“You armed me with strength for battle; you made my adversaries bow at my feet.”
— Psalms 18, Verse 39, tattooed on Colin Kaepernick’s throwing arm
NEW ORLEANS — On his way home after the first day of the 2011 NFL draft, Jim Harbaugh rang his father, Jack, to ask him what he thought about the first round.
Knowing his son’s San Francisco 49ers hadn’t taken a quarterback with their first pick, the old coach asked his son which quarterback he was likely to pick.
“It was dead silent,” Jack recalled. Jim asked his father if he was talking to anyone — “anyone” likely codespeak for Jim’s older brother John, head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.
“I said, ‘I swear I’m not talking to anyone,’ ” Jack said. “He said, ‘We’re drafting Colin Kaepernick. Not only do I think he’s the best quarterback in the draft, I think he’s the best football player in the draft.’ ”
The son obviously had trust in his father. The next day, the 49ers plucked Kaepernick with the 36th pick.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wise decision,’ ” Jack said.
Wise indeed, though Jim Harbaugh’s secret weapon isn’t a secret anymore.
In less than three months, Kaepernick has rocketed to dizzying heights of fame, boosted even higher by the fact he has led the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII and the brink of a sixth title.
Not only is Kaepernick the new face of the 49ers’ franchise — the franchise of Joe Montana, Steve Young and LSU’s Y.A. Tittle — but he is a media phenomenon for a new age. A multicultural, multi-tattooed, multi-talented mold-breaker for one of the most storied franchises in professional sports.
“Yeah,” 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree said, “it’s the Kaep Show.”
And all this after just nine total starts, regular season and postseason combined. No Super Bowl starting quarterback has ever had fewer first snaps under his belt.
Perhaps with the possible exception of Young, no Super Bowl has seen his like before.
“Kaepernick is just coming in balling,” Crabtree said. “Making plays with his feet, his arm, and I’m just trying to catch everything he throws.”
That isn’t easy, receiver Randy Moss said. He said one of Kaepernick’s fastballs — the Chicago Cubs tried to sign him at Nevada four years ago, having never seen him throw anything but footballs — resulted in the first dislocated finger of his long career.
At Nevada, Kaepernick was the perfect test subject for coach Chris Ault’s new Pistol offensive formation. With that surface-to-surface missile-launching arm and long, loping stride, Kaepernick used the offense to become the first player in NCAA history to throw for 10,000 career yards and rush for 4,000.
And yet there have been times in Kaepernick’s young career when people have been hesitant to believe he really is that good.
After Kaepernick arrived on campus for his first season, Ault was so underwhelmed with his quarterbacking skills that he considered moving him to safety. Fast-forward five years, and Kaepernick was rooming with 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton at the NFL combine, whatever potential star power he possessed eclipsed by Newton’s megawatt persona.
“At that point, I was doing anything I could to have an NFL team look at me,” Kaepernick said at Tuesday’s Media Day.
Now, teams can’t take their eyes off him.
There is another tattoo on Kaepernick’s right arm, the one he pretends to kiss in celebration — a move that has become known as “Kaepernicking.” It reads: “Faith.”
Faith in Kaepernick’s abilities wasn’t immediate in San Francisco. He wasn’t the instant starter that the Ravens’ Joe Flacco was when he arrived in Baltimore in 2008.
Kaepernick served as understudy to established starter Alex Smith. Then came the run.
“There was a day in practice where we couldn’t gain a yard against our defense,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman explained. “So we called (a run), and he ran 80 yards for a touchdown.”
On Nov. 19 against the Chicago Bears, Kaepernick got the start for the 49ers, who were coming off a frustrating 24-24 tie with the St. Louis Rams. He responded by completing 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns, recording a sparkling quarterback rating of 133.1.
The playoffs featured Kaepernick at his running and throwing best. In a 45-31 win over the Green Bay Packers, he rushed for 181 yards and two scores, a playoff record for a quarterback, and threw for 263 yards and two more TDs. With the Atlanta Falcons primed to contain him, Kaepernick went 16 of 21 for 233 yards and a TD, leading the 49ers back from a 17-0 second-quarter deficit in a 28-24 victory.
Though chastised for bringing prison culture to the locker room with his numerous tattoos — perhaps the one that reads “My gift is my curse” is appropriate for such moments — the skin-deep view of Kaepernick doesn’t deliver the complete picture.
He said he prays before every game. He took part of his first 49ers paycheck and made a quiet donation to Camp Taylor, a Northern California organization that serves children with heart disease. Two of his adoptive parents’ biological sons died as newborns because of heart problems.
Kaepernick and his agents reportedly are in the process of trademarking the term “Kaepernicking,” among other related phrases. There are “Kaepernicking” T-shirts. Some of the proceeds will go to Camp Taylor, too.
The flip side to Kaepernick’s rise is the kind of adulation perhaps not seen since another upstart Super Bowl sensation: Joe Namath. His brother Kyle tells the story of fans coming up to him at a San Francisco Giants game to ask for a picture, then running off screaming.
It’s the kind of reaction you might expect for Super Bowl halftime performer Beyoncé or a Beatle, but not a fledgling pro quarterback.
“Three months ago, I could go anywhere,” Kaepernick said. “Now it’s a little bit harder.”
It won’t get any easier if he’s hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night.
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