San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has been praised for developing the talents
has displayed since becoming his team's starting quarterback 10 weeks ago.
Harbaugh's about a decade late, however.
Long before Harbaugh and the national media fell in love with the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder, Kaepernick's high school coach knew he was special.
"Kap was a sophomore, but it was our first varsity season at a new high school and he was growing into himself," said Larry Nigro, who had taken over a fledgling program at
in Central California. "His legs were catching up with his body. He had the arm, but we were running a Wing-T, with fly action, and we threw play-action."
Kaepernick was a lanky, 6-footer in 2003, but Nigro and his assistants saw he had the mental makeup of a senior. He had already experienced years of pressure and expectations, playing football, baseball and basketball.
"The message you take from Colin's accomplishment is how important it is to learn to compete. Being a three-sport kid, you learn to win and lose all year," said Nigro, who encouraged his athletes to play multiple sports. "A kid who plays football three months a year, he doesn't learn to compete while lifting weights the rest of the year. You learn to compete in games.
"Playing basketball, baseball, you deal with pressure year-round. Making mistakes when you're young, losing games … learning from those, that gives you the confidence to make that tough pass when you're in high school, or when you're in college. Look at Kap, that kid brims with confidence now."
Nigro's advice, whether you're the best player on your team or a kid fighting for a starting role, is don't be fearful of playing multiple sports. Don't let someone tell you what you can't do, he said, but instead show people what you can do: "Coaches want players who love to compete."
Nigro was the defensive coordinator for a Merced High team that won a mythical California state championship in 1990, then moved to Idaho to coach football after Pitman. He is now a school teacher in Emmett, Idaho.
Kaepernick was ahead of his time, Nigro believes, because most colleges were still scouring the country for dropback quarterbacks at the time. Due to the Wing-T, Kaepernick rarely dropped back – it's a criticism similar to what shotgun quarterbacks have been hearing from NFL scouts for years.
Nigro went hat-in-hand to college coaches, trying to convince even one to sign his quarterback. No one slammed the door in his face, they just gently closed it — after citing numerous physical faults with Kaepernick.
Nevada coach Chris Ault ran the "pistol," though, which had similarities to Pitman's Wing-T when run from the shotgun. A running back lined up behind Kaepernick at Nevada, rather than beside him as he did at Pitman.
Shockingly, the player who two weeks ago set an NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback (181) in a divisional playoff rout of Green Bay had minus-2 yards rushing on 73 carries in his final two seasons at Pitman. He had minus-21 yards rushing as a senior, but completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,954 yards, 25 touchdowns and six interceptions in 12 games.
"He was extremely smart, a 4.0 while playing every sport he could, and he always skilled at hiding the ball," said Nigro, noting that such deception is crucial for a Wing-T quarterback. "He had an arm as a sophomore, my hands would hurt after playing catch him, then he grew and he developed the levers. That's when he began developing the arm that you see today."
Nigro equates it to kinesiology, the idea that the 6-4 Kaepernick uses his length and strength to generate additional velocity when he releases the ball. Kaepernick developed his strength in the weight room, sacrificing many social activities to put on weight during his years at Pitman, and he throws the ball the way that other elite athletes might throw javelin.
"When he lifts back, his long leg and his body get into the throw. A lot of that comes from throwing a baseball, too," said Nigro, noting Kaepernick's fastball topped 90 mph in high school and that he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs while playing quarterback at Nevada.
A long throwing motion was one of the knocks NFL scouts had against him after four record-setting years in Nevada's high-velocity offense. The league's best minds said he was slow to check down or locate the hot read against the blitz, missed short passes and lacked a consistent touch on deep throws.
Those criticisms leave Nigro shaking his head, just like in the fall of 2005 when college coaches complained about his quarterback. He recalls talking to recruiters at Boise State, Stanford and other quarterback-driven schools – as well as the Cal assistant who would only say "he needs to put on weight."
"Kap is a kid who has had to prove himself throughout his life, and those were games where people doubted he could pull it off," Nigro said. "You want to bring the best out of him, bring the best out of any athlete, you tell him there is something he can't do. Great athletes usually prove you wrong.
"Sometimes they fall, and sometimes you gotta fall before you can get up and go forward. The tape we sent out had Kap's 15 best plays of his senior year, and we put two games on it, too: Golden Valley and Turlock."
Those games were selected not because they were Kaepernick's most prolific nights, but because they helped decide the Central California Conference championship. Those teams were laden with talent, Nigro said, and that's why they were the best examples of Kaepernick's play.
"He's one of those rare players you can look at now, and you realize he was ahead of his time," said Nigro, who continues to downplay the crucial role he played in Kaepernick's development. "Look at what he's done in, what, two months, to change the NFL. I'm just proud of what he's done."
Nigro passes praise in text messages to Kaepernick, but he hasn't talked to his quarterback since he took over the 49ers' starting job on Nov. 19. He doesn't plan on talking to him next week, either, even though Nigro and his family will be in New Orleans to enjoy the game's biggest spectacle.
"Going to the Super Bowl has been on my bucket list, and I couldn't think of a better time to scratch that off the list," Nigro said. "Maybe when it's all over, after things have settled down, I'll call him. This is his time, though."
Richard T. Estrada has been covering high school football in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and Sierra Foothills for 27 years and currently runs Black Hat Football. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter (@BlackHatFootbal).