It doesn't take much to make University of Nevada, Reno Wolf Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick smile.
Away from the field, the record-setting senior from Turlock, Calif., willingly signs all autographs asked of him. If a pen lacks ink, Kaepernick, who usually moves with the swiftness and smoothness of a deer, will stand completely in repose until a fresh pen is placed in his hand.
For an athlete who can move across a field like a prairie fire devouring dry grass, it's a fascinating study to watch as all that conspicuous energy dissolves into well-regulated, attentive composure.
Why sign all the autographs?
Because it's easy, Kaepernick says, to remember when he wasn't 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds ... to think back to when he was a boy, and everything in the world required a strained, craned neck to see.
"It makes it a lot easier when you see little kids come up to you and you think, 'Man, that used to be me,'" Kaepernick recalled recently in the Ansari Business Building, where he was about to be asked by a College of Business staff member to sign a football for her three-year-old son.
It helps, too, that demand for Wolf Pack autographs is at an all-time high right now. Kaepernick's is especially prized. Earlier in December, Kaepernick became the first Wolf Pack player since the late Stan Heath in 1948 to finish in the top 10 in the balloting for college football's most coveted individual prize, the Heisman Trophy.
Kaepernick and his Wolf Pack teammates have had that kind of season. It's been a year filled with ground-breaking victories, first-time-ever national rankings, a stunning BCS-busting victory over third-ranked Boise State on Nov. 26 at Mackay Stadium, and a passel of school and national records.
It's been a campaign to both celebrate and to continue to anticipate. On Jan. 9 at San Francisco's AT&T Park, the 13th-ranked and 12-1 Wolf Pack will meet Atlantic Coast Conference power Boston College in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Interest in the bowl game has surged through the community. Nevada sold 15,369 tickets to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in the first five days tickets were available.
As the Wolf Pack looks ahead to its first January bowl appearance in more than 60 seasons, Kaepernick also took time to look back on his four and a half years at Nevada. Along with seniors John Bender and Kevin Grimes, Kaepernick graduated from the College of Business on Dec. 4.
"My time here has been great," Kaepernick said. "I can't explain it any other way. From the students that I've met through my classes, to the faculty, and my teammates, just being here on campus these four and a half years has been really great.
"Going through the program, you realize the great people you're surrounded by - the great community in Reno, this special team. They've always been there to pick you up when you're down, to help build you up to try to make you better. And that's not just football. It's help with school, or becoming a better person. It's always been a building-up process."
Kaepernick's time at Nevada has been book-ended by auspicious performances against Boise State. As a freshman in 2007, he made his first collegiate start a noteworthy one, passing for 243 yards, rushing for 177 yards and accounting for five touchdowns in a 69-67 four-overtime loss to Boise State.
On Nov. 26, in his final game against Boise, Kaepernick and the Pack recorded what 26-year head coach Chris Ault termed "the greatest" victory in Wolf Pack history. Kaepernick passed for 259 yards, ran for one TD and threw for another in Nevada's thrilling 34-31 overtime victory before a chilled but exultant sold-out crowd at Mackay Stadium.
In between those big Boise moments has been achievement both great and quiet. As the countdown to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and a date with Boston College continues, Kaepernick said he remembers the practices, the study sessions, the class time he has spent on campus.
It's something he said he will miss, particularly the close bond he formed with his fellow business majors, Bender, a hulking 6-foot-8, 325-pound offensive lineman who grew up on a farm in Cochrane, Alberta, Canada, and Grimes, who at 6-feet, 205 pounds seems like a somewhat undersized linebacker. That is, until you shake the polite, contemplative young man from Grass Valley's hand. Grimes' handshake seems to reverberate through your hand like an iron skillet.
"It's been great, between Bender and Grimes, I've had both of them in quite a few of my classes," Kapernick said. "It makes it easier when you do group projects with people who have the same schedule as you. Knowing that other people are going through the same thing you're going through, and sometimes struggling with the same things you're struggling with, makes it a little bit easier when you go to sleep at night."
Added Grimes: "Ten or 15 years from now, I think this is really going to hit me. I think then I'll look back and I'll really understand what an impact this group of seniors has had ... how great of an opportunity we had and we were able to capture it. It's just been an absolute blast. To go out my senior year like this, has been surreal. It's been amazing."