SANTA CLARA, Calif. — There are all sorts of benefits to having a kid brother who’s playing quarterback in the NFC championship game.
For the older brother of San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, there’s also been an unexpected perk.
“People know how to pronounce our last name now,” said Kyle Kaepernick (KAP-er-nick), who is 10 years older than Colin. “My whole life, I’ve heard a lot of ‘CAY-per-nick,’ because of the E, and for some reason, a lot of ‘KAP-er-NACK,’ but I don’t know why. Now people know.”
But Kyle and the rest of the family have largely tried to fly under the radar during this, the most exhilarating of seasons. They wear No. 7 Kaepernick jerseys to 49ers games, although with the rocketing popularity of the second-year quarterback those jerseys are becoming increasingly common.
Kaepernick is coming off a record-setting performance in a 45-31 divisional playoff victory over Green Bay in which he rushed for 181 yards in 16 carries — a postseason record for a quarterback — and accounted for two rushing and two passing touchdowns.
He is the lone remaining truly mobile quarterback in a playoff field that includes New England’s Tom Brady, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco.
The 49ers play at Atlanta on Sunday with a chance to advance to the Super Bowl for the sixth time in franchise history. And Kaepernick, who replaced an injured Alex Smith at midseason and never relinquished the starting job, is the centerpiece of a formidable (and confounding) San Francisco offense.
Kaepernick, the 36th pick in the 2011 draft from the University of Nevada, is the only player in NCAA history to throw for more than 10,000 yards in his career and run for more than 4,000.
“It’s a nightmare, especially when you have a guy that can run 4.4, 4.3, that can outrun defensive backs and linebackers,” 49ers safety Donte Whitner said of facing the double-threat quarterback who can sprint 40 yards in that many seconds.
Making San Francisco’s scheme especially tough, Whitner said, is defensive players frequently can’t tell where the football is, not knowing whether Kaepernick actually handed off the ball or was simply pretending to do so with the intention of running it himself.
“You really don’t know until you finally see it,” Whitner said. “Sometimes, he can pull it out, drop back and throw it deep. You know you really have to respect all of the weapons and be disciplined, and it’s tough to do for four quarters when you’re playing a quarterback like that.”
Confusing to a defense, yes, but Kaepernick makes the scheme sound far more simple than that.
“Run where they’re not,” he said. “You want to run away from where the defensive players are. When they get close, get down.”
Meanwhile, the Kaepernick family watches from the stands with intense interest, and is developing the thick skin their role requires. Even in these heady times, when the response to Colin has been overwhelmingly positive, there’s no pleasing every fan.
“There was one guy sitting near us, and he was really down on Colin to start the game,” said Kyle, whose brother’s second pass against the Packers was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
“He was like, ‘Oh, I knew this would come back to haunt us. They should pull him out of there before we’re out of the game.’ I was just quiet. But when Colin ripped off that long run, and especially when he threw that laser touchdown pass to [Michael] Crabtree. ... That’s the situation where it’s so hard. You just want to stand up and say, ‘What do you think now?’”
The Kaepernick family lives in Modesto, a 90-minute drive east of San Francisco, and Kyle and his father, Rick, work at the nearby Hilmar Cheese Co. There’s a tasting room for tourists there, one now adorned by one of Colin’s autographed jerseys and a copy of the latest Sports Illustrated, which features him on the cover.
Colin was born in Milwaukee in 1987, and adopted by Teresa and Rick Kaepernick when he was 5 weeks old. They already had two children, Kyle and sister Devon, and had lost two as infants to congenital heart failure.
When Colin was 4, his family moved from Fond du Lac, Wis., to Turlock, near Modesto, and his athletic prowess was soon evident. He participated in Punt, Pass and Kick contests, and more than once competed during halftime at Raiders games, typically out-throwing his peers by 20 yards or more.
“He was the kid who’d throw and you would just hear the crowd go, ‘Oooooooh!’ " recalled Kyle, who said his brother never wound up with the grand prize “because he’d always shank the kick or something.”
In fourth grade, Colin wrote a letter to himself, not only predicting he’d eventually be between 6 feet and 6 feet 4 — he’s now 6-4 — but also that he would be an NFL quarterback, playing for the 49ers or Packers. Now that’s pinpoint accuracy.
And Kaepernick, a 90-mph pitcher in high school, can generate some serious velocity with his passes. Asked this week if 49ers receivers have to adjust to the speed of those throws, Coach Jim Harbaugh said: “I know I do in the pregame. Got to wear gloves. Still drop a few. Ball gets on you real fast.”
Kyle knows the feeling. He can still feel that sting in his hands.
“You can’t back down,” he said. “So if we go out in the road and throw the football, if I’ve got to break my face I’m going to catch those passes. And when he used to pitch, I’d put the mask and the pads on and catch him. I couldn’t say no. I’d let him throw a few and my hand would start stinging.
“If he came home this spring and said, ‘You want to catch some balls?’ I’d have to say yes. It’s going to hurt, but you can’t show weakness. He’s still my younger brother.”