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Photo Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen with photography by Tony Avelar/Associated Press
The magician held the ball between his palms. His audience watched him intently. They knew his tricks. They'd studied him for days. There was the ball. The magician held it away from his body, for everybody to see. His movements were smooth. His audience was not kind — a mob of large men eager to pounce on him, to take the ball once they figured out his tricks. One slip up and the magician would find himself at the mob's mercy, possibly at the bottom of a dog-pile.
The audience saw the magician hand the ball to his assistant and trot off to the side with long strides. The audience converged, bloodthirsty, toward the assistant ...
Poof. The ball had disappeared. And so had the magician. The audience looked around, stunned.
Somehow, the magician materialized behind them. They flipped around and saw his back as he sprinted away. They would not catch him.
It appeared to be a simple trick, nothing but a two-man con game for a 56-yard touchdown.
The San Francisco 49ers were playing the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional Championship. Winner got a shot at the Super Bowl. By the fourth quarter, the Packers had become intimately familiar with Kaepernick's sleight of hand. He'd pulled it on them several times now. So the defense must have been prepared when the 49ers ran the disappearing-ball trick one more time. Again, Kaepernick shoved the football into running back Frank Gore's gut. As he trotted away, though, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews was wiser. He jumped out to cut off Kaepernick; no blocker tried to stop him. He got within 6 feet of the quarterback. Matthews stared at him, measuring his movements, preparing to strike.
Poof. The ball had disappeared once again.
Matthews, in a panic, did a triple take, his head on a swivel. He turned back to look at Gore, whose hands were empty. Matthews completed a full pirouette before he realized that Kaepernick had had the ball the whole time. But by now the QB was downfield, cruising to the sidelines for an 18-yard gain.
"Clay Matthews, one of the game's best linebackers, was completely fooled by that fake by Kaepernick," Buck gushed. "Matthews is completely spun around by Kaepernick!"
It was Kaepernick's final run of the game, giving him a total of 181 rushing yards, more than any NFL quarterback had ever compiled in a single game.
"We're gonna look back 10 years from now and say that this was the point where quarterback evaluation in the NFL changed," added Howie Long, the Hall of Fame defensive end sitting next to Bradshaw on the post-game show.
Kaepernick's performance is both the product of and the spark for changes that resonate beyond NFL playbooks. After all, the quarterback is the most important position in America's most popular pastime. The quarterback embodies traits we most admire: leadership, intelligence, toughness, courage, poise under pressure. The quarterback is the All-American, the homecoming king, the franchise savior, the smile on the cover of GQ. He calls the plays and takes the blame. He stands still as 300-pound opponents try to destroy him, deciphering the complex defense meant to deceive him before making the final decision on where to send the football — all in a matter of seconds. So when what it means to be a quarterback changes, half a century of social conceptions changes with it.
Quarterbacks who run as fast as Kaepernick are not supposed to throw as accurately as he does, and vice versa. Quarterbacks as physically gifted as Kaepernick are not supposed to mentally confound defenses as he does, and vice versa. The scary and exciting thing about Kaepernick's signature performance in the biggest game of his career — only his eighth start in the league — is that it was not some glitch in the fabric of pro football. It was a nationally televised exclamation point in the defining story of the 2012 season: a new generation of young quarterbacks, with skills like Kaepernick's, redefining the position.
And two years ago, none of them were in the NFL.
"Watching the NFL this season and the playoffs so far, I am convinced we are witnessing a seismic shift at the quarterback position," Fran Tarkenton, a legendary quarterback who was famous for his ability to evade defenders, wrote in an early January op-ed for the St. Paul, Minn., Pioneer Press. "They aren't wide receivers or running backs thrust by accident or desperation into the role of quarterback. They are all dangerous passers who just so happen to run like gazelles."
Leading his team to the Super Bowl, Kaepernick has emerged at the top of his group, becoming the face of this shift. By revolutionizing a quarterback's role in football, he challenges the underlying assumptions about the position. Kaepernick is not just the face of a changing sport, but the face of a changing America.