They raised their fists and lifted signs, shouted words of support for Colin Kaepernick and words of shame toward the National Football League. Hundreds of people gathered late last month for a rally in support of the most talked-about man in American sports — a man who wasn't there to speak about himself.
And maybe that last part doesn’t matter anymore.
“He’s out there kneeling for my son and your son and my daughter,” Symone Sanders remembered one of the speakers saying. Sanders, the former press secretary for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign — and an organizer of the Kaepernick rally at the NFL’s midtown Manhattan headquarters — believed she would remember that feeling for a long time. “The crowd was just overtaken with emotion at that moment, and everybody understood that this was absolutely bigger than Colin Kaepernick.”
A little more than a year ago, Kaepernick became one of the most polarizing figures in U.S. sports when he took a knee during the national anthem. It was a unique and jarring form of protest against police brutality toward African Americans.
“If they take football away . . . I know that I stood for what is right,” he told NFL Network in August 2016, during the kind of interview that has become increasingly rare in the year since, and sure enough that seems to be exactly what happened.
With the NFL kicking off a new season without Kaepernick on a team roster, it’s possible the protest has cost him his playing career. The 29-year-old quarterback led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl following the 2012 season, and while his statistics have declined since, his performance — he threw 16 touchdown passes last season against four interceptions — would seem to warrant a job somewhere in the league, at the very least as a reserve.
“No one wants to deal with that,” said an owner of one of the league’s 32 franchises, none of which offered Kaepernick a contract this offseason, and the estrangement is in keeping with most everything else about the young man’s life. The owner spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to give a frank opinion on a topic that is extremely sensitive for the NFL.
At just the latest of many crossroads, Kaepernick is a lifelong resident of the in-between — not exactly a football player and not quite an activist. He has refused the past eight months to appear publicly or conduct interviews, including for this story. He is a biracial man who grew up in a white family, a child of privilege who became a warrior for social justice, an introspective soul who couldn’t resist his callings to the most public stages.
“One day, maybe my youngest, who is in second grade, is going to open up a history book and he’ll read about Colin,” said Phil Sanchez, Kaepernick’s former high school guidance counselor. “And it won’t have anything to do with throwing a touchdown.”
His stance is now a heated rallying cry on both sides of the political aisle. His No. 7 49ers jersey is still one of the best-selling in a league that will not have him and a memento to burn by fans who don’t want him. Kaepernick is more than just an athlete these days; he is a symbol and a dramatic example, either the second coming of Muhammad Ali — the legendary boxer who shook up the world and the national conversation by refusing a draft assignment to Vietnam — or a spoiled athlete who refused to stick to sports and oblige a culture that allowed him three years ago to sign a $126 million contract.
He is, on either end of an extreme spectrum, a figure who generates passion and devotion, the author of a movement that has grown larger and more heated than perhaps even Kaepernick thought it would.
“He had no idea how big it was going to get,” said Nate Boyer, an ex-Green Beret who has occasionally communicated with Kaepernick over the past year.
A different drum
Not long after the newborn settled into his new parents’ arms, the adoption agent wanted to be clear on what they’d be taking on. The baby was a boy. He was 5 weeks old. And he was, Rick and Teresa Kaepernick were told, a “special-needs child.”
The couple had lost two biological sons to heart ailments; baby Lance lived 23 days, and Kent made it only four. Now this.
“What’s wrong with him?” Rick would, in a 2007 article published in the Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal, recall asking the agent, who said the boy was biracial — the son of an African American father and a teenage white mother.
Unfazed, the couple signed the papers and took baby Colin home. Almost from the start, the boy’s parents were honest: Yes, he was adopted; no, unlike his parents and older siblings — Kyle and Devon are the Kaepernicks’ biological children — he was not white.
Colin drew pictures of his family, yellow crayons for his family and a brown one for himself, and came of age acutely aware of how different he was. His home town, Turlock, Calif., is a suburb of Modesto; the 2000 census found 1.45 percent of the city’s nearly 56,000 residents was black. One preschool the family considered for Colin included no minorities among its students, and later, the young man became used to stares and unusual questions.
“Can I help you?” Colin would recall, much later in that same Gazette-Journal article, a hotel employee asking him as Rick and Teresa checked in.
As a teen he embraced his individualism, the talented athlete who was just as nimble in economics or pre-calculus class. Coaches at Pitman High encouraged Colin to specialize in one sport, but being one thing was uninteresting, and so he played three.
“He does things that he thinks are right and what he thinks is true,” said Brandon Harris, who was Pitman’s quarterbacks coach when Colin played.
The kid was talented enough, friendly enough, empathetic enough that after a while, peers and teachers just got used to the star athlete going to sit with the lonely kid at lunch or inviting friends to his home to meet his pet tortoise, Sammy.
“That’s Colin,” said Sanchez, the Pitman guidance counselor. “He beats to a little bit different drum.”
How else to explain the time he took his first stand — one that could’ve derailed Colin’s football career entirely? A decade ago, he was determined to play college football, but some teams believed he’d pursue a pro baseball career. Only one school, the University of Nevada, offered Colin a scholarship, and its football coach, Chris Ault, asked the young man to skip his senior baseball season.
Pitman coaches advised Colin to do what he’d been asked. Teammates told him to look out for his own future. Colin, though, was not willing to let down the baseball team, so no, he told Ault, he could not oblige.
Do what you must, he told the one football coach who wanted him, but he believed some things were worth standing up for.
‘We are under attack’
Kaepernick arrived in Reno — Nevada evidently liked a little audacity from its quarterbacks — and almost immediately went searching for himself.
Football locker rooms tend to be America in a single room: a blend of races, backgrounds and belief systems. In which corner, Kaepernick wondered, did he belong?
He was a young African American with a white family, a product of the central California suburbs but a curiosity about an urban world he had been born into but had never fully explored. As he settled in, he couldn’t help his mind wandering. “Just thinking about: Where would I be now if these things didn’t happen the way they did?” he would tell the Gazette-Journal in 2010.
He joined a traditionally African American fraternity and found himself drawn to the Wolf Pack’s black players. But his skin tone and middle-class dialect gave him away, and a few of Kaepernick’s new friends sometimes referred to him as “whitewashed.”
“A lot of white people are racist toward him,” former Nevada offensive lineman John Bender said, “but a lot of black people are racist toward him, too.”
Bender, who remains close with Kaepernick, thought about it and continued.
“He’s kind of on the fence here, in-between,” he said.
Unable to find himself, he drifted in the locker room with a different objective: If his story was unique and unrelatable, he would learn theirs — struggle and experience absorption, the only way he knew to connect.
“You could just kind of see him working through that identity and feeling compelled to relate,” said Tyler Lantrip, a former Nevada quarterback who was Kaepernick’s roommate during road trips.
The years passed, and Kaepernick found purpose in the exercise; if he could understand the journeys of others, perhaps he could feel more at ease with his own. After he had mastered the Nevada locker room, absorbing its stories and developing a kind of compassion-based leadership teammates would recall years later, he moved on — working at the Reno Boys & Girls Club and, after the 49ers drafted him in 2011, asking old friends and former coaches what they needed.
Once, a former Pitman coach said, he casually mentioned to Kaepernick about an underprivileged school he’d visited in Southern California; before long Kaepernick had arranged for a truck to be loaded with Nike gear and offloaded at a school he’d never been to. All he asked in return was for the former coach to keep his generosity a secret.
And that became one of his things: He loved football, but it was the fame he sometimes struggled with. He sometimes came off as aloof or difficult to reporters, withdrawing further after a columnist criticized Kaepernick’s tattoos and compared his appearance with that of a prison inmate. The young player with the household name and cocky finishing move — “Kaepernicking,” during the 2012 NFL season, was the celebratory act of kissing those tattooed biceps — seemed to blanch in the spotlight.
Seen by some friends as an introvert, he passed on the restaurant or bar crowds and preferred to read — books about colonialism, black empowerment and feminism seemed to strike a chord — or invite friends to his home and exchange stories. When he did go out, it was to quietly attend lectures on black representation at the University of California at Berkeley or to slip over to Modesto to visit a youth camp for children with heart defects, the silent afflictions Kaepernick himself had never experienced but had nonetheless absorbed through his parents’ stories and hopes for Lance and Kent. He’d play with the youngsters and collect their Valentines and belt out “This Little Light of Mine” with one stipulation: He often preferred the camp’s founder, Kimberlie Gamino, not tell anyone.
“It was something that he just had to do,” Gamino said.
Early last summer, Kaepernick found himself feeling drawn to a different kind of story: those involving police and African Americans. His social media feeds, previously used for motivational quotes or to chirp at teammates, became a pulpit. He shared videos and unvarnished reactions, a dramatic break from the normally bland public commentary of NFL quarterbacks.
“This is what lynchings look like in 2016!” he wrote on an Instagram post about the death of Alton Sterling, who died in Baton Rouge, after two police officers shot him.
“We are under attack! It’s clear as day!” Kaepernick wrote a day later, alongside a video showing the immediate aftermath of Philando Castile’s shooting by a Minnesota police officer.
“Apparently this is what our system calls justice,” he wrote a few weeks later, after charges were dropped against three Baltimore police officers following the death of Freddie Gray.
Kaepernick was absorbing again, and as it turns out this was his identity; by last September, he had taken on all he could. Now there was something else he just had to do.
“I couldn’t see another ‘hashtag Sandra Bland,’ ‘hashtag Tamir Rice,’ ‘hashtag Walter Scott,’ ‘hashtag Eric Garner,’” Kaepernick told reporters late last summer. “The list goes on and on and on.
“At what point do we do something about it?”
A reluctant messenger
That was a year ago, and in the time since, “Kaepernicking” has come to look starkly different: high school and college athletes have knelt during the national anthem, and so have WNBA players, a soccer star and a gold-medal swimmer.
NBA players locked arms before games, NFL players raised fists, and representatives on the grass roots level of American sports followed the lead of the complicated man in the 49ers uniform: high school cheerleaders in Nebraska, a college marching band in North Carolina, a volleyball team in Massachusetts.
Last month a rapper issued support of Kaepernick during a nationally televised awards show, and after the quarterback opted out of his 49ers contract in March, President Trump suggested Kaepernick wouldn’t join a new team because franchises were afraid of “getting a nasty tweet” from the president.
It is, in the image-conscious NFL, more straightforward than that.
“No one wants the nonsense or the [B.S.] . . . It’s not collusion, it’s common sense,” the NFL owner said, going on to credit Kaepernick on one front. “The thing that he’s done probably more effectively than any team community relations staff or owner or coach could do for other players is [point out] that they do have the ability to affect the national dialogue.”
Though Kaepernick has given life to a movement, he has not always done it gracefully. Last year he wore socks featuring cartoon pigs wearing police uniforms, and he was criticized for wearing a T-shirt picturing Fidel Castro, the former Cuban dictator, during a postgame news conference. He was heavily criticized in November after revealing that, despite his ongoing protest, he did not vote in the 2016 election and suggested his participation would’ve been “hypocritical.”
On Thursday, however, he announced on social media his latest $100,000 donation to charity; since last autumn he has fulfilled $900,000 of a $1 million pledge to organizations fighting oppression. He has nonetheless shown himself to be an occasionally reluctant messenger. He moved to New York earlier this year but has not conducted an in-depth interview since January; he rarely appears in public and has in fact been asked by event organizers to not appear at rallies in his name.
Critics wonder what it is Kaepernick actually hopes will come out of this, and when it comes to his endgame, he has so far allowed others to speak for him. Symone Sanders, the former Bernie Sanders spokeswoman, said it’s for the NFL to institute an advocacy policy and form a commission on race relations. Bender, Kaepernick’s former college teammate, said his friend hopes to bring continued awareness and further advance the conversation on race. Kevin Livingston, an activist who staged a smaller rally for Kaepernick in May, said there is no finish line; that “Colin won already” by forcing people to rethink the national anthem.
Nate Boyer, the former Green Beret and college football player, has a different theory: that there was no long-term plan; that Kaepernick, an introverted man who now stands at the center of one of the most controversial issues in America, has once again thrust himself into the in-between.
It was last summer when Boyer wrote an open letter to Kaepernick, who until then had sat on the 49ers’ bench while the national anthem was performed, explaining the message Kaepernick’s actions sent to veterans.
“Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger,” Boyer wrote in the letter published by the Army Times, “I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it.”
Boyer’s words reached Kaepernick, and the veteran’s willingness to listen felt familiar. Kaepernick himself collected the motivations of others, and so on a Thursday last September, the quarterback sent an UberX to transport Boyer the three hours to San Diego, where that evening the 49ers would be playing their final preseason game.
They met in a hotel lobby, and Kaepernick listened as Boyer shared stories from the battlefield and recovery rooms. The player had never thought of it from that perspective, didn’t know — before Boyer pointed it out — that the Chargers would be honoring current and former military personnel that evening before kickoff, hadn’t fully considered the passion and fury he was igniting on either side.
And as Kaepernick absorbed as he had so frequently done, he asked a question. “What can I do?” Boyer would remember Kaepernick asking, and Boyer suggested a few ideas.
Kaepernick liked one more than the others, and later that evening Boyer joined Kaepernick on the 49ers’ sideline and heard cheers from some pockets of Qualcomm Stadium and boos from others. As color guards unfurled an American flag and paratroopers descended toward the field, Boyer saw the coming moments as an important crossroads.
He hoped the quarterback next to him would reconsider his plan; how moving would it be, Boyer wondered, if Kaepernick remained standing? Then a moment later, with a Navy petty officer preparing to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Boyer covered his heart and, out of the corner of his eye, saw Kaepernick drop to one knee.