Colin Kaepernick is a controversial player with an equally temperamental beginning. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback enjoyed his first start in week 11 of the season, substituting for injured quarterback Alex Smith. At the time, Smith was the league’s leader in completion percentage and the third highest rated quarterback in the NFL. During week 11, Kaepernick went 16-23 with a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions, leading the 49ers to a 32-7 victory over the Chicago Bears, the NFC powerhouse. The next week, Smith was cleared to play, but head coach Jim Harbaugh elected to give his star player more rest before rushing him back to the field. Kaepernick seized the opportunity — he recorded a passing and rushing touchdown in place of Smith and carried San Francisco to a 31-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
Then, something unfathomable happened. Harbaugh, riding high on the team’s success, benched Smith, who was 19-5-1 as a starter in the last two years. Sports commentators and fans were left scratching their heads.
At a time when connoisseurs and amateurs alike contested the decision, Harbaugh insisted that he made the right call. He saw in Kaepernick a young, dynamic and two-pronged quarterback, equally strong in the rushing game as in the traditional passing game. Harbaugh did what he has always been known to do, what he was hired to do: take a risk.
Kaepernick’s image blinded us from his talent, and we were all too captivated to look beyond it. We laughed at his 115-pound tortoise and ridiculed his post-game interviews. We agreed with media outlets who labeled him “an inmate.” We all scowled at the idea that one of the league’s most clean-cut and well-spoken quarterbacks, Smith could be replaced by, essentially, a “human canvas.”
Only Kaepernick knew the true story. Only he knew how difficult it is to grow up an orphan. Only he knew what it was like to pass up an MLB Draft selection so that he could pursue his true passion in the NFL. Only he knew about the letter he wrote to himself in the fourth grade, in which he promised his future self that he would be 6 feet 4 inches tall and be the quarterback for the Niners. We can see now that both of these have come true. He did not blast the media as we expected him to, and he did not let his temper get the best of him, as many expected. Colin Kaepernick just kept his head down, absorbed it all and won some football games.
This Sunday, Kaepernick has the chance to win one more game: the Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens. The game will certainly be the biggest of his career. He will fly mostly under the radar, distant from the spotlight focused solely on Raven’s linebacker Ray Lewis. On Sunday, I imagine he will be thinking about the tattoo on his right arm. In fact, after I have started to understand Kaepernick, I imagine he thinks of it quite often. It reads, “Carpe Diem.” Seize the day.
A version of this article appeared in the Jan. 28 print edition. Mary Jane Dumankaya is sports editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.