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An Internet meme was born. Across the globe, images of people kissing their biceps beside "#Kaepernicking" popped up. Kaepernick himself played along with the trend he created. After the Packers game, he posted a photo to his Instagram account showing him kissing his bicep. He wore a red shirt with a message: "Kaepernicking." Just as he toyed with the role of the quarterback, so too with the idea of celebrity, breaking through the fourth wall that detaches the spectators from the actors, teasing the notion of his own mythology.
It is a self-awareness that makes narrative-building uncomfortable. Sports are all about narratives, with characters, drama, and conflict. Boiled down, sports are the intersection of statistics and physics, but at the center of that intersection are the players. People at their rawest, most uninhibited state — in the fire of competition, tested and measured against an adversary. We see them laugh, shout with joy, fight, rage, panic, choke, cry. We form emotional bonds with them. We understand that we don't really know them, of course. All we have are bits, anecdotes and interviews, which we fit together and interpret into stories — Horatio Alger tales of upward mobility, perseverance through obstacles, young men achieving dreams.
Naturally, to fill the holes within the narratives, we use only what we have: assumptions and social conventions we've built up over the course of generations. We extrapolate from sign posts. Tattoos, race, playing style, the clothing an athlete wears in a post-game press conference, and so on. (All the details about Kaepernick in this story are bits.) Minuscule slices of an entire life, formed into a narrative arc that attempts to give meaning to a man most of us will never meet.
Kaepernick, better than most, must understand the flaws in the assumptions that glue narratives together. His narrative is one that strays from sign posts — If you're looking for a story about a player overcoming thug life, you've got the wrong guy ... Drooling over his physical tools somewhat cheapens the product ... Don't let the tattoos and everything fool you ...
His narrative is about the fallacy of narrative.
After the Sporting News column about his tattoos was published, the backlash came swiftly. The writer was "savaged on the Internet and called a racist," as the San Jose Mercury News reported. USA Today ran a story headlined "Tattoos but a fraction of Colin Kaepernick's story." Yahoo! Sports reasoned that Kaepernick's parents were "justifiably annoyed by [the] hack article." A Fox Sports story considered whether Kaepernick was "painted as a bad guy over tattoos." Sporting News' editor published a column explaining that his writer's sentiments stemmed from innocent generational tastes rather than malice. News stories tracked down the artist behind the quarterback's tattoos, noting that his business had been "booming."
Instantly, Kaepernick had changed from one writer's symbol of America's degenerate youth to a figure of America's progression, a symbol of how we live in a country where outward appearance is not a measure of a person's ability to lead. It was a serious cultural debate that we made sure to take seriously.
To the man at the center of the discourse, though, it was just another absurd conception to dress down. To tweet about. To mold into satire. As we gathered, hollering and holding pitchforks, around the columnist, Kaepernick was sitting in the tree above us, winking.
"I don't want to be categorized," Kaepernick told reporters in the week before the 49ers' NFC Championship game against the Atlanta Falcons. He meant this within the context of his abilities as a quarterback. So it's important to tidy one thing up: He is not just "a runner." He made that clear against the Packers.
In between running for more yards than any NFL quarterback, Kaepernick zipped the ball around with Joe Montana accuracy. He rifled a touchdown pass through a prison-cell-sized window between two converging defenders, a 20-yard jet stream that would have hit the receiver in the head had he not put up his hands: "That was a perfect throw," said color commentator and former quarterback Troy Aikman. He launched a parabolic dime that arced 40 yards into his sprinting receiver's palms, centimeters over the defender's outstretched fingers. "Colin Kaepernick couldn't walk it down the field and hand it to him any better than that," said announcer Buck.
By redefining the limits of a quarterback's skill set, Kaepernick effectively hit a reset button on the popular idea of what a quarterback looks like. The biracial brown kid with tattoos on his arms and a funny name is now the face of leadership, intelligence, toughness, courage, poise under pressure.
In the lead-up to the NFC Championship game, the talk of the sports world was over how the Falcons defense would try to contain Kaepernick's running ability. Experts analyzed how the Falcons had defended other athletic quarterbacks like Newton and Wilson. The Chronicle ran a feature contrasting the styles of Kaepernick and Falcons QB Matt Ryan, "the prototypical drop-back passer: tall, strong, and perfectly content to stand in the pocket and fire passes downfield."
Ryan's Falcons surged to a 17-0 lead. No team had overcome such a deficit to reach the Super Bowl. But then, as the defense keyed on the 49ers' running attack, Kaepernick orchestrated one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history with his arm, anticipating over and over again the moment a receiver would turn up open within the chaotic muddle of the defense.