By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)
The San Francisco 49ers have a storied history of championship success, but making it to the Super Bowl is not the kind of thing the franchise and its fans could take for granted in the last two decades.
In punching their ticket to this year’s Super Bowl (LIV, or 54) against the Kansas City Chiefs (FOX, 5:30 CT) the squad formerly defined by the reliable greatness of Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott among others is only making its second trip to the season’s final game since winning the Lombardi trophy in dominant fashion in early 1995.
The lineage of excellence in the 49ers franchise has been interrupted much over the last 25 years, but there have been high moments with the likes of Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens, who established himself as a clutch receiver in the Red and Gold.
But despite the heroic efforts given by those players, only one modern 49er — Colin Kaepernick — can be credited with almost carrying to a Super Bowl. In doing so he, for a moment, seemed to open the NFL to an exciting new era years before anyone spoke Patrick Mahomes name.
In mentioning Mahomes now, along with the likes of new league MVP Lamar Jackson and the wave of multi-dimensional and Black quarterbacks, the most important position in sports has never looked as dynamic and representative of the players who staff the rest of the NFL.
The 49ers have been a successful franchise that featured some of the greatest players of all-time. Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Steve Young and others hall of famers behind the leadership of hall of fame coaches Bill Walsh and George Seifert brought 5 championships and a perfect 5-0 record in franchise Super Bowl appearances during the 80’s and 90’s. Since winning those championships, they only made one playoff appearance, losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second round in 2002. Within the decade post-the glory days, there was zero Super Bowl appearances until Kaepernick showed up on the scene.
In the 2012 season Kaepernick awoke the NFL to new possibilities and captured the spirit of offensive innovation and excellence that Bill Walsh once did in building the 1980s dynasty. With a similarly stout defense that year, Kaep set records passing and running and took down established contenders (Green Bay) and comparable upstarts (Atlanta) to make SF seem like the team of the coming decade in the NFC.
Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith as the starting quarterback midway through the 2012 season, and Kaepernick took the team to another level offensively, besides the fact that during Smith was having the best years of his career at the time as a starter. The move at the time was considered a risky one, but it elevated the team’s offense and helped create the narrative of the 49ers having arguably the best dual-threat quarterback at the time since Michael Vick. Kaepernick was the leader of the team and the player that led the 49ers to franchise’s sixth Super Bowl appearance.
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The 49ers suffered their first Super Bowl loss on that day, the Baltimore Ravens prevailed 34-31 due to the completion of an unforeseen playoff run by the “elite” Joe Flacco as well as, in many folks opinion, by an inexplicable blackout in the Superdome.
Among the hype and spectacle (Destiny’s Child reunion, anyone?) Kaepernick kept his cool and in finishing his truncated Super Bowl season with 1814 yards, 415 rushing yards, 5 rushing touchdowns and 10 passing touchdowns in 13 starts, many saw this as the beginning of a new era. That new era would come, but in many ways it took the discarding of Kaepernick and what we would come to know he stood for (or knelt for) to allow other QB prototypes to be appreciated in the NFL.
Mahomes will be playing in his first Super Bowl for Kansas City today, representing as the seventh Black quarterback ever to play in the big game. Eariler this week, he made sure to pay homage to the previous Black QB’s that helped paved the way for him to represent them in the Super Bowl.
“The best thing about it is you’re showing kids that no matter where you grow up, what race you are, that you can achieve your dream,” Mahomes told ESPN.
“For me, being a black quarterback — having a black dad and a white mom — it just shows that it doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter if you’re a baseball player or basketball player, follow your dreams. Whatever your dreams are, put the work ethic in and you can be there at the end of the day.”
Prior to Mahomes playing in Sunday’s championship game, only six other Black quarterbacks have played in the Super Bowl: Doug Williams, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Kaepernick.
This weekend, like Kaepernick, has a chance to make himself an established star who can’t be jostled from the sky any time soon.
Once upon a time, that same destiny seemed right in Kaepernick’s hands. His story since lets one know just hard how the work put in to create moments like today’s really is and how forces beyond a player’s control mostly determine who becomes a championship mainstay and who becomes a mile marker on the road to progress.
At this point, so many people only remember Kaepernick for his protests and the intractable feud between him and the NFL. Today is an opportunity to acknowledge the fact that Kaepernick is indeed a trailblazer for his franchise as well as a forerunner for the established Black QB success all across the league.
Joshua M. Hicks is a Senior Writer for WARR Media