ers safety Dashon Goldson, who played on Kaepernick’s conference championship team, said Sunday on the sideline before the game. “The real 49ers fans know. The faithful know what he brought to the team and how far he got us. It’s unfortunate what transpired after that, but he still got some good footprints here in the stadium.”

The more time passes, the less likely Kaepernick is to play in the NFL again. In some ways, he has not gone anywhere. This month, the International Olympic Committee banned protests at the Games, specifically mentioning kneeling and raised fists. At the College Football Playoff national championship game, a teacher from Minnesota named Kelly Holstine, being honored as part of a teacher of the year ceremony, wanted to make a statement about inequality. She knelt during the national anthem.