Keeping Score

Don’t Call Him A Freak: Colin Kaepernick Opens Up On Quarterback Sociology, Tattoos, Adoption

An expansive TIME conversation with breakout NFL star.

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Timothy White

San Francisco 49ers quarter­back Colin Kaeper­nick.

Just in time for the start of NFL training camps, this week’s issue of TIME – on newsstands on July 26, available to subscribers here – features a profile of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who came off the bench in Week 10 last season to nearly lead the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl. Kaepernick is now one of the NFL’s breakout stars – he has the top-selling jersey in the league. In late June, while headlining a charity golf tournament in Modesto, Calif. for Camp Taylor – a program for kids with heart disease — Kaepernick took a break to open up on a broad range of topics. He spoke about his mixed feelings about being called a “freak athlete,” the racial stereotyping of quarterbacks, the criticism of his many tattoos, his relationship with his family – Kaepernick was adopted by a Wisconsin family that moved to California’s Central Valley, two hours east of San Francisco, where Colin grew up – and his reaction to do an interview his birth mother did with ESPN. Some excerpts from the conversation:

(MORE: Read Sean Gregory’s full, in-depth profile of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick)

On being called a “freak athlete” …

“To me, when people say, ‘Oh, you’re a freak athlete’”–he pauses–“it’s bittersweet. It’s a huge compliment to say, O.K., you have physical abilities that are kind of above and beyond. But at the same time, I feel like it diminishes the mental side of the game. And I think it takes away from the time we study the playbook, the time we spend in the film room and the preparation we put in.”

On whether, as a quarterback, there’s a perception you have to be “clean cut” -  e.g., as the face of a franchise, you shouldn’t have tattoos.

“I think it’s a perception that’s been around for a very long time. It’s a perception that I want to break. I don’t want people to think you have to look a certain way or be a certain mold to be able to be a quarterback.”

 On racial stereotyping of quarterbacks (Kaepernick’s birth father is African-American, his birth mother is white)

“I don’t ever want to take it to a race level. But, I mean, even with a lot of the quarterbacks in the league who are black,  it’s ‘oh you’re a black quarterback,’ or ‘you’re just a running quarterback.’ And I think that’s another stereotype that I really I feel like I’m trying to break. I don’t want to be someone that they say, ‘oh, he can run, but he can’t throw.’ And I think that’s another perception that’s been around for a long time that needs to be changed.

It’s a touchy subject, ’cause I never want to take it there, where it seems like it’s all about race. But I feel like that’s something that comes along with the territory of being a black quarterback. When you have success—‘Oh, you’re a freak athlete.’ Not, ‘Oh, you’re a good quarterback.’ And I think that’s a barrier that needs to be broken down.”

His response to a November Sporting News column questioning his choice of body art. “The NFL quarterback is the ultimate position of influence and responsibility,” the columnist wrote. “He is the CEO of a high-profile organization, and you don’t want your CEO to look like he just got paroled.” Kaepernick calls this thinking “old school.”

“To me, tattoos are a way of people being able to express themselves and have other people look at them and get a little insight into who they are, without ever even saying a word to them. All my tattoos, they’ve been thought out, thought over, been a work in progress for at least a year before I’ve got them. So I’m not walking into a tattoo shop, picking tattoos off a wall. It’s something that means something to me. It’s something that I believe in.”

(MORE: Thanks To Colin Kaepernick, 49ers Won Super Bowl For Team Merchandise Sales)

On growing up in a white household. The Kaepernicks — father Rick, mother Teresa, and siblings Kyle and Devon – are white.

“My parents told me from the time I can remember that, ‘yeah, you’re adopted. But this is your family.’  I can remember my mom, she tells me this story: when I was little, I was looking at her and I was like, ‘why isn’t my skin the same color as yours?’ She was like, ‘oh, you’re adopted, but I wish I had pretty brown skin like you.’ That’s something that – [pause] – they made me feel like even though it wasn’t necessarily my birth family, that’s my family. Everything they did, they tried to make it uplifting. They tried to make it special. They tried to make it a positive environment. Looking back, I think that was the biggest thing. Just the love and affection that they showed was what made everything so smooth for me.

At the time, you don’t really realize how important things like that are. But as you get older, you really start to appreciate and realize how important that was, and how much that really changed you and helped you and molded you.”

On whether he ever questioned his racial identity.

“I did what I did. It wasn’t necessarily, ‘I’m black so I have to act to certain way. Or, ‘I’m with a white family, I have to act a certain way.’ My parents just kind of let me be me.”

On my he partnered with Camp Taylor, which serves children with pediatric heart disease. Colin’s parents, Rick and Teresa, lost two infant sons to heart failure: knowing that any future sons would be at risk for heart disease, they decided to adopt, and found Colin.

“I’m trying to word things correctly. Because it’s a very tragic situation. But at the same time, if that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be in this situation. I mean, I do have a great deal of sympathy for what my parents have gone through, and a great deal of sorrow. You can’t take that pain away. And I hope that the situation we’re in now is something that can bring joy to them.”

On whether he was curious about his birth parents.

“I was just kind of curious about, O.K., I feel like I’m kind of tall, I can play sports pretty good, what did my parents do? Am I going to fit that mold where I might be able to play? That was about the extent of it.”

On whether he will ever connect with his birth mother, Heidi Russo, who was 19 when Colin was born, and says she didn’t feel ready to raise a child. (Kaepernick’s birth father is not publicly known) 

“I feel like, after the way things played out this past six months or so, that it’s something that I really don’t feel like it will happen. For the simple fact that — [pause] — from my perspective, I don’t really like the way she handled some things. To me, some of the things, the way they were handled, were disrespectful to my parents, to my family.

His response to an emotional interview that Russo did with ESPN in February, in which she described the day she had to give Colin up. 

“My mom called me, and asked me if I had seen it. And I mean, I really don’t watch [TV] too much. So I was like, ‘no, I haven’t seen it.’ She goes, ‘oh, well, if you get a chance, I really think you should watch it, and then, give me a call back, and let me know what you think.’ OK.

And I mean, my mom has always been very supportive. If you need us, to help set something up with her, we can do that. If you want us to stay out of it, we can do that. Whatever you want to do, let us know, we’ll help you in any way we can. My mom has never made it awkward, she’s never made it, where, she’s going to feel like she’s a victim if I went and saw my birth mother.

But I watch the interview, and my immediate reaction was like, ‘Why?’ The story had been told—we had gone over it. I had kind of let you know how I feel about it.

It was something I didn’t feel like needed to be addressed again. And the way it was addressed, and some of the things that were told, I don’t feel like are completely accurate.

I just remember watching it, and kind of thinking to myself ‘where’d that come from? That’s never happened. That’s never been that situation.’

So, I was talking to my mom about it, and she kind of felt the same way, about the way some things were told. And I remember just talking to her. I don’t remember what she said, but she said something. I was like, ‘Mom, look, I know who my family is. I know who my mother is. That’s not going to change. I love you.’ And my mom broke down on the phone. To me, that was the point where I felt like my mother was attacked. That was the point where, in my mind, I was like [a meeting] is never going to happen. This won’t happen because you went about it in such a way that you hurt my family, you hurt my mother. And that’s not something I’m willing to tolerate.”

….

“I had thought about [a meeting] before then. Possibly in the future. When I feel like the time is right. Maybe that would have happened. I feel like, after the way things unfolded, that’s not ever going to happen now.”

….

“What most people don’t realize is in that same conversation I was having with my mom, where I can tell she felt that she was being attacked, and she was being kind of pushed to the side, she still asked me, ‘do you want me to help me with this? Do you want me to stay out of it? Is there anything I can do?’ Even though she felt that way. I feel like a lot of people have put the focus on my birth mother, and no one gives my mother the credit that she deserves. I mean, she worked twelve-hour night shifts for thirty-something years, and she worked night shifts so she could be home to send us off to school, and be there when we got home from school.

I’m very appreciative, I’m very thankful that my birth mother gave me up for adoption. But anything past that is – I don’t feel like you have any right to say you have any say in how things go. Because you weren’t the one working those night shifts, you weren’t the one driving me an hour and a half, two hours on the weekends to go work with a quarterback coach for an hour or two, and driving me back. My mom has gone above and beyond for so long, and I don’t feel she gets the credit she deserves for what she’s done.”

(Responds Russo:  “I’m sorry that’s the way he feels. I’m certainly not out here to hurt him or his family. But I am out here trying to change the stigmas and stereotypes associated with birth mothers.”)

On the failure of the last drive of the Super Bowl, when San Francisco had the ball on the Baltimore 7-yd. line,  first and goal, trailing 34-29 with 2:39 left.

“It’s replayed in my mind a million times. The last four plays of that game—it’s something I don’t think anyone on our team will ever just have that go away. I think all of us are, ‘What could we have done different?’ Should we have checked to a different play? Should we have run a different play?’ I mean, there are so many different scenarios – ‘what could you have done different to make those five yards work?’”

On what moment from the final drive he especially wishes he had back.

“I would say there’s two. We called a timeout right before one play [on third down]. And I mean, I think everybody on our offense thinks that was going to be a touchdown. And in my mind, if I could have got the play out quicker, if I could have made sure we were moving faster, and got that ball snapped, before we called timeout — because the play clock was running down by the time we were getting there. So if I would have operated a little faster, if I would have got people set faster, got things moving faster, would we have gotten that play off, and would it have been a touchdown?

The other one is, the last fade to Crab [San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree; Kaepernick and Crabtree failed to connect on 4th down, though Niners coach Jim Harbaugh, and many fans, thought pass interference should have been called]. What if I just threw up a little bit more of a jump ball and let him go up and get it.  Cause he’s the type of receiver that can do that. Instead of making the perfect throw to the back pylon. Would he have gone up and made that grab? In my mind, nine times out of 10 he’s going to make that play.”

(MORE: Read Sean Gregory’s full, in-depth profile of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick)

(MORE: The Wonderful Weirdness of Super Bowl XLVII)

78 comments
ninersfan
ninersfan

I think it's cruel that he just views the biological mom as some kind of egg donor and surrogate but that's what adoption ultimately does to biological mothers, shun them as irresponsible pariahs. He should have some empathy for the bind that she was in as an 18 year old with his father abandoning her and utmost appreciation for the fact that she wanted what was best for him considering the nice folks she found to place him with. By the same token his biological mom needs to be forthcoming with information about the biological father, perhaps that missing piece drove a wedge in the relationship, without honesty there is no trust.

ClaudiaCorriganD'Arcy
ClaudiaCorriganD'Arcy

I wish as an adoptee, Colin Kaepernick, would join the other 6 million plus adoptees in the US who fight for their civil rights. Whatever he personally decides about meeting or not meeting his own birthmother, and no matter how great a quarterback he can be, he is still denied the right to access his original legal identity by the government.  The fight to free adoptee records in this country and restore adult adoptee civil rights could really use someone like him.

piezopaul
piezopaul

Nice to get some insight into a young QB who, as a Panthers fan, I haven't liked much. He seems like a well put together guy. .

eagle11772
eagle11772

Colin Kaepernick is one of my heroes.  I'm very disappointed that the 49ers didn't win the championship yesterday. :(

Whatanotion
Whatanotion

Apologies.  I couldn't read past the superficial reasoning behind permanently marking the body.  If I tattoo several proverbs on my body will you stop and read them and make inferences about me?  How silly.  Continue to play with balls and think that because you make lots of money at it that you have a life.  I suppose it's better than having you rob a store or commit some other act of questionable prior reflection.

Lemonwater
Lemonwater

I was attracted by the article title, yes don't judge people. I believe that everyone has their reasons to do something, like Colin said about his tattoos. His tattoos mean a lot to him, a way that he is showing to people about what he is thinking. Plus, I love his mom's way to educate him too. What a caring lady. This society needs more people like that and I believe most people are kind.

ShannonDavisLawson
ShannonDavisLawson

I love this kid!  I really do.  I'm sure his parents are completely proud of him and proud of the job they did raising him.  His birth mother should have kept her head down and her mouth SHUT and just loved him from a distance.  She could have sent a card or something to his parents, thanking them for the excellent job they did raising the gift the Lord gave HER, because beyond a shadow of doubt she could never have done such wonders for this boy.  I liked him before I read about his defense of his adopted mom, and I really like him now.  His story is in the top 10 reasons I hope the 49ers win the Superbowl.  I just want to see Colin get his ring.  :D  I think he has earned his place in NFL sports, not because of his skin color or any kind of entitlement, but because he works hard, plays hard, and he is hungry for it.  I said that the first time I saw him playing.  That kid has spirit!  As for his birth mom, yeah, she just shot herself in the foot.  

gwmc7e
gwmc7e

He has good parents. Enough said. Next?

dickson2856
dickson2856

You cant attack Mom, Class act young man.Love is all we have as parents and our hard work shows through when our children present themselves like you have.


Openminded1
Openminded1

very talented  Qb, the adopted parents did a wonderful job. his dad was the typical welfare selfish crap black guy who got his white trash girlfriend knocked up and they both did what many black men and white trash moms do. they left him like he did not even exist. The tats are a cry for attention and it is a sign of weakness that is very ugly and almost stupid. But he seems to be a nice guy with talent. good luck to him. the stupid tats are there for ever so he will live with them till he dies.

DawnCalvin
DawnCalvin

Good guy. Loves his mama. I can respect that. I love my mama too.

BrianR.Douglas
BrianR.Douglas

Colin Kaepernick is multiracial first generation white/black American he is just that, his mother is white and his father is African American he can clam "white" just as easily as anyone who claims that non scientific and cultural identity.  and for the record Colin is beautiful

meltex24
meltex24

She's using the success of her son, to highlight the plight and stigmas of birth mothers when it's neither wanted, nor appreciated.  Sounds like she only thought of herself when she gave him up, and she's still thinking only of herself.  Sometimes I don't think enough credit is given to the adopted family, and I hate using that phrase.  Especially in a case like this, where Colin truly knows who his family is.

jtf
jtf

I like this guy. Sounds like he's got his head on straight and his priorities sorted out. I don't like the Niners (GIant fan), but  Kaepernik  is OK with me. 

twbbud
twbbud

When QBs come into the league and play the way Kaepernick played for  the playoffs, there's something special.  Having a difficult background provides some people with uncommon motivation and desire.   Colin has all that plus intelligence, and physical gifts that are rare in elite quarterbacks.  The NFL LOVES him because he puts butts in seats and eyeballs on TV screens.

PaulBrinkley-Rogers
PaulBrinkley-Rogers

"...came off the bench in Week 10 last season to nearly lead the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl." Um, he did lead them to the Super Bowl.

jnetterville974
jnetterville974

Colin is a special person who happens to be different than your typical NFL quarterback, so what if he has multiple tattoos, was adopted, & is mixed so-called race. He is gifted, humble, & most notable, comfortable in his own skin. God bless you Colin. 




CarlLegg
CarlLegg

"who came off the bench in Week 10 last season to nearly lead the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl."

Who writes this stuff? Colin DID "lead the 49ers to Super Bowl". Did you forget, or just not know?

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

MEMO TO THE TIME MAGAZINE EDITORIAL BOARD:

As of 6:36PM, this article was the Main Headline on the TIME Magazine home page.

That statement should shock the daylights out of dedicated, long-time (no pun intended) readers, because:

1) The Main Headline is about WHY A TATTOOED ATHLETE IS NOT A "FREAK."

2) That the author thinks such a thing as QUARTERBACK SOCIOLOGY actually exists.

It's ridiculous, ridiculously laughable, or laughably ridiculous.  It begs the serious question of, "Is THAT the most important thing going on in the world today???!!!"

Seriously, are you guys at TIME smoking crack?  Have you let the light-weights take over the heavy-writing division??  Do you really think that articles about tattooed adults are serious news???  Are you still wondering why you're failing as a news source, and why your revenues keep declining???

Appealing to 'that' demographic is a failing business model.  Wake up, and get back to the serious stories that made you great for so long!!!

eagle11772
eagle11772

Yeah, but we want to know if he's gay !

Raiderrosi
Raiderrosi

I am not a 9er fan, but love Kaepernick. He is honest, humble and really doesn't care what people think. He knows right from wrong and is here to do a JOB. I wish him luck and hope he stays the same genuine person his parents brought him up to be. A proud, hardworking, dedicated individual. He is not what is is made up of, he is just Colin!!

WASPNEST
WASPNEST

Tattoos are so out of style.

fgoodwin
fgoodwin

I love his comments about adoption.  So uplifting.  

Even though I'm a Cowboy fan, I wish you the best of luck, Mr. Kaepernick.

yffrules
yffrules

"who came off the bench in Week 10 last season to nearly lead the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl"

Should this read "to a Super Bowl victory", I mean he did lead them to the Super Bowl



DavidMueller
DavidMueller

For a team that had averaged 5.1 yards per rushing attempt the whole 2012 season. To give that up and pass 3 times to the same receiver ( Crabtree )  in the same area,  was pure stupidity.  Greg Roman along with all the 49er coaches  deserve  blame for the Super Bowl loss.  Poor 1st half defense, poor special teams, and poor offensive play calling.  Of course the Baltimore kick return should have been called back because of holding.  How the refs could not see so much obvious holding on one play is criminal.  

DavidMueller
DavidMueller

Nice article. I also liked Peter Kings interview.  

WhitneyYoung
WhitneyYoung

@Openminded1


WOW!!! I can not believe that your name is openminded after a reading your comment. Do you personally know his birth parents? do you personally know Kaepernick? I'm pretty sure you do not. you don't know what happened between his birth parents that caused his mother to believe that she had to give him up for adoption. More than likely that was the best thing that ever happened to Kaepernick. He was adopted by loving, supportive parents. his life may not have turned out so well if he hadn't been put up for adoption. Your assumption about his father is racist and very narrow minded. Also your comment about his tattoos are exactly what Kaepernick was talking about. I have several tattoos, all of mine were thought out and have personal meaning to me. Tattoos are important to the person who gets the tattoo, it is not important that others understand the reason for your tattoos.  

eagle11772
eagle11772

@BrianR.Douglas And not only that, he's a GREAT quarterback ! :)  (I hope the 49ers win the Super Bowl !)

ofickit
ofickit

@meltex24 Russo and her fly-by-night pollinator deserve the very little credit and the stigma they've earned.  At 19, You are not a  child anymore, and ought to know indulging in unprotected sex with people who "want to hook up" has serious consequences.  Kaepernick is lucky that he has the family he does...He would likely be selling drugs in a 'hood, somewhere had he not been given up for adoption.  Kids cannot choose their parents, but mothers can choose their mates, and if you lay down casually for sex, don't be surprised when you get knocked up... Everybody wants sex because it feels good, but it's purpose is primarily for making copies of humanity.  Gotta hate that K. ate the Panther's lunch.  But Newton for all his passing skills has poor decision and scramble capability...

MikeHolmes1
MikeHolmes1

Stick to church, you obviously know nothing about football

MikeHolmes1
MikeHolmes1

Alex Smith did all of the legwork, C.K. just had a little luck.  The 49ers probably would've won if they still had Alex Smith.  

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@yffrules  

it should, but seeing that this is TIME, the whole proper phrasing, spelling, grammar, and facts thing goes out the window

MaseWehrle
MaseWehrle

@WhitneyYoung-

'Openminded' thinks since he doesnt have tats because he doesnt like them that nobody should have them. That or he thinks Colins are so ugly he should get different ones. You know, because they wont go on openmindeds body or anything lol.

Mr.357
Mr.357

@WhitneyYoung @Openminded1 Ignore him, he is always spewing hate as opposed to adding to the comment section constructively.  His screen name itself is a joke.

EveryonesAwinner
EveryonesAwinner

Openminded1is absolutely correct and is not afraid to speak the truth.That's what's great about social media. You can't get killed for speaking the truth.

JuliaHowell
JuliaHowell

@ofickit @meltex24 I wish that every woman thinking of giving her child for adoption could read these posts.  What you have expressed is the REAL attitude toward first mothers. Not that "you will be a hero" "adoption is a loving option" "the adoptive parents will make sure that your child knows you loved him/her" "you will help a deserving couple build a family" "you are brave" "you will have regular contact".

All lies meant to separate women from their children. The views of CK and his family are the REAL views of most adoptive families. The views that you have expressed are the ones that are real. Not the lies that are told of "open adoption is a loving option". Adoption should be rare, women should be assisted to keep their babies. 

CarlLegg
CarlLegg

@MikeHolmes1 I've often wondered about that. Alex was playing at a very high level when he was removed. The 2013 season will show us if CK is the real deal, or if he just got lucky in 2012.