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Nevada football coach Chris Ault was nervous. It was a mid-September day in 2010 as the Wolf Pack prepared for a landmark game against No. 24-ranked California.
This was the first time in Nevada history that a Pac-10 (now Pac-12) Conference team had ever played at Mackay Stadium, the school's cozy home field of 29,993 seats in Reno. Nevada had played historic powers such as Notre Dame and Nebraska in recent years, but never at home. Other top schools, particularly from the West Coast, had never deigned to give Nevada that much respect.
With that in the back of his mind, Ault watched his team go through an uninspired practice and voiced his concern.
"If we're going to practice like this, we might as well forfeit now so that we don't embarrass ourselves on [Friday]," Ault, who retired following the 2012 season, said to his team.
That's when quarterback Colin Kaepernick spoke up, hugging the line between respect and defiance. In front of all the players, Kaepernick told Ault, "Nobody is getting embarrassed, Coach."
"I thought to myself, 'OK, I have a guy who will stand up,' " Ault said.
Standing up is, of course, just the beginning. Kaepernick also runs like a gazelle and throws as if a rocket launcher is attached to his shoulder. That evening in 2010, Kaepernick and the rest of the Wolfpack rolled to a 52-31 victory over Cal on the way to a 12-1 record and the No. 11 ranking in the final Associated Press poll.
Two years later, Kaepernick is on a Super Bowl chase. Having seized the San Francisco 49ers' starting job at midseason amid controversy after Alex Smith got hurt, Kaepernick has transformed the team into perhaps the NFL's most dangerous heading into the conference championships. Fresh off dispatching the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night behind Kaepernick's NFL playoff-record 181 rushing yards and another 263 through the air, the 49ers go to Atlanta for the NFC title game Sunday.
While many observers will point out that Kaepernick has done nothing more than what Smith did a year ago when the 49ers hosted the New York Giants in the conference title game, that's a bottom-line approach that ignores substance.
A year ago and for most of the early part of this season, the 49ers were a defense-first, run-second, avoid-offensive-mistakes-oriented team. In 27 games (playoffs included) since the start of the 2011 season with Smith as the starter, the 49ers had seven games in which they scored at least 30 points. In two of those seven, they eclipsed 40.
In eight games (playoffs included) with Kaepernick at the helm, the 49ers have scored at least 30 in four games, including two with 40. Moreover, the two 40-point efforts include the thrashing of Green Bay and mostly one-sided victory at New England in December – the same Patriots team that is currently considered the favorite to win a fourth Super Bowl in the past 12 seasons.
Wait until Jim Harbaugh lays that little bit of info on his starter. You can hear it now, something about how the oddsmakers expect Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to school San Francisco if the 49ers get there.
You can only imagine what Kaepernick might say this time.
FRONT OF THE CLASS
They tell plenty of stories about Kaepernick's exploits at Pitman High in Turlock, Calif., where he starred in football, basketball and baseball. There's the time he scored 34 in a basketball playoff game, going toe-to-toe with future NBA player Ryan Anderson, who put up 50. There's the no-hitter he threw one day before coming home and throwing up in the living room.
"He threw the no-hitter and we didn't know a thing about how he felt," said Rick Kaepernick, Colin's father. "He rode the bus home with the team, got home, took a shower, laid down on the couch, broke out in chills and then … "
The elder Kaepernick mimicked the look of someone throwing up before continuing.
"We took him to the hospital right away and they said he had pneumonia," said Rick, who, along with his wife Teresa, adopted Colin when he was a baby. "He missed a week of school.
"I can't explain it exactly, but he has a fire in him that drives him to finish whatever is the task. He can focus completely on what he has to do and block out whatever bothers him. He has always been able to do that."
It wasn't just sports. Kaepernick was a 4.0 student in high school (he also scored an impressive 37 on the Wonderlic exam at the NFL scouting combine in 2011). He was no disaffected jock just skating through classes. He was serious. He'd sit in the front of the class and compete just as hard for an A as he would for a W.
College was no different. Former Nevada teammate Virgil Green, now a tight end with the Denver Broncos, would notice every once in awhile when Kaepernick would be headed out the door in a suit and tie. Green would give him a little ribbing.
"Going to church?" Green would say.
"He was going to do a presentation for one of his business classes and he always wanted to look sharp," Green said. "He took it all seriously, never wanted to be second-rate in anything. If it was football, he'd do all the conditioning drills with the rest of us. He didn't want to be babied like the quarterbacks usually are.
"Then he'd want to win at those drills. His core workouts are ridiculous, trying to keep up with him."
Football drives Kaepernick's passion that way. He was drafted as a side-arming flamethrower by the Chicago Cubs, or could have played basketball at the small-college level, but Kaepernick wanted to play football and followed his dream despite getting only one college offer. Ault, now 66, said he took Kaepernick as an "athlete more than as a quarterback."
"We figured, at worst, he would be a pretty good safety for us," Ault said.
That was never Kaepernick's goal. He wrote notes about it as a child, even once doing a school assignment in which he predicted he would be the quarterback of the 49ers or the Packers. (Kaepernick was born in Wisconsin and his parents were Green Bay fans before moving to California 21 years ago.)
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh saw that up close before the 2011 NFL draft when he worked out Kaepernick on a windy day at Mackay Stadium. From his office, Ault could see Harbaugh put Kaepernick through a series of drills. As the workout continued, Harbaugh, a deeply competitive man and former quarterback himself, started throwing against Kaepernick.
"Yeah, it was competitive," Harbaugh said in obviously understated tone before admitting, "Colin won all the competitions."
The exhibition said a great deal about Kaepernick as a player and person.
"The thing that impressed me was his ability to execute whatever I asked him to do," Harbaugh said. "I would tell him to try something and you could tell he was smart enough and athletic enough to take the instruction quickly and then execute it. The most impressive thing was his ability to throw on the run to his left. He could be running on a full sprint to his left and throw an absolute seed on target. It was really kind of amazing to watch."
SPONGEBOB AND THE ELASTIC MAN
There is a goofy side to Kaepernick and it's quite obvious he's very comfortable in his own skin. Green used to come back to their apartment at Nevada to find Kaepernick watching the "SpongeBob SquarePants" cartoon.
"I'm like, 'What are you doing?' " Green said. "He'd look at me and say, 'Man, that's my show.' "
When Kaepernick talks to the media, he does it in extremely glib fashion. His answers rarely go longer than seven or eight words. It's not for lack of something to say or because he's shy. Rather (and somewhat refreshingly), he doesn't seem that interested in hearing himself talk. He answers questions, smiles brightly and moves to the next query. He's never curt nor angry, just efficient and to the point.
And always polite.
"He's the only guy I can say that always responds to every message you send him," said Shawn Smith, Kaepernick's PR person with XAM Sports and the wife of Kaepernick's agent Scott Smith. "It can be the smallest thing and he always responds and always says, 'Thank you.' "
That comes from parents who showed great dedication. When Kaepernick was in high school and beginning to chase the football dream, he started practicing with quarterback guru Roger Theder, a former longtime coach at Cal. Every week, Rick, Colin and Pitman teammate Anthony Harding would drive two hours from Turlock to Contra Costa County to throw with Theder.
"My friends would ask me all the time if I wanted to go play golf on Saturday and I said I had to take my son to practice. They'd say, 'When are you going to do something for yourself?' " Rick said. "I would say, 'I'm in the car for two hours each way, I get to watch him throw for two hours and then take him to lunch.' During those drives, he'd start to talk to me about things, learn to trust me. That's seven hours with my son. What could be better than that?"
Kaepernick's athletic gifts are obvious to the untrained eye. His lean, 6-foot-4 frame makes him look like an oversized Gumby or a stick figure. He is all limbs with a narrow frame holding it together. That allows nearly everything he does to be amplified by extreme torque.
Of course, the measure of an athlete, particularly a quarterback, only begins with physical gift. Kaepernick's intensity is constant whenever he plays. Green and Kaepernick used to play on the same intramural basketball team in the spring at Nevada. They teamed with other football players, taking on fraternities that put together designed plays and alternated defenses.
Kaepernick loved the challenge.
"He'd shoot threes, dish off like a point guard and drive for a dunk, talking trash the whole time," Green said. "We would be playing against regular students; he didn't care. He just wanted to beat anybody who was out there. He didn't dunk a lot, but he wouldn't mind going up for a contact dunk. He liked throwing down like that. … Look, there isn't a time that Colin isn't on when it comes to playing a sport, any sport."
He's the same way even when playing catch in practice.
"He throws so hard all the time," 49ers backup running back Anthony Dixon said. "If you don't have a helmet on, it makes you want to flinch."
On Saturday night, facing a third-and-9 from the Green Bay 24-yard line with a little more than six minutes remaining in the first half, Kaepernick scrambled for a first down, putting himself a bit on the line in the process. Instead of sliding at the end, Kaepernick stayed up and was sandwiched by defensive back M.D. Jennings and linebacker Erik Walden. It was a clean but hard hit, the kind that might make a coach wince about his quarterback being in harm's way.
Kaepernick popped up after the play, screamed at Jennings and Walden and spiked the ball just hard enough to earn a taunting penalty. Even after the 15-yard penalty erased his gain (but not the first down), Kaepernick threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to give San Francisco a 21-14 lead.
Rick Kaepernick wasn't completely enthusiastic about that maneuver, but he smiled all the same.
"You don't need to be crashing into those big defensive guys like that," said Kaepernick, a vice president for Hilmar Cheese. "I have to talk to him about that."
As Rick talked in the players parking lot, Colin stood a few feet away. He smiled and laughed with friends and family. While it's fair to say he probably would listen to his dad, he'd probably give him a response much like the one he gave Ault a couple of years ago.
Nobody is getting hurt, Dad.
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