Colin Kaepernick's 2016 season debut came with mixed reviews for both his on-field play and the pre-game protests that have rendered him a polarizing figure in NFL stadiums.
Kaepernick, assuming his old post as starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, was showered with boos as he led the offense on to the field to start Sunday's matchup with the Buffalo Bills. When he kneeled for the national anthem, joined by teammates Eric Reid and Eli Harold, chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A” broke out amongst the New Era Field crowd.
By the end of the game, a landslide 45-16 win for the Bills, Kaepernick defended his protest against racial injustice and police brutality that soon will enter its third month.
“I don’t understand what’s un-American about fighting for justice and liberty for everybody,” he told reporters in response to the hostile reaction from some fans.
Kaepernick was making his first start since Nov. 1, 2015, which only stoked the flames of a national discussion that's swirled since the silent protests began in the preseason. He was rusty, to be sure, completing only 13 of his 29 pass attempts for 187 yards, but did manage to keep the hapless 49ers in the game until the Bills pulled away in the fourth quarter.
A highlight of Kaepernick's debut was a 53-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith in the second quarter. He also led the 49ers in rushing with 66 yards on eight attempts.
San Francisco coach Chip Kelly graded Kaepernick's start as "OK." When asked if he would start Week 7 against the Buccaneers, Kelly responded, “We’ll see."
Before the game, MMQB.com reported Bills fans were selling T-shirts mocking his protests in off-property tailgate lots. But fan reaction wasn't universally negative, with a contingent of several dozen protesters, both black and white, marching outside the stadium to support Kaepernick's cause. They knelt in solidarity with the quarterback during the national anthem.
Kaepernick, donning a Muhammad Ali T-shirt before and after the game as an ode to the late boxer's stance on social issues, explained that while some fans were unruly, others approached him before the game to voice their support. He also spoke about Ali's impact on his decision to continue to protest, despite the criticism.
"He was someone that fought a very similar fight and was trying to do what was right for the people," Kaepernick said. "For me, to be able to have someone like that come before me is huge. He is someone who helped pave the way for this to happen. What he did and what he stood for, people remember him more for that than they do a boxer. I can't let him die in vain. I have to try to carry that on and try to fight that same fight until we accomplish our goal."