Secret Superhero Colin Kaepernick’s Incredible Sacrifice

The tale of Colin Kaepernick’s NFL career is now legendary; the quarterback turned activist who refused to stop protesting against police brutality and racial injustice, and sacrificed his career as a consequence. The scale of that sacrifice is less well known, however, as Colin’s remarkable story begins in his childhood, as a biracial child struggling to convince coaches who seem to prefer less talented white quarterbacks. This incredible tale - dramatized for Netflix in 2019 by Ava duVernay in the six episode biopic Colin in Black and White - showcases the battles that Colin was fighting long before he joined the San Francisco 49ers, and highlights the character traits that would go on to make him as formidable an activist as he was a quarterback. 

RESISTING BASEBALL

Colin was born in 1987 in Milwaukee, to a teenage mother and an absent father. His mother decided to place him up for adoption, and at just five weeks old he was taken in by Rick and Teresa Kaepernick, who had two children of their own but had also lost two boys who died of heart defects. Four years later, the family moved to the small, conservative city of Turlock, California, and it is here that the events of Colin in Black and White take place. 

Secret Superhero Colin Kaepernick’s Incredible Sacrifice

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The tale of Colin Kaepernick’s NFL career is now legendary; the quarterback turned activist who refused to stop protesting against police brutality and racial injustice, and sacrificed his career as a consequence. The scale of that sacrifice is less well known, however, as Colin’s remarkable story begins in his childhood, as a biracial child struggling to convince coaches who seem to prefer less talented white quarterbacks. This incredible tale - dramatized for Netflix in 2019 by Ava duVernay in the six episode biopic Colin in Black and White - showcases the battles that Colin was fighting long before he joined the San Francisco 49ers, and highlights the character traits that would go on to make him as formidable an activist as he was a quarterback. 

RESISTING BASEBALL

Colin was born in 1987 in Milwaukee, to a teenage mother and an absent father. His mother decided to place him up for adoption, and at just five weeks old he was taken in by Rick and Teresa Kaepernick, who had two children of their own but had also lost two boys who died of heart defects. Four years later, the family moved to the small, conservative city of Turlock, California, and it is here that the events of Colin in Black and White take place. 

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From an early age Colin was clearly enormously gifted, both as an athlete and as a student, but even the wealth of his athletic talent led to conflict in his life. Colin’s passion was for football, and his ambition was solely to become a quarterback, but everybody else wanted him to bend his arm in a different way. As a high schooler with a 95 mph fastball, major colleges lined up for Kaepernicks’ signature, and Colin in Black and White depicts several highlights of his high school baseball career, including one game where he pitched a no hitter before immediately collapsing from pneumonia. Despite these successes, Colin would not be swayed from his dream, even as coaches and school friends became increasingly angry with him for what they saw as wasting his talent. 

ROAD TRIPS

Colin’s high school coaches weren’t just angry with him for rejecting baseball, they also actively thwarted his ambitions as a quarterback. He was passed over in successive years for the varsity team in favor of clearly inferior white quarterbacks, who were selected for their assumed “leadership” qualities; no matter how superior Colin was on the field, the coaches would always prefer players who looked like they did. Having been denied the opportunity to demonstrate his skills to scouts at home, Colin looked further afield, and the Kaepernicks would spend their weekends attending every tryout, combine and training camp in driving distance.

Colin in his high school days

Staying in motels with his white parents meant a constant repetition of the same dispiriting routines. He later described how “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?'” In Colin in Black and White, his parents are portrayed as being oblivious to the persistent microaggressions experienced by their son, until the inevitable scene where Colin is allowed to drive for the first time. The traffic cop who has been cheerfully waving to the Kaepernicks every weekend suddenly finds a reason to pull them over, and ends up reaching for his gun. Once the situation is finally defused, Teresa turns to her son and exclaims, without a hint of irony, “you dodged a bullet!” 

REFUSING TO WAVER

Colin in Black and White is remarkable for what it leaves out of Kaepernick’s story as much as what it leaves in; despite a running time of three and a half hours the show solely focuses on Colin’s battle to be accepted in a football scholarship program. He would later explain this decision by saying: “The reason we focused on high school years is because they are pivotal in figuring out who you are, where you fit within society, and ultimately what your trajectory is going to be”, and in Kaepernicks’ case the events of his childhood throw his later career into sharp relief; a tale of remarkable talent and ambition, but also of stubbornness. Colin’s refusal to bend to the seemingly irresistible siren call of baseball is echoed in his later life by his refusal to stop protesting. 

After several years of effort, Colin did finally get a football scholarship to Nevada, where he lit up the NCAA, and was subsequently drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. He had achieved his dream of becoming an NFL quarterback, and in 2012 supplanted Alex Smith as the team’s starting quarterback before leading his side to Super Bowl XLVII, where they were narrowly defeated by the Ravens. They reached the NFC Championship the following year, but the departure of head coach Jim Harbaugh led to Colin becoming unsettled, and a succession of injuries throughout the 2015 season didn’t help matters. 

The tem behind Colin In Black and White: (l-r) Nick Offerman, Colin, Ava duVernay, Jaden Michael and Michel Starrbury

Increasingly, Colin’s attention was turning to social justice issues. In the run up to the 2016 season he was vocal on social media in his condemnation of a succession of police shootings, and during the third Niners’ game of preseason journalists noticed that he remained seated during renditions of the national anthem. When pressed on this, he stated "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder." This protest was initially a quiet and personal matter - Colin had also stayed seated during the first two preseason games, although the press hadn’t noticed - but after he gave his statement the controversy swiftly ballooned out of control. 

TAKING A KNEE

It is notable that the controversy did change Colin’s approach to his protest. Following an intervention by Nate Boyer, a member of the Seattle Seahawks who was also a Green Beret, Colin began to kneel rather than sit during the national anthem, which he explained was done out of respect for the military. This did not stop military figures from claiming that his protest was a direct snub to their service, one of many attempts to redefine the meaning and target of Kaepernick’s protests. This problem was exacerbated by Colin’s famed reluctance to engage in press interviews, opening the door for his actions to be misinterpreted and misrepresented by critics. The controversy grew, and before long Colin found himself being described as “that son of a bitch” by President Trump. 

Meanwhile, his NFL career was ebbing away from him. At the end of a painful 2016 season that saw the Niners go 2-14, Colin was released from his contract, and it quickly became clear that he would struggle to find a new team. Nobody was in any doubt about his talent, although some used this as an excuse not to hire him; after a trial with the Seahawks in 2017, their head coach told the media “He's a starter in this league. And we have a starter. But he's a starter in this league, and I can't imagine that someone won't give him a chance to play”. However, that chance never arrived, and at the end of the year Colin sued the NFL, alleging collusion between league owners to keep him out of the league. 18 months later the NFL settled out of court, but Colin hasn’t featured in the NFL since 2016, and is now at an age where a comeback seems unlikely.

Given the incredible lengths that he went to in pursuit of his NFL ambitions, it’s even more incredible that Colin would choose to sacrifice his dream, but even his most vociferous critics would have to concede that Colin Kaepernick is, above all, a man of conviction. He has jettisoned a brilliant and highly lucrative career on a matter of principle, and stands as an inspirational figure at a time when many choose the opposite path of forsaking principles for financial reward. Since parting ways with the NFL, Colin has maintained his role as a leading activist for reform of the police and justice system, and there is little doubt that the qualities that made him such an inspiring leader as a quarterback have also helped to make him an effective figurehead for social justice campaigners; even as his athletic career ends, this Secret Superhero is still proving the high school coaches who doubted him spectacularly wrong. 

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