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)