Colin Kaepernick flexes and kisses his bicep when he scores a touchdown
The celebratory move of the San Francisco 49ers quarterback is known as Kaepernicking
His bicep tattoos are Bible verses; he runs the 40-yard dash in about 4.5 seconds
In fourth grade, Kaepernick predicted he'd be a quarterback for the 49ers or Packers
Editor’s Note: Steve Politi is a sports columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter: @StevePoliti
Colin Kaepernick is trying not to get caught up in the national story that he has become – one that landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week, and one that’ll just keeping growing if he leads the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl with a win in Atlanta on Sunday.
Still, he can’t help but allow himself a few glimpses into the hysteria. They usually come while sitting at the computer, looking through photos of strangers replicating his touchdown celebration, flexing his arm and kissing his bicep, in unusual places.
“I saw a girl Kaepernicking while she was riding a horse,” he said at a news conference this week in San Francisco.
Yes, it is a word now – Kaepernicking – just like the phenomena surrounding another quarterback unafraid to run with the football. But unlike Tim Tebow, whose celebration of kneeling in the end zone in prayer became known as “Tebowing,” there are plenty of reasons to think Kaepernick will have staying power in the NFL.
He will start just his ninth career game against the Falcons on Sunday, with the NFC Championship on the line. But already, teams have struggled to defend against his speed as a runner and his improving accuracy as a passer. Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards, a playoff record for a quarterback, and threw with 263 and two touchdowns in a playoff win against Green Bay last week.
Here are seven reasons why you’ll be hearing plenty about No. 7 on the 49ers, in this season and beyond:
1. The tattoos. Might as well start here, because if you’ve seen a 49ers game in the second half of the season, you had to notice that Kaepernick (pronounced KAP-er-nick) has plenty of them.
They were at the center of a media firestorm in December when a columnist for AOL/Sporting News wrote, “NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility. He is the CEO of a high-profile organization, and you don’t want your CEO to look like he just got paroled.”
His family was outraged. “Are you categorizing this kid on something like tattoos?” his mother, Teresa, told USA Today. Kaepernick had a 4.0 GPA in high school and is active in charities.
As for the tattoos? The ones on his biceps are Bible verses, and the words across his chest say, “Against All Odds.” Besides: Tattoos are hardly viewed negatively, especially among young people.
2. He can run. The tattoos might make people notice Kaepernick, but his playing style makes it impossible to stop watching him.
Of the four quarterbacks still alive in the NFL playoffs, he is unique. Tom Brady (New England), Joe Flacco (Baltimore) and Matt Ryan (Atlanta) are all classic drop-back passers who run as a last resort.
Kaepernick runs the 40-yard dash in about 4.5 seconds, which is exceptionally good for a quarterback. He doesn’t want to be known as a “running quarterback,” a tag that has dogged several two-dimensional quarterbacks to come before him.
“When I got into high school, college, I watched Vince Young, Michael Vick a lot, (Donovan) McNabb, watched the old clips of (Randall) Cunningham,” Kaepernick said. “They were all quarterbacks that were mobile and could make plays.”
The key is not complicated: “Run where they’re not. You want to run away from where the defensive players are. When they get close, get down.”
3. He can throw. Defenses would be unwise to dismiss Kaepernick as a passer. He has completed 62.4% of his throws this season for 1,814 yards, with 10 touchdowns and – maybe most important for a team with a stellar defense – just three interceptions.
Plus, there’s a maturity in his game. His coach, former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh, is impressed with his ability to shake off bad plays.
“As a quarterback and you throw an interception in a game, there’s just a tendency the next time to double check things,” Harbaugh said. “You’re double checking, then double checking. And that’s not the way to do it. So you want him to be trusting what he sees and cut it loose. And I think he’s shown a rare ability to not do that, to not have to double check.”
4. He has the perfect coach. Kaepernick would still be another mostly anonymous backup if Harbaugh hadn’t made one of the gutsiest decisions of the NFL season.
Harbaugh replaced Alex Smith, who had played well during the season and led the team to the brink of the Super Bowl in 2011, with the untested second-year pro. It wasn’t just a leap of faith. In the eight quarters that preceded a concussion injury, Smith had completed 32 of 35 passes for 385 yards with five touchdowns.
Think about that: He had more touchdowns than incomplete passes. Still, Harbaugh is a former quarterback who saw another dimension in Kaepernick, and one who will be able to build an offensive system around his strengths.
5. He’s on a team on the rise. Good quarterbacks make their teams better, of course. But the opposite is true. Kaepernick wasn’t stepping into a desperate situation when he took charge in San Francisco.
He was taking over a contender. San Francisco, which lost to the Giants in the NFC championship game a year ago on a late field goal, has one of the best running backs in the game in Frank Gore (1,214 yards) and the second stingiest defense (allowing 17.1 points a game).
He also has an elite young target in receiver Michael Crabtree, who caught 85 passes for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. Kaepernick’s play is a major reason the 49ers are four-point favorites on the road, even though Atlanta rarely loses in the Georgia Dome.
6. The letter. Everyone likes a good backstory. Kaepernick has a terrific one. He was born in Milwaukee in 1987 and adopted by his parents, Rick and Teresa, who had lost two infants to a congenital heart disease.
The family moved to California when Colin was 4, and quickly his talent as an athlete became clear. The kid noticed, too. He wrote a letter to himself as a fourth grader not only predicting that he’d be a quarterback in the NFL, but also that he’d play for the 49ers or the Packers.
Here he is.
7. Kaepernicking. Hey, it certainly doesn’t hurt, in this era, to be trending on social media.
The San Francisco Chronicle asked readers to send photos of them Kaepernicking, and did they ever respond. In front of a frozen waterfall. On the top of a mountain. At Disneyland. On top of a motor home.
As far as letting the hype get to him, Kaepernick said the new fame hadn’t changed anything. “I go home. I watch my film. I watch anything on TV but sports, and I go to bed and come back and do it the same way the next day.”
If he wins his next game, he’ll wake up as a Super Bowl quarterback. And an even bigger story.