SANTA CLARA – Quarterback Colin Kaepernick said he never allowed himself to think that Sunday might be the final time he plays for the home team at Levi’s Stadium.
Kaepernick can opt out of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent at the start of the new league year on March 9. Even if he does not opt out, the 49ers would be expected to release him to avoid paying $14.9 million in salary and bonuses.
“There will be a lot of things that play into that,” Kaepernick said Sunday, following the 49ers’ 25-23 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. “And I’ll have to really think about those things as this offseason approaches.”
Kaepernick has given everyone a lot to think about this season. And there was a lot for him to be thankful, he said.
Before news of coach Chip Kelly's firing became official, Kaepernick said he learned some lessons from his coach during the tumultuous 2-14 season. Kelly coached the 49ers in Chicago just two days after the death of his father. Kaepernick, who heard the reports on Saturday night that Kelly was expected to be fired, was seen giving his coach a hug before kickoff on Sunday at Levi's Stadium.
“I appreciate Chip and what he does on a daily basis, regardless of the circumstances,” Kaepernick said. “I make sure I go over and give him a hug after every game. To me, the resilience he’s shown, with the circumstances that have gone on this year, I appreciate that."
Kaepernick was asked about the biggest lesson he learned from Kelly.
“The biggest thing can relate to football, but more so, it relates to life," Kaepernick said. "And that’s not letting your circumstances dictate your attitude and how you approach a situation. Once again, our circumstances weren’t the best this year. Our team came out and played hard every week and we played for each other every week. And that was something I look at as something I can take moving forward and making sure I continue to do that.”
The 49ers' 25-23 loss capped one of the worst seasons in franchise history. The year will be remembered as much for Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem than it will be for anything the 49ers did on the field.
Kaepernick said he was blown away by the level of support he received from 49ers fans during his season-long protest of racial inequality in America. Kaepernick became a controversial figure across America for his decision to not stand up for the national anthem.
“This fan base has been amazing,” Kaepernick said. “The support I’ve had, the people backing me, standing behind me and telling me how much they appreciated what I’m doing and want to help others. I can’t express how much I appreciate them because it’s been six years now and I had a lot of good times with these fans. Some rough times, as well. But they’ve always been there. They’ve always stood behind me and behind this organization. And I appreciate that.”
Kaepernick on Friday was announced as the winner of the Len Eshmont Award, the highest team honor voted on by the players. The award goes to the 49ers player who best exemplifies the inspirational and courageous play of Eshmont, one of the original members of the 49ers of 1946.
“I can’t express how grateful I am to have teammates like I did this year,” Kaepernick said. “They stood behind me, regardless of any situation that went on. (I) had a lot of great conversations in the locker room. Even today, and the situation where we have a lot of injuries, a lot of players that are new stepping on the field, we went out and we fought together. And we stayed together until the very end and gave everything we had for each other. So, to me, that’s what stood out to me – that it was from my teammates and it really means a lot.”
Kaepernick said he also was pleased that he had a better relationship with CEO Jed York and executive Paraag Marathe. A year ago, there was mutual acrimony and the organization gave Kaepernick permission to seek a trade.
“My relationship this year was much-improved from years past with Jed (and) Paraag,” Kaepernick said. “I think we had a great relationship now. And I was excited about that. I was excited about his organization as a whole.”
Kaepernick's future is up in the air. Although he clearly would be comfortable returning to the 49ers next season, it is not known whether the new general manager and new head coach would want to bring in their own quarterbacks.