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Kaepernick details his pivot from baseball to football in 'Change the Game'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Before he was the face of a protest movement, before he was a starting quarterback in the Super Bowl, Colin Kaepernick was a teenager who, like many teenagers, was trying to figure out who he was and where he was going.

COLIN KAEPERNICK: Navigating the difficulties of family, community, school and major life decisions.

SUMMERS: Like whether to pursue baseball, where he had lots of offers from colleges and pro teams, or football, which in his heart he loved more, and what it meant that his adoptive parents were white but the world saw him as Black.

KAEPERNICK: So I was trying to navigate that while having a white family and being in a predominantly white community and trying to find ways to make sure that my identity and my Blackness isn't stripped from me along that journey.

SUMMERS: His new graphic novel, written with Eve Ewing and illustrated by Orlando Caicedo, is about that time in his life. It's called "Change The Game." At one point, young Colin Kaepernick decides to get his hair braided in cornrows. When we spoke, he said he'd been inspired by an athlete who played neither baseball nor football, the NBA superstar Allen Iverson.

KAEPERNICK: He was someone that I looked up to, and I saw him be so unapologetically Black and unapologetically himself. It was something that I aspired to, and I looked at that as an opportunity for me to be able to really take hold of my Blackness and do it in a way that I was proud of and I was excited about. And the difficulty with that is being in white culture with Eurocentric beauty standards, navigating what their response to that was. At 15 years old, it took me, I think, about 14 years before I grew my hair back out.

SUMMERS: Wow.

KAEPERNICK: So it's really to show the impact those moments can have on a young man, on a young woman, and how that carries with them through life.

SUMMERS: This is not the first book that you've published that's aimed at younger audiences. You also, along with illustrator Eric Wilkerson, published a children's book called "I Color Myself Different" that charts a really pivotal moment in your younger life. And this book, "Change The Game," of course, is a graphic novel. What made you want to put out a graphic novel?

KAEPERNICK: There were a few reasons. One of the reasons - growing up, I wasn't an avid reader because I didn't have stories or I wasn't introduced to books that had characters that I related to. It wasn't until I read "We'll Never Forget You, Roberto Clemente" that I saw another Black person as the lead of a book. It was game-changing for me.

SUMMERS: How so?

KAEPERNICK: I knew there were other books out there and other opportunities to be able to find stories, to find narratives that I identified with. So what we're looking to do now is, for younger audiences, give them, hopefully, characters and stories that they relate to but also give them pieces of knowledge and situations and try to help them navigate those in ways that I didn't have access to growing up and, based upon conversations that I've had, a lot of other people didn't as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "COLIN KAEPERNICK: CHANGE THE GAME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: When you're trying to correct a problem, you should start by looking in the mirror.

KAEPERNICK: That note my father left for me has stuck with me ever since. I was so mad at him in that moment. I learned a lesson that day I haven't been able to shake since. There are a lot of things around me I can't control, but I can control how I react to them, how I maneuver in a situation.

SUMMERS: That is an excerpt from the audiobook of Colin Kaepernick's "Change The Game." You know, this book - towards the end, it shows you in one of the panels on the phone at an office receiving a phone call from the coach at the University of Nevada Reno offering you a football scholarship for the first time. And that's sort of where the book leaves your story. It doesn't delve into your pro football career. It doesn't delve into your college years. So I'm curious. From a storytelling standpoint, why stop there, before you head off to the university, before we see you in the NFL?

KAEPERNICK: So we end the story there, one, to make sure that we don't have a never-ending book because there's a lot of story to tell. But the other part of it is we wanted to create a defining moment that younger kids and high school kids could identify with, which is that transition and decision of what to do after high school. And for me, at that point in time, baseball was the obvious decision for everyone around me. I had multiple offers. I had the MLB come and sit down in my living room and tell me they wanted to draft me. There was an obvious career path there. And I had not a single offer for football at this point, but it was what I loved and what I wanted to do in spite of everyone else telling me I should go a different direction.

SUMMERS: One of the last pages of this book ends with this image of you where you're surrounded by the bright lights. You've got that No. 7 red jersey on, the gold pants. You're taking a knee, and the image of you on a knee - like, that is one that is familiar for many people, even those who do not watch football. You have not played in the NFL since January 2017, six years ago at this point. I want to ask you, do you believe that the NFL has changed for the better since you were last on that field?

KAEPERNICK: I haven't seen any substantial change. I think there is a lot of work to do on that front. Obviously, not playing and being out of the NFL for six years is an indictment on where they are currently at. So I wouldn't put them at the forefront of goodwill and best of intentions in how they operate.

SUMMERS: You know, I have to wonder, given all the time that's passed, given everything that has happened since you first took a knee during an NFL game, I wonder, removed from all of that, do you spend much time thinking about what your career might have looked like if you were still playing in the league? Or do you think that losing that career and some of those opportunities was key to doing something greater, to creating some lasting change?

KAEPERNICK: No. I think there's this idea out there that those are mutually exclusive, and I don't subscribe to that. So I think people are multifaceted and multitalented. And ultimately, that's something that - we want to make sure that message is being sent as well. We have the opportunity to move forward and not be pigeonholed into singular elements of ourselves.

SUMMERS: But do you, though - do you think back about what your career could have looked like? Or is this something that you don't consider quite as much at this point?

KAEPERNICK: My focus is always on what I can do moving forward. What can I do to change my present and my future? So training at 4:30 to be able to have the opportunity to make a comeback - absolutely. That's something I do five days a week still. But as far as looking back, that's not something I do. I'm looking forward to, where can I have an impact? What are my passions? And a great example of that is "Change The Game" and this book being able to come out, us being able to share this message with the youth. And it becomes a great opportunity for us to be able to create a future that looks different.

SUMMERS: Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. His graphic novel "Change The Game" is out now. Colin, thank you so much for being here.

KAEPERNICK: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Gurjit Kaur