NEW ORLEANS — Lance Kaepernick was 23 days old when he died.
He seemed normal when his parents brought him home. Then everything, suddenly, went tragically wrong. Two open heart surgeries couldn’t save the tiny baby Rick and Teresa Kaepernick had so joyfully welcomed into their lives.
Their next son never made it out of the hospital. Kent Kaepernick was 4 days old when he died, also of a heart defect.
“You’re 25, 26 and you have two sons buried,” Rick Kaepernick said. “You grow up in a hurry.”
A daughter, Devon, would follow, joining their healthy, first-born son, Kyle. By then, though, the Kaepernicks were done taking chances and doctors warned them against trying for another pregnancy.
“Maybe the kids would have lived today with all the advances that have been made,” Rick said. “But it just wasn’t to be.”
But the yearning didn’t stop, and one day Teresa told her husband she was ready for another baby.
Their new son was 5 weeks old when they first held him at the Lutheran Social Services office in Appleton, Wis. He was healthy, vibrant, and full of life.
On Sunday he’ll be behind center, trying to win a Super Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers.
“He’s ready to roll,” Rick Kaepernick said this week from his hotel room in this party town. “He’s pretty focused.”
If the story of Colin Kaepernick’s meteoric rise from obscurity to superstar in the making is a remarkable one, the story of his life bears some telling, too. Born to a teenager in Wisconsin a quarter century ago, the only memories he has of his early life is with the couple who adopted him.
He doesn’t like to talk about it, and has declined chances to meet with his birth mother. For their part, the Kaepernicks particularly dislike it when people refer to their son as adopted.
Of course, they couldn’t have imagined when they began the process that the offspring of a blonde, athletic mother and an African-American father who was out of the picture before he was born, would be a star quarterback.
“At the end of the day he’s just our son,” Rick said.
“I’m a parent, but I would say if you sat in the stands and watched him as a kid you could see he had something,” Rick Kaepernick said. “He has that ‘it’ factor, whatever that ‘it’ is. In basketball, when it came time to take a 3-pointer to tie or win he wanted the ball. He was never the nervous Nellie, it was like ‘Give me the ball.’ You could see that at a young age.”
The Kaepernicks are proud of how he honors his brothers who never made it. Colin quietly donated part of his first game check to Camp Taylor, a California charity his parents are involved in for children with heart defects, and last July he visited the camp with them.
He showed off his many tattoos while swimming with the kids, letting them climb on his back as he paddled about. He sat on the floor with them and listened as they told him about their different heart conditions, joined them in crafts and ate dinner with them.
Rick Kaepernick admits to feelings of anxiety and excitement heading into Sunday. He and Teresa have been watching him compete all his life but this, obviously, is on a different level.
And while they savor this moment, they’ll also be thinking of two little guys who never got to live a full life.
“There’s not a day that goes by we don’t think of the kids,” Rick said.
“Everybody grieves differently and you try to get through it. But you never forget.”