Think you know Colin Kaepernick? I lived next door to him.
Nevada junior Carolann Cavallo holds a sign for San Francisco 49ers quarterback and Nevada alumnus Colin Kaepernick during an NCAA college basketball game between Nevada and San Diego State, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, in Reno, Nev. The 49ers are scheduled to play the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL football Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans on Sunday, Feb. 3. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)
Neighors of the Kaepernicks gather to watch a 49ers game in 2011. Teresa Kaepernick in holding the sign on the left. Colleen Blackman is holding the sign, second from the right.
Beatrice Munyenyezi (center) turns to speak to reporters as she leaves the Concord Federal Courthouse after being released on bail; Thursday, April 12, 2012. Munyenyezi is facing a second trial on charges that she participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide then lied about her involvement to seek asylum in the United States. The manchester resident's first trial resulted in a mistrial though prosecutors are planning to retry the case.
(Alexander Cohn/ Monitor staff)
Before Colin Kaepernick led the San Francisco 49ers to their first Super Bowl appearance in 18 years, before he shattered the NFL record for yards rushed by a quarterback in any playoff game, before he usurped Alex Smith as the team’s starting passer midway through Smith’s best season, and before he became the only player in NCAA history to throw for 10,000 yards and run for 4,000 more, he was my next-door neighbor.
I don’t say this to boast. To be honest, I don’t and didn’t know Colin all that well. We shared a fence and regular hellos, but not much else. The last time I saw him was several years ago at a neighborhood Christmas party; he was still in college then, and we chatted briefly about his business degree and time on the football field.
No, I say this because, let’s be real, New England, on this Sunday of all Sundays, you need a reason to care. Your Patriots have toppled. Your Red Sox need serious repair. Your Celtics just lost their All-Star point guard. The Bruins are doing well, but there’s nothing quite like losing half a season to contract squabbles to take the wind out of a loyal fan’s sails.
So besides the bean dip and a handful of half-decent commercials, what’s left to root for?
My pitch: the soft-spoken second-year pro out of the University of Nevada, Reno.
Kaepernick’s tale of talent and perseverance is one that, by now, anyone can glean from the headlines. He was adopted at 5 weeks old and spent his early years in Wisconsin, a biracial child in a Caucasian family. When he was 4, his adoptive parents moved Colin and his two older siblings to my hometown, Turlock, Calif.,
a dusty farming community east of San Francisco, where the unofficial motto is: “Turlock, your pit-stop to somewhere.”
Colin was an athletic prodigy from an early age. He could throw objects with speed and accuracy before others his age had learned to pick them up (that’s only slightly exaggerated). At our high school, he was a grade below me but still managed to dominate our varsity basketball, baseball and football teams. By the time he could drive he was dunking two-pointers, hurling pigskins halfway down the field and clocking fastballs in the high 80s and low 90s.
Several colleges took note of Colin’s physical potential, but few batted an eye when it came to football. He was lanky and his delivery unconventional. Coaches also thought he was good enough at baseball that his dedication to football wouldn’t last. But Colin disagreed, and with help from his parents and older brother, he managed to secure a scholarship to Reno.
And then he started making history.
There is another side to the story, though, one that I have been lucky enough to witness over the years.
When I was a sophomore, my family moved into the house next to the Kaepernick’s, on a quaint cul-de-sac at the edge of town. They seemed to me like a quiet family, and it took a while for my parents and Colin’s to move beyond the convivial mailbox greetings. But they eventually did, and before long my mother and his were sipping wine and sharing recipes. After cooking dinner we used to toss food scraps over the fence for Colin’s tortoise Sammy (who now weighs more than 100 pounds).
The Kaepernicks were famed among teens in the neighborhood, in part, because they owned a professional-grade basketball hoop. We all adored that hoop, but only Colin gave it the respect it deserved. The night was rare when I would fall asleep without the faint “bump” of a basketball being dribbled in the distance.
When Colin moved to Reno and took over as starting quarterback for the Wolfpack, our cul-de-sac began forming what has since become a passionate, ragtag fan club composed of retired neighbors, young children, friends of friends and people like my mother, who knows next to nothing about football but shows up anyway because she loves the Kaepernicks and wants to see a kind, driven young man succeed. Before “Kaepernicking” became common syntax and No. 7 jerseys were selling out in stores across the country, these were some of the dedicated few driving hours to watch Colin’s games, the few gossiping on sidewalks and at dinner parties about his professional prospects, the few who grieved with his family after tough losses.
I don’t know enough to write at length about Colin’s character or moral grounding, but I can say this: Everyone I knew at our high school admired him. And not just because he was our all-star athlete or had a superlative GPA (which he did). Colin was known as someone who looked you in the eye when you were talking, someone who withheld judgment and someone who loved being part of a team.
Nearly eight years have passed since I left high school and my 20-foot-long residential connection to Colin Kaepernick, but it’s those same attributes that I keep thinking about as I follow his sudden rise to fame. It’s hard to gather much about Colin from press conferences – his answers are brief and a bit boring – but watch him with his helmet off at a game, watch him smiling and laughing with teammates and opponents, watch him taking advice from veterans on the sidelines. That’s when the Colin Kaepernick I know and remember emerges – the happy, courteous, determined kid next door.
(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)