- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the revved-up world of college football recruiting, every player is scrutinized, every detail is analyzed, every piece of game film is parsed. This is beyond up close and personal. It is in your face, be ready for your closeup now and personal.
Which makes the case of Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick so intriguing. He got only one scholarship offer to play football. He never ran the ball in high school. Most thought he would end up playing baseball.
But how Kaepernick got that scholarship offer had nothing to do with game film or 40-yard dash times or arm strength.
One single basketball game changed the course of his life. Now he is one of the more unheralded players in the country, running and passing the ball with such proficiency the Wolf Pack are undefeated and ranked in both polls for the first time ever.
His football story and his life story tell a powerful tale.
Sometimes we can learn a lot more about a person from afar.
Kaepernick desperately wanted to play football in college. He may have been getting scholarship offers to play baseball as a standout pitcher, but he put all his hopes on the football field. He attended elite football camps, with guys like Matthew Stafford, Jake Locker and Josh Freeman and held his own. After all, he had a heck of an arm, even if his mechanics were a bit off.
"When I got done there were parents coming up to me asking who I was and where I was going to school," Kaepernick said in a phone interview. "It was hard telling them, 'I don't have a scholarship offer.' Everybody was like why not? That was frustrating for me. Ever since then, I've had a chip on my shoulder and something to prove."
At Pitman High in Turlock, Calif., he ran the wing-T offense. Though he was 6-foot-6, he only weighed around 170 pounds and was described as "paper thin." Pitman did not want him to get hurt, so he just threw the ball and handed it off. Recruiters came to watch teammate Anthony Harding, who eventually went to Fresno State. But Kaepernick barely got a sniff. He joked that his rushing numbers at Pitman totaled around "minus-50 yards."
His head coach, Larry Nigro, sent out tape. His brother Kyle sent out tape, but Kaepernick got no scholarship offers. Nevada assistant Barry Sacks, who recruits the Central California Valley, heard about Kaepernick. Nigro told him Kaepernick was "can't-miss."
Sacks had gotten that line before, but Nevada kept him on its radar, evaluating him in the spring and watching game tape in the fall of his senior year. Nevada was still in need of a quarterback late in the recruiting period, but it was December.
Football season had ended. Kaepernick was playing basketball, so Sacks decided to go watch him play.
"A basketball guy who I knew from the Central Valley told me, 'This guy tore up one of the top ranked basketball teams,'" Sacks said. "We're not recruiting basketball players, but it's one of the tools you can use to evaluate an athlete. You can see not only his athleticism, but his competitiveness and his toughness."
The night Sacks showed up, Kaepernick had a 102 degree fever. But he played the entire game and dominated. It was all right there in front of Sacks, the intangibles Nevada wanted from its players. Sacks called Nevada coach Chris Ault after the game and raved.
"Coach, this guy is unbelievable," Sacks recalled telling Ault.
"Let's go on him," Ault replied.
To be honest, I'm not too sure if I want to or don't want to. It's something I want to do, but at the same time, I feel it might be a little bit awkward.
”-- Colin Kaepernick on meeting his biological mother
"The final key to pull the trigger was because of the way he competed that night," Sacks said. "We really thought we had a diamond in the rough."
Nevada still had concerns that Kaepernick would change his mind and decide to play baseball, all the way up to signing day two months later.
Incredibly, that was the biggest concern for Nevada. Nobody thought twice about never watching him play football his senior season. They projected from afar, from a basketball court in a high school gym, from game tape and personal conviction.
Then again, there is much to learn about Kaepernick from afar. In his life story, too.
Kaepernick was adopted at birth by Rick and Teresa Kaepernick. His birth mother was 19 when he was born and wanted to give him a better life, according to his family. His birth father left the picture as soon as he found out a baby was on the way, the family said.
Rick and Teresa had two children of their own, but lost two babies shortly after birth because of heart defects. Never mind that Colin was black and they were white. They just wanted another baby. So they took him in, remaining open and honest about his adoption. Though they often get puzzled stares and quizzical looks, nobody in the family thinks much about his place in it.
His birth mother stayed in touch with his parents off and on, but three years ago, she reached out to Colin through Facebook. One day, he logged into his account and had a note and friend request waiting.
They have exchanged messages every once in a while, but have never spoken on the phone or met in person. She did attend his game at Colorado State last season but never made a move to meet him. She told him she was in the stands a week later.
"I think the main thing is she wants to know I'm doing well, and she wants to know that everything worked out for me," Kaepernick said.
But he is not sure he wants to actually meet her.
"That's something I'm still contemplating," he said. "To be honest, I'm not too sure if I want to or don't want to. It's something I want to do, but at the same time, I feel it might be a little bit awkward.
"I've talked to my parents about it, and basically they said it's your decision. If you want to meet her, if you don't want to meet her, whatever you do we'll support you in it."
That is not among the highest of his priorities now. Winning a WAC championship is, though he and his teammates toil far from the national spotlight. Perhaps you have never seen Kaepernick play, or maybe you have seen brief highlights.
But the season he is putting together is one of his best yet. He has bulked up to 225 pounds to withstand the punishing hits he takes when running the football. When he got to Nevada, Kaepernick thought he would be throwing much more than running, but Ault saw an athlete who would be the perfect fit for his Pistol offense.
Kaepernick dedicated himself to the weight room, and had to learn how to run and increase his speed. Perhaps his coming-out party was a 69-67 overtime loss to Boise State his redshirt freshman season. Kaepernick got his first career start in place of an injured Nick Graziano and had 420 total yards and five touchdowns. He had had the keys to the offense ever since, and Nevada has incorporated more of the option to take advantage of the way he runs.
"You see him running like a banshee, so I finally asked him, 'Could you run like that and we just missed it?'" said Pitman coach Brandon Harris, his offensive coordinator in high school. "I didn't know he would be the runner he is now. But we always thought, 'If you're going to take a chance on a kid, he'd be the guy.'"
Kaepernick is tall and still not bulky and looks as if he is running standing straight up. But his long strides are a problem for defenders, who have a hard time catching up to him. Already this season, he has 1,596 yards of total offense and 17 touchdowns and is on pace to join Brad Smith as the only FBS players to pass for 8,000 yards and rush for 4,000 yards in a career.
What he is doing better than he has his entire career is passing with efficiency. That arm strength Harris raved about did not always lead to accurate passes, partly because his receivers never knew if they should keep going with their routes or stop and block for him. But after much offseason work, Kaepernick is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes, a career high.
"He's a catalyst to the offense and he's having a terrific year," Ault said. "He's the guy we go to and the guy we're counting on."
Kaepernick would not want it any other way. He embraces his role, but he does it with little fanfare and little ego. He is quiet and humble and unaffected by the increasing attention, and is still the same guy who used to write "Family First" on his spikes. That message has been changed to "God's Warrior" this season. He is still the same guy who loves going to family reunions, who has a fully grown pet turtle at his home in Turlock, who wants to travel to Rome when the season ends.
The same guy who worked at the Nevada pro shop in the mall over the summer and sold his No. 10 jersey to unsuspecting customers.
Those customers help embody the Kaepernick story. Even up close, you may not know all that is right there in front of you.
Andrea Adelson is a national college football blogger for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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