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Return of the Kap: Behind the scenes of Colin Kaepernick's secret Reno return

Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick was inducted into the Wolf Pack Hall of Fame on Friday. (Nevada athletics)

On Friday night, more than 600 Wolf Pack fans crowded into the Reno Ballroom to celebrate the school’s 2020-21 Hall of Fame class, a group of nine inductees highlighted by Colin Kaepernick, the NCAA record-breaking quarterback and a key member of Nevada’s 2010 “Dream Team” that finished 11th in the nation.

One of those attendees was Chris Ault, the College Football Hall of Fame coach whose perfect pairing with Kaepernick helped lift the Wolf Pack to national acclaim in 2010. Ault was steamed Kaepernick wouldn’t be in attendance, at least that’s what everybody thought. After the first eight inductees went through a Q&A session on stage, a couple of patrons got up to leave, thinking the night’s activities had concluded.

That’s when Taylor Morgan, the Wolf Pack PA announcer and host for Hall of Fame night, started to recite Kaepernick’s career achievements. He finished by saying, “Please welcome No. 10, Colin Kaepernick.” The audience was stunned, and after 20 seconds, Kaepernick emerged from the back of the room, surrounded by a security team. The attendees began to stand, a buzz enveloping the room.

“It was absolutely electric,” Morgan said.

Before he reached the stage, Ault pulled Kaepernick in for a bear hug, his eyes red and nearing tears. The guy who once considered a son had finally returned to Reno.

“I appreciate this,” Ault told Kaepernick. “You mean a lot to these people. You’re Wolf Pack where you like it or not, buddy. You’ve got us right in your heart whether you like it or not. We love you.”

“I love you, too,” Kaepernick responded.

Until Friday night, the only person who knew Kaepernick would be in attendance was Rhonda Bennett, the Wolf Pack’s senior associate athletic director and the head of the Hall of Fame committee. Bennett said she knew “a couple of days before" the ceremony Kaepernick would attend. But she didn’t tell anybody until letting Morgan know 30 minutes prior to the ceremony so he could create a list of questions.

“When I walked into the Reno Ballroom, there was exactly one person in that room that new Colin was coming that night,” Morgan said of Bennett. “She kind of pulled me aside and said, ‘Don't freak out,’ which is always a very fun way to start a conversation. I wasn’t expecting her to say, ‘Colin’s coming tonight.'"

A smile crept across Morgan’s face, and the ballroom would be full of smiles once Kaepernick emerged.

“Honestly, it was one of the most special things I've ever seen,” Bennett said. “Really nobody knew he was coming, and he wanted it that way. When he walked in, there was stunned silence. When Taylor said, ‘Please welcome Colin Kaepernick,’ everybody was so surprised.”

One of the greatest athletes in Wolf Pack history, Kaepernick’s college success turned into a prodigious pro career with the San Francisco 49ers, a franchise he led to two NFC championship games and a Super Bowl berth before Kaepernick first sat for and then took a knee during the national anthem in 2016 in protest of racial injustice, police brutality and systematic oppression, a decision that sparked widespread support and equal parts outrage across the country, including in Reno, where he supported had previously been unwavering.

Kaepernick and Ault had not spoken since July 2015 when Kaepernick was the keynote speaker at the Governor’s Dinner, the Wolf Pack’s chief fundraiser. They had not even texted in the last three-and-a-half years. Kaepernick publicly hadn’t been to campus in several years. His return for the Hall of Fame ceremony brought closure for many.

“My feeling has always been the same,” Ault said. “Those players that played for me, they’re family, whether they like it or not. Kap included. I’ve got to tell you, he opened up and it was as heartfelt as he and I have ever talked, and we’ve had some great conversation through our careers. He had never lost this thought of how close we were, of what he meant to me and what I meant to him during his time here at the university, and what really pleased me was when he said, ‘Coach, I’ve never forgotten about Nevada and never forgotten about you and what happened here.’ I had not had that conversation with him even when he was here.”

Kaepernick’s roughly five-minute Q&A session during Friday’s Hall of Fame induction centered on his accomplishments at Nevada and his time in the NFL with the 49ers. Kaepernick shared his appreciation and gratitude for his time in Northern Nevada playing for the Wolf Pack and said his success wouldn't have been possible without the people of Reno. He recalled Nevada’s historic 2010 season, which included a 34-31 overtime win over No. 3-ranked Boise State, the greatest win in program history.

“To have that feeling and be able to accomplish a goal that you set out for and have something fighting on the line for it, there are very few moments in your life when you get to experience that,” said Kaepernick, who was voted into the Wolf Pack Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. “It was great to be able to experience that with people who at that point we’ve been together for five years, five years of playing through the pain, five years of constantly grinding to get to this moment to be able to say, ‘We beat them, and now we’re moving onto the next one to make sure we get to where we want to go.'"

The decision to keep Kaepernick's appearance private was in part based on the fact he didn’t want to overshadow the class’ other inductees, which included basketball players Luke Babbitt, Armon Johnson, Eathan O’Bryant and Dellena Criner; softball player Britton Murdock; golf coach Tom Duncan; and Kaepernick’s football teammates, Dontay Moch and Vai Taua. Holding the induction without Kaepernick in attendance would have left loose ends still to be tied and lingering questions about his relationship with Ault and the university.

“Without him being there, it would have felt like there was unfinished business,” Morgan said. “And the fact he was able to attend and have the chance to speak to the fans and receive the recognition and the applause he deserves was great. Had he not been there, it would have felt incomplete. The way it was handled, I think it was done perfectly. It allowed the eight others to have their moment in the spotlight and then Colin got his moment as well.”

After Friday’s ceremony, it remained unknown whether Kaepernick would attend the Wolf Pack football team’s home opener Saturday against Idaho State when the Hall of Fame inductees would be honored during halftime. Again, Kaepernick showed up. Again, he was the last to hit the field, his image providing a rise in the already amped crowd, which was Nevada's largest for a home football game since 2015.

Morgan announced his name to the crowd, which drew about three-quarters positive reaction with some boos mixed in. After the on-field ceremony and required picture taking, the Nevada football team swarmed Kaepernick, sharing hugs and high-fives. Kaepernick snapped a photo with Ault and his grandson, Drew Scolari, a freshman quarterback at Nevada who at age 7 celebrated in the post-game locker room with Kaepernick after Nevada’s 2010 win over Boise State.

In the impromptu sideline session, the Wolf Pack players beamed like star-struck kids as they swarmed Kaepernick.

“Colin, I’ve been waiting a long time for this right here,” Nevada quarterback Carson Strong told Kaepernick. “It’s nice to meet you. It’s an honor. Thanks for coming back. You don’t know how much it means. The whole team was buzzing and talking when then knew you were here. We appreciate it.”

Added defensive tackle Tristan Nichols after the game: “That was awesome. We always hear about him going here. But for him to actually be out here, I know it meant a lot to the guys and for everything he's done for the community, the nation. That lit a spark underneath for sure.”

Nevada head coach Jay Norvell, who had never met Kaepernick before, also took a picture with him and said his presence at the game was meaningful to the Wolf Pack players, many of whom petitioned in 2020 to bring Kaepernick’s image back to university in a more significant way.

“It was really, really special,” Norvell said. “I just thanked him for being here and supporting the team. I just saw the look on our kids’ faces to be able to see him and meet him in person. I just grabbed him and pulled him close and told him there’s a lot of love for him here from these kids and this football team. I was so happy he was here. It was a great moment for our guys and pretty special. The kids just look up to him so much, so it was great that he could be down there and be around our players.”

After the second-half kickoff, Kaepernick went to one of the Mackay Stadium suites where he and Ault spent most of the second half talking. Kaepernick expressed his desire to still play football and his appreciation for his time at Nevada. He discussed his future goals, and Ault came away from the talk feeling excited for Kaepernick’s future and with the knowledge their relationship remains strong.

“It was five years’ worth of conversation, just a great conversation, a heartfelt conversation,” Ault said. “He loves Nevada. He loves the university. He’s on his mission. He's got some things on his mind that he wants to do, and in his own way but I really enjoyed our entire conversation.”

Ault said he believed Kaepernick had an obligation to the university to be at his Hall of Fame induction, which is why he was so pleased to see his old pupil. Ault said his conversations with Kaepernick, who lives in New York, will be more plentiful in the future, and he believes the university should partner with its most famous alum, too.

“I was just refreshed with everything that we talked about," Ault said. "I told him, ‘Kap, I've never, ever lost sight of you, and regardless of what I believe in what you're saying, I believe in what you're doing. I'm there for you, and I'm not afraid to express myself. He cracked up and said, ‘You never have.’ It was just two guys talking, and I have a wonderful admiration of him. And I was just so pleased that Nevada is still in part of his forefront and in part of his life, and I don't think he'll ever forget it.”

Ault said there’s "no question" Kaepernick would like to remain involved with the University of Nevada, both in terms of the social climate and its athletics. For Wolf Pack employees who knew Kaepernick when he played for Nevada, like Bennett, this is a weekend they will never forget, especially given the appreciation Kaepernick showed for his time at Nevada.

“There's really not words to put into perspective how important that was,” Bennett said of Kaepernick’s kind words for Nevada. “We all know that, and we all feel that, but it was very nice to hear that articulated by Colin as well.”

As he left Mackay Stadium after Nevada’s 49-10 win over Idaho State, Ault couldn't stop smiling. He was obviously happy with the Wolf Pack’s win, but his time spent with Kaepernick was long overdue. And he was proud of how receptive and positive Nevada’s fans were when Kaepernick came onto the field. He was celebrated as one of the best athletes in Wolf Pack history, an honor he earned during his historic career in silver and blue.

“I said to him, ‘Kap, I'm just proud of you being here because this thing is not about politics, it's not about black and white. This is about the University of Nevada and Wolf Pack football and your contribution to our university and all that you meant to all of us and still do mean to all of us.’ He said, ‘Coach, I'm onboard.’ It was just a wonderful conversation. We had some good laughs. It meant so much to me.”

Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisMurray.


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