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November 20, 2012
By John Trent
Long before he became ours, the property of an entire community, and long before the people of northern Nevada had even heard his name - let alone knew how to pronounce it or spell it correctly - Colin Kaepernick was a redshirt freshman Wolf Pack quarterback, simply looking for a chance to prove himself.
I know this because I was a middle-aged fly on the wall of a whirlpool. I spent more than a few afternoons during fall 2007 rehabbing my surgically repaired knee, sitting in the whirlpool in the University's sports medicine complex.
For a time, the warm whir of the water would be all mine. But then the pool would fill with Wolf Pack football players, banged up from the day's practice.
I came to exchange a few words, on a couple of occasions, with two of them: a senior nose tackle named Matt Hines, who was powerfully built and was slung so low to the ground, he seemed like a perpetually smiling, squatting fire hydrant. And, there was Hines' freshman friend, who had comically long limbs, a ready smile, and a face of handsome, distinct angles. Hines' freshman friend made me immediately think of the main character in Disney's animated feature, "Aladdin."
His name wasn't Aladdin, of course.
But as we would all find out in the days and years to come, the name Colin Kaepernick would have all of the magic-inspiring properties (and maybe more) of a Disney hero.
At the time, Kaepernick was scrapping to find his way into the starting lineup. He was the raw-boned backup to a far more polished Pack quarterback, Nick Graziano. Then Graziano went down with an injury. Kaepernick was handed the starting job. The kid who could throw a football with the velocity of a major league fastball and could run like a deer in full flight never looked back. He started every game for the Pack for the next three and a half years.
It was during that first season, as Kaepernick took control, that words that Matt Hines mentioned to me in the whirlpool one afternoon took on their full meaning.
"You need to watch this kid," Matt said, skimming his hand over the water of the whirlpool, with the assurance of a veteran weather forecaster who is never wrong. "Kap is going to be a special player before he's through. People will never forget him."
Over the next few weeks, I watched Kaepernick's leadership ability grow. Where he had once entered the whirlpool with only Hines at his side, now he had three, four teammates joining him in our whirlpool. He was well on his way to becoming a great leader; his teammates loved being around him, and he, in turn, loved being around them.
"Why are you always so happy, Kap?" the sixth-year senior running back Luke Lippincott called good-naturedly one afternoon to his new quarterback.
Kap flashed one of his brilliant smiles.
"I've got a lot to be happy about," he called back as he lowered himself into the water, his voice chirpy, full of the possibility of a great future.
And what a future it was. By the time he graduated with a degree in business in 2011, Colin Kaepernick was arguably the greatest Wolf Pack player ever. Yes, I know this is the University that produced future NFL Hall of Famer Marion Motley. And yes, I saw Frank Hawkins ram his way through all Pack opponents on the way to a Super Bowl winning career with the Raiders.
But consider what Kaep did, and how he did it. He finished eighth in the 2010 Heisman Trophy race. He led the Pack to their greatest season ever, a 13-1 campaign that included an upset victory over national power Boise State on a freezing night at Mackay Stadium on that year's Thanksgiving weekend. He was taken in the second round of the NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers.
I had a chance to talk to Kapernick again that December, after the Boise upset and before the Pack's January Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl matchup with Boston College. Kaepernick, a business management major, was presented one of the College of Business' graduation medallions a few days after the Pack had beaten Louisiana Tech to cap their Western Athletic Conference championship season.
For Kaepernick, along with his fellow Pack teammates - and Business majors - John Bender and Kevin Grimes, graduation was just as important as winning as WAC title. Like so many of our students, he had come to define his five years at our University through friendships made, experiences that would never be forgotten, and the recognition that after a lot of hard work, he was finally a college graduate.
"For the three of us, John, Kevin and myself, it was five years that really came down to that one game at Louisiana Tech," Kaepernick said. "At the same time, those five years came down to that one day for graduation for us as well. That was definitely a big game for us. We became WAC champions and we graduated from the University on the same day.
"It's been a storybook season for us."
I could see a pattern emerging as I talked with John Bender, the hulking, friendly 6-foot-7 offensive lineman who had protected Kaepernick for four years. Like Matt Hines in 2007, Bender's affection for his quarterback seemed to go well beyond the field.
He said Kaepernick hadn't changed a bit over their four years of starting at Nevada, particularly that semi-crazed, "bug-eyed" look Kaepernick would take on during tight situations in games.
Bender joked that was probably why, in the Business courses the two teammates took, no one would ever pick the two of them for group work - Bender's aircraft carrier-like size and Kaepernick's sometimes wild looking, game-situation eyes.
"When it was group project picking time, everybody would look around the room and seem to want to avoid us," Bender said with a laugh.
It was the whole package - the eyes that were a mirror to a driven, competitive work and leadership ethic, the smile that was a reflection of an enjoyment of life and an affinity for people - that captured northern Nevada's imagination.
We saw this play out on a national stage on Nov. 19, during the Monday Night Football telecast of the 49ers versus the Bears. It was Kaepernick's first start for the 49ers. Veteran 49ers quarterback Alex Smith was suffering from a concussion, and just as Kaep had stepped in for Nick Graziano in 2007 with a virtuoso performance, so it was against the Bears.
Kap threw for 243 yards, tossed two touchdowns, and ran the 49ers offense like a veteran. There were even a couple of times against the Bears when that patented Kap "look" - the wild-eyed, excited-in-a-good-way, kid-flying-downhill-fast-on-a-sled-on-a-hill-on-a-snowy-morning look - made an appearance.
I don't know if all of northern Nevada watched the game. But it sure felt like it. Facebook seemed to explode with Kap comments, Kap likes, photos of Kap, photos of Nevada guys of all shapes and sizes and ages dressed in Kap's No. 7 49ers jersey.
One Facebook posting seemed to sum things up beautifully:
"I thought (former 49er QB, Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst) Steve Young was going to lean over and kiss Kap during the post-game interview. They loved him!"
Now Kap is no longer exclusively northern Nevada's property.
He belongs to the entire country.
Or, to paraphrase the sagacious Matt Hines from back in 2007, as he watched his young teammate frolic like a puppy in the invigorating waters of a whirlpool, impatiently waiting for his future to begin, and as we mark the two-year anniversary of the Pack's stunning Thanksgiving weekend victory over Boise State, it seems strange to say this, but it's true: this young Aladdin's magic carpet ride is really only just beginning.
John Trent is senior editor for news and features at the University.