Before there was “Kaepernicking” and grousing about a tattooed starting quarterback, before all of the commercials and glossy magazine covers, before the two marches through the playoffs and the throws that fell just short, there was The Start.
It came on Nov. 19, 2012, against the same Chicago team that visits Sunday. The Bears were caught by surprise. So were the 49ers.
During the week, it seemed almost certain Alex Smith, who had suffered a concussion the previous Sunday, would start. He was symptom-free during the week, he practiced and the game plan was geared around him.
But Smith’s symptoms reappeared Sunday, one day before the game. At the team hotel that night, coach Jim Harbaugh announced to the team that Colin Kaepernick, not Smith, would start the following evening against the Bears. It would be his first NFL start, and it would come on “Monday Night Football.”
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Those involved recalled the weekend that launched Kaepernick’s career:
Kaepernick: “I really didn’t get a heads-up before then. We were both practicing, didn’t know what (Smith’s) status was going to be. And (Harbaugh) let everyone know in that team meeting that I was going to be starting.”
Receiver Kyle Williams: “Alex took most or all of the reps that week, so it wasn’t really something we were preparing for.”
Tight end Vernon Davis: “It was pretty hot in the room. No one expected coach to say that. But then again, whatever decision coach makes, we have to support it.”
Fullback Bruce Miller: “That was tough. Alex had been around awhile and had been through a lot with a lot of the guys here. But we’re one team, one goal. When (Harbaugh) said Kap would start, everyone was supportive.”
Owner Jed York: “People didn’t know what to expect. They believed in Colin’s ability, but they hadn’t seen him play in a regular-season game from start to finish. They had gone out and drafted Colin the previous year and said, ‘This is our guy.’ But at that point, no one really knew. The coaches definitely were trying to temper expectations.”
Kaepernick: “I was excited for the opportunity. I felt like it was my chance to show that I could lead this football team and be a starter in the NFL. And the only person I called that night was my dad, just to let him know. He was the only one.”
Rick Kaepernick: “Oh, I want to say it was 11, 11:30 at night. Kids nowadays. They don’t call you unless it’s an emergency, so I picked up. He was pretty excited. He said, ‘I don’t think anybody knows this yet, but I’ve got to tell somebody.’ ”
The news slipped out hours before kickoff. Kaepernick had made brief appearances in prior games but mostly on read-option runs. Before Smith’s concussion, he had attempted just nine passes.
With that in mind, everyone expected a conservative game plan. Steve Young, analyzing the game for ESPN that day, advised that Kaepernick rely more on his legs than his arm.
The 49ers didn’t listen. Eight of the first 12 plays were passes, including the game’s most memorable play, a 57-yard corner route to Williams on third and 7.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman: “Part of it was I trusted him to throw it. And part of it was we really didn’t know who was going to play until Sunday. I think we were accused of knowing who would start. We literally didn’t know. So we didn’t change the plan.”
Miller: “I thought we were probably going to run the football quite a bit more. But when (Kaepernick) came out guns blazing we let him roll. … I know he threw a couple of dimes down the sideline, one to Kyle Williams, one to Vernon.”
Williams: “He and I had been running with the 1s and the 2s, so we had a lot of work together. He could see my body language. He knew what I was going to do, and I knew when he was going to throw it. Colin put it up and it was a perfect ball. The only downside was I should have gotten into the end zone.”
Roman: “That throw was a statement. Perfect ball, great arc and pace to it.”
Davis: “In practice, he would throw the ball really well. And we already knew that he could run. But we’d never really seen him play in a game. And when we saw him, we were like, ‘Wow, this guy can really play.’ ”
Bears cornerback Tim Jennings (to the Joliet, Ill., Herald-News): “That was his coming-out game. He was a guy that could do it all. He made the tough throws, he did it with his feet, and he managed the game well.”
Bears linebacker Lance Briggs: “I remember, ‘Touchdown. San Francisco, touchdown.’ ”
Roman: “He went out and executed the game plan to a T, and then some. It was one of those deals where he made no mistakes. I think there was one play where we were all, ‘Well, you should have done this.’ But that was it. It was a heck of a performance. And you just never know until a guy gets out there and does it.”
Kaepernick passed for 243 yards and two touchdowns and had a 133.1 passer rating in the 49ers’ 32-7 victory. His statistics would have been gaudier if the Bears had been more competitive and the 49ers were forced to throw in the second half.
The following week, Harbaugh again gathered the team and told the players that Kaepernick would start. He’s started 28 games since.
Kaepernick: “To me, it’s what I was supposed to do as far as coming in, playing well. That’s why you practice, that’s why you train. That’s why you sit in meetings and watch film – to make sure you’re ready for that opportunity. To me, I’m always focusing on the next opportunity, where I’m going, not necessarily where I’ve been.”
York: “The one word I’d use if I was describing Colin would be ‘gamer.’ He might never be pristine in practices, but he’s such a natural competitor. Colin thrives in a competitive structure. And that’s what he did that game and has done since.”
Rick Kaepernick: “I remember what I said to him (the night before the game). I said, ‘Did you call me because you wanted two of us to stay up all night?’ ”
Kaepernick (smiling): “Sleep’s never been a problem for me.”