TURLOCK, Calif. — Phil Sanchez has cued up a highlight video on the computer in his office at John H. Pitman High School and it’s playing while he talks. The camera tracks No. 4 in green, a quarterback who’s thin but a head taller than most of the other players in the frame, scampering around the field, slinging throws on the run.
Now the quarterback is under pressure, stepping up in the pocket and flaring out to his right. Seeing a receiver 30 yards downfield, he points him toward the middle of the end zone and, running out of bounds, whips the ball back across his body. Touchdown. Sanchez, a Pitman counselor, backs the video up to marvel at the play again.
Later, asked to name the most impressive thing he saw Colin Kaepernick do in a high school game, former teammate Anthony Harding describes this same play. “I tell people, it does not surprise me at all (what Kaepernick is doing now),” said Harding, a running back who played at Fresno State. “Not one bit.”
“Everything he’s done at a national level, I’ve seen him do at the high school and even the Pop Warner level,” Harding said. “His demeanor, him having fun, him making all those throws, I’m not surprised. I think the biggest thing that I’m happy about is the whole world can see what we’ve seen.”
A nation’s eyes have been on Kaepernick since he became the starting quarterback of the 49ers midway through this season, and the spotlight figures to intensify on Saturday as he leads the 49ers into the postseason beginning with his first playoff start against the Green Bay Packers.
Some of the glare has deflected onto the Central Valley town of Turlock, where Rick and Teresa Kaepernick settled after moving the family from Wisconsin when Colin was 4 — and where Kaepernick is arguably the hottest name in town.
Colin Kaepernick jerseys at T-Shirts Plus sold out before Christmas. Main Street Footers, a hot dog joint on East Main, held a contest to design and name a dog after him – the Kaepernick Special, topped with chili, cabbage, red and yellow bell peppers and a spicy thousand island dressing, made its menu debut Thursday. At Wellington’s Pub and Restaurant, a chalk drawing of Kaepernick hangs above the bar.
“Turlock’s not known for a lot of other things,” said Ruben Hernandez, owner of the It’ll Grow Back barber shop near Main Street and Broadway. At points in history, he said, those things have included melons, turkeys and a high concentration of churches. A red banner on the shop wall reads, “You’re in 49ers Country.”
“Kaepernick is probably the biggest thing to happen to Turlock in a long time,” Hernandez said. “In a long time. It’s been kind of quiet.”
Turlock, population 69,089, sits about 12 miles down Highway 99 from Modesto and just north of Hilmar, home to the Hilmar Cheese Company, of which Rick Kaepernick is a vice president. Growing up in New London, Wis., Rick had gone to school thinking he would become a teacher and coach. Then, he said, he spent a summer working in a nearby cheese factory and plans changed.
Still living in Wisconsin, Rick and Teresa married and had two children — Kyle and Devon, both of whom work at Hilmar, Rick said — before they adopted Colin in 1988. They moved to Turlock several years later. It was there Rick really started to notice Colin’s athletic gifts — as well as one of his stronger character traits.
“He has a stubborn streak in him,” Rick said. “It’s a unique thing because the stubbornness drives him to be so competitive. He thrives on people telling him he can’t, because he’s going to. He’s had that since he’s been 4. He would pick up a baseball bat, and if he couldn’t swing it with the bigger kids, he got mad.”
Stories of Colin’s athletic feats border on legend. Rick was coaching when Colin played youth football at age 9, a level where coaches could be on the field during games. As Colin lined up for the first snap of a game, Rick says he turned to an assistant and told him the opposing team’s coaches were standing too close behind their defense. Sure enough, Colin’s throw sailed over their heads for a touchdown.
In one high school basketball game, Colin won the opening tip-off and went for a backdoor alley-oop dunk on the ensuing play, prompting two University of Nevada coaches in attendance to decide to offer him a scholarship — in football. There’s the time he threw a no-hitter in baseball — then went to the hospital with pneumonia.
The big-armed teen drew more recruiting interest from colleges for baseball. He worked with a pitching coach as a youth, Rick said, and they exercised a rule: Colin didn’t throw a curveball until his senior year of high school. “He basically lived off of fastballs and changeups,” Rick said. “To this day I think that’s saved his arm.”
And the competitive streak extended beyond varsity sports. Pitman principal Rod Hollars recalled Colin as a model student and main player in daily, spirited games of four-square on the cement outside his office. Harding, Colin’s former teammate, said they often battled over the board game Sorry!
“He’d be in it,” Harding said. “The dice is going, he’s the first one trying to look and see if he won or not. He wins, he goes all crazy. He’s a big kid. But it’s hard not to like that.”
Sanchez, the counselor, said Colin, a 4.1 student, satisfied many academic requirements by his junior year at Pitman and could have opted for a lighter courseload as a senior. “It wasn’t even a question,” Sanchez said. “He didn’t want a period off. He didn’t want a T.A. position. He challenged himself.”
Another story Sanchez likes to tell takes place just after the 49ers drafted Colin Kaepernick in 2011. Kaepernick’s mom, Teresa, a retired nurse, helped deliver Sanchez’s first child, and Sanchez is a family friend. After an open practice at the 49ers’ Santa Clara facility, he was with Kaepernick at dinner as autograph seekers kept approaching their table.
“It was at the point where even I was kind of thinking, ‘I just want to finish this meal and have a conversation,’” Sanchez said. “He never once seemed irritated. I said, ‘Colin, you don’t have to do that.’ But it was never anything like that with him.”
Those are the stories that resonate with Doug Harris, 53, from nearby Salida, who wore a 49ers jacket while eating at Main Street Footers on Monday.
“Talking to people that knew him really well, it hasn’t gone to his head,” Harris said. “That’s the one thing, that he’s still staying simple. That’s something that I like a lot.”
The restaurant was inundated with about 75 entries for its Kaepernick contest, said employee Molly Amant. “We’ve had a few haters online, like, ‘We’re not going to eat a dog named after Kaepernick,’” Amant said. “But most people are really excited about it.”
At Wellington’s, a stylish pub where several walls are covered with San Francisco Giants stuff, owner Tony Walker said he has been a 49ers fan since the Joe Montana era. He was “thrilled” when the 49ers drafted Kaepernick, though he thought he’d have to wait a little longer to see the local boy in action.
“Nobody here ever thought it would happen this soon,” Walker said. “It was quite thrilling.”
And it has created quite a buzz in Turlock, where Lloyd Duggins, 47, watching Monday’s BCS Championship Game at Wellington’s with Rich Kline, 56, said “the mentality’s still small-town.”
“We’ve had a lot more TV trucks in town,” Duggins said.
“More and more jerseys showing up, too,” added Kline.
They were in no rush to project what Kaepernick’s legacy will be for the 49ers, a franchise with a rich quarterback history. First, there’s Saturday’s divisional playoff game, against Chico’s Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Duggins said he isn’t even a 49ers fan — he’s originally from San Diego — “But I’m a Kaepernick fan.”
“He’s young,” Kline said. “He’s going to make mistakes, but …”
“He’s got the ability,” Duggins said.
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