The first San Francisco 49ers quarterback since Joe Montana or Steve Young to start a Super Bowl did not score touchdowns for tradition-steeped Notre Dame or BYU. He didn’t grow up Mormon, in the Monongahela Valley or with a milk moustache.
Colin Kaepernick is half-black, half-white and all tatted up. He is your counterculture all-American QB, communicating through body art instead of social media. He sprints into your living rooms Sunday night with blinders on, oblivious to the pressure and expectation for a 25-year-old starting merely his 10th NFL game.
He has a soul patch on his chin and a chip on his shoulder from birth, and if people keep asking him if he “feels” for Alex Smith, who took the 49ers to the NFC Championship game a year ago and lost his job to Kaepernick only after he was concussed during a game, one day he is going to just blurt out the hard truth:
Sure, I feel for Alex. But I feel a lot more for me, the kid who everybody passed on all through life – the kid whose birth mother was too young, scared and alone to take me home.
Barely recruited out of tiny Turlock in central California’s farming region, he finally got a scholarship offer from Nevada, where you’d think becoming the first player in NCAA history to throw for 10,000 yards and rush for 4,000 more would amount to more than being the sixth quarterback taken in the 2011 draft.
But this was Kaepernick’s lot in life from the beginning, when the mixed-race child was given up for adoption and taken in by a white couple in Wisconsin, becoming the only family he acknowledged – giving him a life an unwed teenager could not.
Asked Wednesday if he has run into awkward social situations, Kaepernick nodded, adding, “We would check into hotels and there’s always someone asking me if I needed help when I was standing with my parents,” he said, half-smiling.
When ESPN’s Rick Reilly said, “You’ve been so loyal to them and in not speaking about the other thing. You feel like it shows respect?”
“Not speaking about what?” Kaepernick asked.
“Your birth mother.”
“Um, I mean, I don’t see that as loyalty,” Kaepernick said. “I see that as my family. That’s all I know.”
The other side to this tale was unearthed this season by Yahoo Sports’ Jason Cole, who gave a Colorado nurse named Heidi Russo a forum to express the immense pain and guilt she feels over having given up her son for adoption to another nurse at the hospital where she worked 25 years ago, when she held her baby one last time before handing him to Teresa and Rick to raise and nurture.
While Kaepernick’s parents recently reconnected with Russo, who yearns for a relationship with Colin and has attended several of his games, Kaepernick doesn’t want to open that door.
“That’s not something I think about,” he said when I asked whether we have the right to peel back those layers for him. “I’m worried about my family.”
Translation: Heidi Russo might have grown into a great, responsible woman with the best of intentions, but when she gave Colin up, she gave up the right to call herself his mother.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with him keeping that door closed as long as he wants. It might sound cruel, but he didn’t have a choice then. He does now. And as much as forgiveness often helps the forgiver the most, he can decide when and if he wants to have a relationship with his birth mother – on his terms.
I’m not a mental-health professional. But I’m thinking Super Bowl week in New Orleans, where a second-year player’s head is probably spinning just trying to cope with the hype and his player’s handbook, might not be the best healing vessel for the past.
This is the week Kaepernick prepares for Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens salivating at the idea of bringing all that 6-foot-4, roped-biceps of a quarterback to the ground before he smooches his guns on national television after another 49ers touchdown.
“Favorite tattoo?” he said, rhetorically. “Inside my biceps: ‘My Gift is My Curse.’ “
“There are a lot of different meanings to it,” Kaepernick said. “One that applies right here is there are a lot of great things about being an NFL quarterback, a lot of perks. At the same time there’s a lot of things you can’t do as an NFL quarterback – just walking around as a normal guy.
“The fact that I don’t get to see my family on a regular basis. I don’t get to go home for Thanksgiving, things like that.”
He watches “Inkmaster” instead of sports on TV and says he got his first tattoo at 19 because his father wouldn’t let him while he lived under the same roof.
For all the great, young rookies that graced the NFL this season – from Robert Griffin III to Russell Wilson – Kaepernick would love to be that new-generation quarterback for a country now more interested in consuming a pistol offense instead of an old-fangled shotgun. He can almost envision saying “I’m going to Disneyland” amid the confetti dropping to the New Orleans Superdome turf.
But if Madison Avenue can’t deal with the body art or a genuine back story instead of the usual, wholesome-kid-from-the-cul-de-sac angle, oh well.
“If endorsements come, great,” he says. “If not . . .”
If not, he knows he’s already in the middle of a much more gratifying mission.
“What would you tell kids who are waiting to be adopted?” he was asked.
“Just keep your head up,” Kaepernick said. “God has a plan for ‘em. You might not be able to see it right now, but he has one.”
• Mike Wise is a Washington Post columnist.