Greg Cote: 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick can prove he’s legit and not a fleeting phenom

02/03/2013 12:00 AM

09/08/2014 6:17 PM

Colin Kaepernick’s full introduction to America happened to occur on a Super Bowl stage, where the probing light reaches all corners and crevices, and so you find out things like this:

The 49ers’ young quarterback got a small pet tortoise as a boy and now Sammy weighs 115 pounds.

He is dating an aspiring model who goes by the name J.Marie. (Colin is, not Sammy).

His favorite tattoo of the many covering both arms is one that reads ‘My Gift Is My Curse’ because being an NFL quarterback makes it tougher to “just walk around as a normal guy.”

He reads the Bible every day and watches no sports on TV.

He calls Red Robin his “favorite haunt,” thrilling the restaurant chain so much it has offered Kaepernick free food for life if he beats the Ravens on Sunday.

And this, one of those too-good-to-be-true things: In fourth grade Colin wrote himself a letter predicting he would grow up to be 6-4 “and then go to the pros and play for the Niners or Packers even if they aren’t good then.”

Well, Kaepernick is 6-4, he has the Niners in a Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years, and he is poised to become something he dared not predict in that letter to himself: One of the biggest sports stars in the country.

A true story

Winning a Super Bowl isn’t an automatic bridge there for every quarterback, but it can be for Kaepernick because his story is too good.

He was a mixed-race baby given up by an unwed teen mom who couldn’t handle the responsibility, and then was adopted at six weeks old by a white Wisconsin couple.

The tattoos alone are such an aberration for a QB that one major website columnist this season, apparently trying very hard to play the Out Of Touch Middle-Aged White Guy, lambasted Kaepernick as setting a bad example.

The reality is, in an increasingly diverse America, with race lines blurred and labels tossed out, a half-white, half-black, tatted-up QB seems closer to who we are than most other guys.

I’m not sure winning on Sunday will make Kaepernick the face of the NFL, but it should make him one of the faces the NFL wants out front if the idea is to appeal to a younger, hipper demographic.

Kaepernick, 25, wears his Niners cap with a flat bill, hip-hop style. He has the look of someone you could drop into a Jay-Z video, a mosh pit or a party at Justin Timberlake’s house and he’d fit right in.

He could be a star

He is a dull interview, a bad quote, but what he does on a football field struts and preens. His tattooed arm is a cannon. His legs set a QB-record with 181 yards rushing in his first playoff game. He’ll be modest in his answers, and yet he bends to kiss his flexed biceps after touchdowns. Somebody called that “Kaepernicking.” Now Colin has moved to trademark the phrase.

He could be a flaring, fleeting phenom, a Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin who is the flavor of the month but then melts and disappears.

Or he could become a sort of counter-culture, Gen X superstar, a new model for the dual-threat, “read option” quarterback of the future.

The earliest evidence suggests the latter.

Kaepernick started at midseason only because Alex Smith had a concussion, but coach Jim Harbaugh kept him in even after Smith got healthy. Harbaugh became the bold genius for that decision only because Kaepernick has succeeded in a way that stirs the imagination.

He was little known as the season began, just the sixth quarterback drafted in 2011, somebody from the University of Nevada, just a guy trying to get off the bench.

“Trying to find a way to get in a game,” as he said earlier this week.

Now, with all of nine career starts, he’ll be the third-least experienced QB to start a Super Bowl. Only the Rams’ Vince Ferragamo (seven starts entering the 1980 game) and the Giants’ Jeff Hostetler (six in 1991) had fewer.

Kaepernick has a chance to not only win, but to join the pantheon of Super Bowl QBs who truly stand out.

I’m not sure the Ravens’ Joe Flacco does. The Flacco theme entering this game is, “Is he elite?” Rule of thumb: If you have to ask, the question is no, or at least, charitably, not yet. Flacco does not excite or enjoy the off-field panache that Kaepernick does.

He owns stage

Kaepernick reminds us why the quarterback owns the Super Bowl stage — even this one. The preamble has been mostly about the coaching Harbaugh brothers and about Ray Lewis’ emotional farewell. But once the game kicks off the championship will literally and figuratively be in the QBs’ hands.

Maybe that is why 25 of the 46 Super Bowls MVPs have been passers.

The Super Bowl is not an automatic bridge to stardom at the position — winning QBs have included career also-rans such as Mark Rypien, Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson — but as often as not the Super Bowl makes or secures legends at the position.

Like Joe Namath, with his famous “guarantee” in 1968, or Kenny Stabler’s swagger in 1977 (any QB nicknamed “Snake” has a leg up), or Doug Williams as the SB’s first black quarterback in 1987. Men like Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning were lacking until the moment the Super Bowl completed them. Joe Montana and Tom Brady became football royalty because this game was their kingdom.

Watching what this game does to Kaepernick and Flacco, what it means to their reputations moving forward, will be interesting.

I also find intriguing what these two QBs and this matchup tell us. Remind us, really:

There is no verifiable formula to get to the Super Bowl. No reliable road map.

The starting point

This should be both exhilarating and terrifying to teams like the Dolphins who are trying to get here, trying to divine that formula or find that map.

An elite QB is the starting point, right? Well, maybe. Except that Brady, Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are all watching Sunday’s game just like you are while some little-known guy with tattoos takes over their stage.

A dominant team is required, right? Well, hmm. The reigning-champion Giants were 7-7 at one point last season, their coach rumored on the firing line, before they got hot late. The Ravens this year are the seventh wild-card team in the past eight years to reach the Super Bowl.

The 49ers and Ravens instruct as that, even in the space-age NFL where the quarterback is king, a team still can ride a strong ground game and big defense.

And yet the quarterback still is likeliest to steer Sunday’s result.

The TV cameras will focus on the coaching brothers and the storyline will center on Lewis’ farewell, but chances are the game will be decided because one of these two things happens:

Flacco will make his case for that elusive “elite” tag.

Or Kaepernick will properly introduce himself as America’s newest star, a tatted-up, biceps-kissing gust of fresh air.

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