shooting from the hip
The man started out by sitting down, and it was caught on camera. Is he finally standing up for something?
When I thought up the idea for a column called The Random Age, I could not have had a better subject than the ongoing saga of Colin Kaepernick, former SF 49ers quarterback, the inadvertent antihero of a story that found him sitting down during a sacred song, the American national anthem -- literally found him, as he had been sitting during the anthem for a while and during one game a camera panned the sideline and there was the brooding ex-starter, relegated now to irrelevance, sitting alone, clearly troubled, sulking -- the picture of childish petulance. His sit-down protest seemed to be part simple anger because his football stardom had begun to wane, and part unfocused rage at a world that gave us Darrell Wilson and George Zimmerman and allowed them to run free after having killed two young African-American males.
Colin Kaepernick had not uttered a single word about politics, social issues or current events that I had ever heard or read prior to this awkward, inarticulate protest that quickly grew beyond him. After his emergence as a media-identified political activist, he botched a message about Cuba, got entangled in misstatements about geography, and seemed to deny his own existence as a child adopted into a middle class family prior to this series of events. Colin is no geopolitical scholar or even well-informed layman; he is a man caught in a maelstrom, steadying himself with the one issue to which his allegiance did not seem incongruent. It wasn't like he was suddenly spouting a Free Tibet line or weighing in on the role of the Russians in the last presidential election. His middling protest, unseen for weeks, and later his random utterings to the media, gave rise to a national movement from which he has now retreated, or been marginalized. He wanted to play football, and gave up $13 million to take his talents outside of San Francisco where he would be free of the drama of the Coach Jim Harbaugh’s last year with the team and his own decline, and where star QBs on the open market routinely scoff at $20 million a year. After being released by the 49ers in 2017, Colin flirted briefly with John Elway and Denver, and there were rumors of a back-up role under Jim's brother John Harbaugh in Baltimore, but neither came to pass. Colin Kaepernick is currently unemployed. He has filed a lawsuit against the 32 team owners of the National Football League, claiming they conspired and colluded in denying him employment because of his political beliefs. (The suit was settled in early 2019 for an undisclosed amount.)
This is the man, now 29 years old, who fell inches short of a Super Bowl championship in 2013, fell a game short of the Big Game the following year. After that he simply fell. He had a difficult time handling the intrusion of reality on the blemish-free world of sprinter-worthy touchdown runs where he danced into the end zone like a gazelle, untouched, and threw bullet passes that soared half a football field with ease. In the lofty plane where he performed his greatest feats, there was no uneven ground, no interference or resistance, and the only wind was that pure whooosh he left in his own wake, after which the vacuum resealed itself, a hermetic perfection that awaited his next appearance. It's gone now, that lofty and rarified void, at least for Colin Kaepernick.
What he has in its place is the exhilarating and maddening mess of life in the public spotlight, where the noise and the flash and the now fire-scarred air could beat down the best of us. Colin Kaepernick wanted none of this. Any claims of political intentionality is what we put on him; he has said virtually nothing in a year. His Africa trip was hardly covered, and Colin has imparted no wisdom upon us regarding his experience here, there or anywhere. He pledged $1 million to local agencies to serve troubled youth; some of that money went to the children of fallen police officers. We don't know how he feels about global warming, the economic crisis in Greece or Donald Trump, though about the latter we can guess.
These threads are all part of the complex Colin Kaepernick story. I haven't gotten into the sociological analysis of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, or the symbolic use of kneeling as opposed to sitting while the anthem was being played, which really did change the narrative -- for a moment. There are so many facets to this we could be writing about it in iteration #112 five years from now and still find new angles. But for now I am thinking about the psychology of historical sports figures and their signature moments. A few -- for reasons that may at first be clear only to me -- became tied to Colin as I thought this through. A few took on some of the doubting, freeze-in-the-moment kind of disconnect we saw in Colin in the 2014 Super Bowl and the 2015 NFC championship game (Olympic skater Debi Thomas, boxer Michael Spinks) or in the largest moments imaginable came through on some higher plane (Kirk Gibson of the LA Dodgers, the Golden State Warriors' King of Calm Klay Thompson, and the boxing volcano Mike [I'll Eat Your Children] Tyson, for whom that middle name would take on true meaning later in his career.) Some others, Alex Smith in particular, hovered in a strangely stable limbo, reviled but ultimately admired for their sheer perseverance and ascent to mediocrity. All present a kind of lesson in humanity and fame. We could do a similar analysis of Sade, the soulful and too-sensitive singer, or Tina Turner, victim turned triumphant survivor, or in politics the damaged and malevolent tragedy of Richard Nixon. But Kaepernick is in front of us now.
When Colin Kaepernick started his first NFL game in 2013 because then-49er starter Alex Smith was put on concussion protocol, and played so well that when Alex was ready to return Jim Harbaugh stuck with Colin, it seemed to be the final chapter in the Alex Smith saga. The #1 pick out of Utah was never quite comfortable in the NFL game. He was too cerebral, too timid. His manner was hesitant and mechanical, and he made safe choices always, was high on the risk-aversion scale - at best he was called a decent "game manager." Alex was the number one pick in the 2005 draft and only his internal fortitude and his willingness to learn and suffer allowed him to have an NFL career at all. He was a bust for 4 years, barely managed the next 4, and after the Kaepernick ascension was traded to Andy Reid's Kansas City Chiefs -- a fortuitous fit, with Reid's ability to groom QBs, the strong Chiefs defense, and a great running game. Alex was a first-rate game manager his first two years there while Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers to one Super Bowl and a near victory, followed the next year by a trip to the NFC title game.
Then came the final Harbaugh year and the 49ers ugly implosion, the poor play by Kaepernick amidst the chaos, the anthem protest and reaction. Today, Colin Kaepernick is unemployed while hundreds of athletes credit him with starting a meaningful Civil Rights movement, and Alex Smith is the top-rated passer in the NFL and an early MVP candidate. His newfound downfield prowess is reflected in his league-leading 8.80 yards per pass attempt.
Ironically, back in 2005, when Alex Smith was chosen #1 over Cal's Aaron Rodgers, then-49ers coach Dick Nolan interviewed both men and said, 'I saw in the eyes of Alex Smith what I needed to see,' where as soon as they were in training camp it was obvious that what was in Alex Smith's eyes was utter shock and awe at the speed and power of the pro game. He barely survived his early years, but he did get better every year. Aaron Rodgers, whose eyes did not convey to Dick Nolan what Dick wanted to see, is widely considered one of the best QBs in league history, a generational talent with an uncanny gift for the surprise play, the crafty side-step to buy a few seconds and a few inches, the dramatic game-ending pass. He broke his collarbone in Game 5 of the 2017 season, his year over. So Alex Smith's two nemeses are out of the picture for 2017, at least as far as football playing goes, and if Alex Smith were to win the MVP, it would be as unlikely as any story in sports history.
Colin Kaepernick, his eyes shadowed by internal turmoil, his discomfort in his own skin evident, may not be the brave social justice activist some make him out to be. He seemed to be acting out some combination of personal rage and vague social awareness, and the back-up QBs bench spot proved to be a viable launching pad for a powerful social justice movement that has the President of the United States scrambling for answers. Colin Kaepernick never knew what was coming, and it ain't over yet. He filed that collusion lawsuit and now the lawyers are in charge. Good luck with that. As you can see by the various stories above, there is always an unexpected twist in these high-profile lives, and no doubt we'll have a few more coming soon. Pay attention to the eyes of the protagonists; it is likely the future can be seen there, if you know the players and what to look for.
Back with the 49ers, winning football games was a bit beyond Jim Tomsula, although his 5-11 record in 2015 bested Chip Kelly's 2016 nadir of 2-14. The ragtag group of players then in place looked awfully thin once the Singletary draftees were gone, and that exposed GM Trent Balke as a mediocre executive man uplifted by Harbaugh, unable to muster a winner on his own. The laser-focused Harbaugh, the general-in-the-bunker strategist and crafty motivator whose rallying cry Who's got it better than us? No one!' was a unifying chant of epic proportions taken from his own childhood, was asked to resign or be released after the fourth year of a five year contract, the reins going to the mumbling, confused Tomsula.
In Tomsula's first press conference after Harbaugh's resignation, the contrast between regimes was immediately clear: Tomsula came off as the new teacher being introduced to the parents of the second grade class who had just learned the teacher they had expected, a supposed miracle worker with struggling learners and nervous families, had moved to Michigan. Trent Balke was cast as the beleaguered principal trying to put a good face on the departure, as it slowly dawned on parents that he was the reason the teacher had left. The Superintendent in this scenario, Jed York (the 49ers in-over-his-head President), was completely out of touch with the reality and the growing sense of betrayal and panic, mouthing platitudes from the podium in a hesitant voice that inspired no faith and hinted at his own doubts.
Then came Coach Tomsula's turn. As the seven torturous minutes of the Tomsula coming out wore on, a confused and rattled Tomsula drifted into incomprehensible explanations of strategy and schemes, his concentration off, his hand gestures awkward and distracting, his face slightly askew as he struggled with word choice and coherent syntax. He pronounced a word ludicrist and made moaning and sighing sounds in response to a question he didn't want to answer. Balke tried to step in with clarifying statements but they fell flat. This was Balke's moment: he had forced the team's hand in the dismissal of Harbaugh, positioned himself as the architect of the future while implying that the glory years were a product of his vision, not the Harbaugh mystique -- only to watch it all unravel within days of the end of the 2014 season at this early 2015 press conference.
From February 2013, when they were within a yard of overtaking Baltimore in the Super Bowl for a world championship, until the January 2015 introduction of the new Coach -- in the course of two calendar years -- the fall from grace was all but complete.
After a poor first half of the 2015 season, with a 2-6 record and no one to check his excesses on the field or with the press, a poorly coached Colin Kaepernick lost his starting job to the woefully under-talented Blaine Gabbert, a notorious first-round bust struggling to stay in the league.
This was the nadir, the bleak period of Colin the pissed-off brooder, looking like an abandoned teenager trying to hide his fear and hurt with a sullen, indifferent exterior, grunting at sideline reporters and one-wording himself into a parody. His bad QB play was now a bad locker room presence, all out there for the public to see, the unmasking of the man, the almost-great athlete who couldn't read defenses, undermining his physical gifts –
Don't take too lightly the words can't read to a young black orphan growing up in a white suburban family. Colin began to relate his current demotion to a larger and unformed idea that had taken root in his consciousness. They're gunning us down, he saw on the news: we're chattel, barely human. He had gone from the ecstasy of sports success and adulation to the endless expanse of a featureless, lost 2015 season.
He returned for 2016 still as a back-up under new coach Chip Kelly, and mid-year was given the starting job back just as it had been taken from him, a change for change sake, with no hope on anyone's part. By this time he was fully bitter and enraged: the return of a football role only ameliorated it a bit. He had been put in his place by the man the year before; they had ousted his mentor and protector Jim Harbaugh, then they had taken away his job. They gave it back to him in awful shape, with few skilled players and a hybrid offense that didn't seem to be doing well at any aspect of the game -- a set-up for him to fail. Chip Kelly had left Philadelphia with a reputation that he treated black players harshly. Given that Kelly's offensive innovations seemed to play into most of Colin Kaepernick's skill set - run options on almost any play, fast-moving run-and-gun QB-receiver connections in which Kaepernick's rocket arm could be an asset - Chip Kelly's quick dismissal of Colin as a possible long-term QB solution must have been a blow with racial implications that finally sent the young man into a new paradigm where racial radicalization was not an unreasonable choice.
Now Colin Kaepernick was asserting a rebellious identity with his appearance and his manner. Hell if he's going to stand up for that man's anthem, this county with its killer police in Desert Storm commando outfits. Hell, that man named Kelly didn't want him in the first place. It was supposed to be the perfect match with the innovator coach and the lethal weapons Colin still had -- and the pasty dude hung him out to dry. Colin just sits at anthem time, no one says a word, do they even care? Seems not. One day a player forgets to come out from the locker room; another time a guy stays on the bench fiddling with his ankle brace during the anthem, so Colin guesses it's a choice, and he simply stops getting up for the anthem. He is angry, so he sits and broods and finally it's noticed and someone asks about it. That was the moment of truth right there.
I feel like I know Colin Kaepernick. Even at the top of his game, when his performances were so astounding even he seemed surprised, I could look into his face and see a little bit of myself at the age of 13, and a little bit of the teenagers I see every day -- each a spoiled and primped manchild, front runners all, a little wary, a little ashamed, for Colin more than a little frightened that the peek at greatness was all he was going to get. He could feel it slipping away. Maybe that's it. From here on out it was just hard work and lots of other talented people trying to win just like him and they will probably outwork him and make him look lazy and foolish.
I don't think that I have ever been more electrified by an athlete's performance in a single game than the night in January 2013 when Colin Kaepernick demonstrated absolute athletic superiority in a playoff game against the Green Bay Packers. He rushed for a QB-record 181 yards and zipped past defenders on two different touchdown rushing plays, the last of more than 50 yards that sent him untouched into the end zone. Untouched: if we were to use the weapons metaphor that football seems to inspire all too often, it was as if the 49ers unleashed some 25th century innovation and hardly noticed what the opposition was doing back here in the 21st century.
Kaepernick's performance was beyond dominant. He seemed to be playing on a different field, as if he entered another dimension once he began to run, and the geometric plane he chose to occupy was his alone, a private track where his feats could be compared only to his own feats. Somewhere down below a game was being played, one of strategy and effort, a toil of blood and sweat. And as we enjoyed the rarified air of greatness, there was this lingering fear that when the time came for him to rejoin that game -- because no one could stay in that lofty a position for very long -- he wasn't going to enjoy getting punched in the mouth very much. He might even cry and go home at the first sign of blood. He had that kind of look on his face, a little insolent, a little insecure, a little spoiled, a bully who was really a pushover. Or was I just imagining it because I took such pleasure in his play at that level and was naturally fearful about it falling off or being appropriated and made bland and predictable?
I was surprised when I went to do some research on memorable sports events in which I had perceived a certain character element at play, to find that three of the biggest character-related events in sports history took place in 1988.
Colin Kaepernick was not the first player in whom I sensed, through their eyes, something that signaled a dramatic fall. I picked heavyweight champ Mike Tyson over Michael Spinks in the first round on the spot - that night in 1988 Spinks' face and manner registered something that spoke to me and I said to myself: this man is done, and 1:24 later, a single grazing punch off the top of the head, a so-so right cross to the jaw, and Spinks, one of the great defensive fighters of the era, was done. The former light-heavyweight champ who had taken a heavyweight belt from the long-time champ Larry Holmes seemed to sit down on the canvas after the first knock-down, the grazing right hand, got up, then took another right, and was down for the 10-count. Spinks then got up again and walked out of the ring. He didn't seem more than a bit dazed.
This fight took place years prior to Tyson biting and ripping off portions of his opponents' flesh, so while the heavyweight was a fearsome puncher, he wasn't yet the psychotic lunatic he was to become, a man who might extract and cook your testicles for dinner. Tyson was like a bull-fighter, with a picador and a banderillero prepping the poor animal with little teasing jabs, making him dizzy from blood-loss. Tyson's reputation played that pre-fight role; Spinks was weakened and half-crazed with a survival instinct that said Quit long before he was in the ring. Mike Tyson embodies the surreal, has the tantalizing charisma of the psychopath, with the occasionally elevated lucidity that madness produces, seducing you into believing that genius is lurking, and then of course you doubt everything -- is this man for real, are we all just in denial because he scares us? There's the memory of Mike when trainer and guardian Gus D'Amato was alive. That old white man knew what to do for Iron Mike, who he had taken on when the orphaned Mike Tyson was in trouble with the juvenile authorities. Gus had the gruff curmudgeon exterior that kept boys in line, but his heart and his care always shone through. Without him, Tyson untethered from this world pretty quickly. And Michael Spinks was infected with something that would not be done justice by calling it fear. There is always fear. What on this night paralyzed a man who had spent his whole life hitting and getting hit?
Michael Spinks -- undefeated, virtually untouched, never down on the canvas prior to the Tyson fight -- never fought again. I repeat: never fought again.
I watched Kirk Gibson of the LA Dodgers as he limped up to the plate in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series and said to my wife: 'He's got that air about him. He's hurtin' but he's got one good swing in him.' And he did -- Oakland A's closer Dennis Eckersley did nothing wrong, threw his usual slider, caught a bit more of the plate than he would have wanted perhaps, but the pitcher has to throw a strike at some point. Dennis Eckersley was a first-ballot Hall of Fame pitcher, with one of the highest save percentages in the history of baseball. On that October night he turned in disbelief to watch the ball fly over the fence and then looked in further incredulity as the crazy gimp with the stubble and the Marlboro man looks slowly rounded the bases, turning a 4-3 lead into a 5-4 loss with one swing. Gibson barely made it the full 360 feet to home plate, clearly in pain from the leg injury that had kept him out of the game and would sideline him for the rest of the World Series. A week later the Dodgers were world-champions, winning four of five games.
In the post-game celebration following Gibson's home run, a small-framed Dodgers pitcher named Orel Hershiser, a deeply devout Christian who manager Tommy Lasorda had dubbed Bulldog to give the slight young man a little bit of an edge, gave Gibson a brief hug, looked into the hero's eyes, and let Gibson move on to others. Something transferred from Kirk to Orel in that moment. The young pitcher's eyes showed a fire and a sense of purpose that carried him through the final game, in which Hershiser pitched brilliantly, as fierce and dogged as the animal after which he had been nicknamed. But I saw the transfer of power that first night: it was as if Bulldog was infused with a spirit that told him, once a man does what Kirk Gibson did, you don't let that go to waste. In my field we call that inspiration.
Still 1988: watching the Winter Olympics from Calgary, I looked into Debi Thomas' eyes before she skated and I said, 'She's nervous, she wishes it was over, she's going to fall.' The way in which her eyes widened and darted about on no fixed object looked a lot like what I had seen in Michael Spinks' eyes. The young black woman, a rarity in the skating world, was under intense scrutiny (think Tiger Woods); her white boyfriend was in the stands in Calgary; she had recently been accepted into medical school and had given some interviews in which she talked about her focus not being what it was. Her planned routine, published prior to the performance, had a triple axel jump early on, surprisingly early. Word has been that many advised her to move it to a later spot when she would be looser, but Debi was stubborn and prideful and not only left it where it was but put a second one in later, known only to her. As she readied for her final performance she was the front-runner; a decent showing would give her the gold. Most skaters would have taken a low-challenge approach and eased into the glory. But it was to be Debi's last Olympic competition, and she wanted it to be not only perfect, but of a high degree of difficulty.
Fifteen seconds in, barely warm, her limbs not yet loose, she attempted a spin, landed awkwardly, fell to the ice, got up, and completed the next 4-plus minutes perfunctorily, a ghost going through the motions. The moves that had been so fluid and organic the day before, filled with energy and purpose and power, now weakened and uncertain, were hard to watch.
It is tempting to look at that moment and the life that Debi lived afterward and draw a line from one to the other and zip it all up and you've got a story that seems to make sense, but I tend to see it as part of a more complicated picture. The off-kilter nature of her pre-ice manner, the things in her life that were taking priority, the tense exchange with the coach just before going on ice that she called her undoing, then the fateful fall, and much later the failure of her two marriages and two surgery practices -- all of these sprung from the same well. Debi Thomas had some interesting demons that were there all along: I could see them in her eyes.