SAN DIEGO — Two hours before the most scrutinized preseason game in NFL history, all was quiet inside Qualcomm Stadium. The seats were empty, and the night’s featured entertainers were still in casual clothes. In the midst of a dozen or so 49ers teammates, his large and lustrous Afro wafting through the fray, there was Colin Kaepernick with a phablet in hand and earbuds plugged in, withdrawn in a pre-game warm-up routine that is as lonely as it is familiar.
On any other evening, maybe no one thinks of disturbing Kaepernick’s reverie. But on Thursday, a pleasantly sunny evening that quickly yielded to a cool night, there was simply no leaving him be. As he made his way to one end of the field to toss a few routes with his fellow quarterbacks, Chargers receiver Dontrelle Inman cut him off at midfield with a warm greeting. Then, just when Kaepernick’s arm appeared all warmed up he was intercepted again, by a beaming Philip Rivers. This slowly opened the door for other players and coaches to approach. In that moment, there was a lot of love in the building. But the locals, once they’ve trickled through the stadium gates until more than 47,000 filled the bowl, weren’t feeling it. Not at first.
You know why: Kaepernick won’t stand for the national anthem. It’s a simple act of defiance, still his inalienable right in the Land of the Free. And yet like Rosa Parks before him it has changed Kaepernick profoundly, from a dual-threat harbinger of pro football’s future to a sports black hat to rival Tim Tebow and Ryan Lochte. Since the Niners’ penultimate preseason game on Aug. 26 against the Packers, when this silent protest was finally unmuted after going unnoticed for two games, Kaepernick has gone to great lengths to unpack his perspective.
His motivations are manifold: institutional racism, police impunity, an overall disregard for black life. White supremacy, basically—a subject that Kaepernick explores in real time for all of social media to see. If anything, he made this point clearer by wearing socks bearing images of pigs in police caps to a recent Niners practice. Once Kaepernick’s beef with the cops, and the system that gives them god-like powers, made its way through the organ grinder that is the national commentariat, his solo sit-in was reimagined as no less than an all-out assault on America itself. And of course you can’t pick a fight with America without stabbing a finger into the chest of her precious armed forces. Not the cops. The troops, those most human embodiments of the red, white and blue. (Certainly that’s how our many countrymen who’d sooner cry treason than sacrifice for country tend to see it.)
At Qualcomm, Kaepernick didn’t just have his choice of willing combatants. He had terrible timing. He was in a company town: San Diego, as analogous to the armed forces—the Navy in particular—as Los Angeles is with the movie business. (And I would know. I’m a DoD dependent.) He was here on Military Appreciation Night, a tradition the Chargers have held dear for about as long as they’ve been in the NFL—and for good reason. It’s reverent and commercial. It couldn’t be more of The Shield, more American really.
Thursday’s edition was another star-spangled bonanza. Men and women in uniform studded the stands and the field. A Marine brass band filled the air with pomp. A procession of veterans literally parachuted into the stadium. Much later on, Chris Swain, a rookie fullback who is also a Navy reservist, scored the Chargers’ first touchdown. The only thing that would’ve made this scene more Yankee Doodle is if Swain had spiked an apple pie in celebration as a bald eagle soared overhead. “I love the support out there from all of the military,” he said. “It was awesome to score a touchdown on a special night.”
Right before kickoff, Kaepernick and his teammates jogged to their sideline amid a chorus of boos. Almost as soon as he got there, he was obscured by a parade of service members, each holding long thick pieces of a field-sized American flag. As it was unfurled, Kaepernick didn’t seek out the nearest metal bench, as he had in games past. No, he dropped to a knee and, surprisingly, Niners safety Eric Reid genuflected with him. “I think it is quite the contrary to what some people are trying to make it out to be,” Reid said of a kneel down play that was anything but a concession. “Some people are making it into him hating the country, but I think that he loves his country so much that he wants to bring attention to the issues that need to be fixed.”
Standing by them both was Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret turned pro long snapper and author of one of the more reasoned responses to Kaepernick’s demonstration. After reading it, the QB invited Boyer to join him on the sideline as his personal guest. More boos rained down until the Banner’s first stanza began. When the song ended, Kaepernick rose, and his teammates blitzed him with hugs.
It was a love fest that directly undercut a claim Dan Fouts, the Hall of Fame QB, made while calling the game on TV—essentially, that Kaepernick, by shunning the flag instead of pledging allegiance, would “split the locker room.” Never mind that the Niners never looked more cohesive on Thursday than when Kaepernick was at the controls. All night, he showed thoroughness in his reads and zip on his throws. His first drive, which was punctuated by yet more jeering, elapsed more than eight minutes, traveled 85 yards and culminated in a DuJuan Harris rushing touchdown. Kaepernick’s last drive, to end the half, resulted in a field goal.
In the third quarter, Christian Ponder took over under center, and Qualcomm, seemingly pooped from cheering on all the troops on the field and in the stands, went back to being a visiting team’s paradise because, well, there are still always many more people who aren’t from this town than are. (Niners fans must’ve filled up half the stadium.) Overall, Kaepernick logged 103 yards with his arm (on 61 percent passing). True, it was against the Chargers’ second-team defense. But it wasn’t a “dead arm” performance either. It was a solid contribution to a 31-21 victory. QB1-type stuff.
At the very least, it was the kind of effort that can only amplify Kaepernick’s voice. And who’s to say—other than the pros (past and present), anonymous team execs and cable TV pundits who inveigh against Kaepernick ad nauseam—that it isn’t carrying? When asked about the “VeteransForKaepernick” hashtag that’s thriving on Twitter, the QB confessed, “it really touched me because they didn’t get lost in what [the protest] has been portrayed as. They really heard me for what I was trying to do. (…) I want to be able to help them.”
When told that Jeremy Lane, a Seahawks defensive back, had sat out a Banner performance in Oakland, Kaepernick was agog. “I’m very proud of him for doing that,” he said. “I think there are a lot of people that know there are issues and want to address them. I’ve had a lot of conversations this week with a lot of different people, trying to plan things out (…).”
One idea, which Kaepernick announced during the news conference, was to donate “the first million dollars I make this year to different organizations to help these communities”—an idea that made headlines as soon as it leapt from his lips. As for the question of how long he plans to stay on bended knee, “I’m not sure,” said Kaepernick—who, it should be noted, stood and applauded when “God Bless America” was performed later on in the game. “I want to be able to affect change, and I think there’s a lot of other people that want to as well. Organizing that and making sure that we can help each other out and make the biggest impact that we can in these communities and people’s lives. When that happens, it will really influence me to stand.”
After the game clock turned triple zero, Kaepernick gravitated toward a section of Niners fans for an impromptu autograph session. As he signed, the adoration washed over him anew. You could feel the love, the support. You could feel that Kaepernick wasn’t alone anymore.