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Chip Kelly earning praise from players for support of Colin Kaepernick

Chip Kelly is winning over the 49ers' locker room, in part because of his support of QB Colin Kaepernick's protest of racial inequality. Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Of the many responses San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick has garnered by kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and oppression in the U.S., the one that came from coach Chip Kelly has been among the most meaningful to Kaepernick and his teammates.

When Kaepernick's protest began, Kelly mostly acknowledged Kaepernick's right to express his view. Last week, after Time magazine announced Kaepernick was going to be on the cover of its Oct. 3 issue, Kelly expanded on his comments, offering strong support for Kaepernick and saying Kaepernick is "shedding light on a situation that is heinous."

When a reporter pushed Kelly on Kaepernick's willingness to discuss that situation after games, Kelly calmly stood his ground and reaffirmed his belief in Kaepernick's right to say what he feels.

Kelly's comments struck a chord with Kaepernick.

"I think he's a strong man,” Kaepernick said Sunday. "I don't know if he realizes how much that means to me and if he realizes how much that means to these people, to these communities. The fact that he was willing to take a strong stand and say these things aren't right -- that's huge coming from a head coach.”

It was meaningful in the locker room as well. As video of Kelly's support went viral last week, 49ers such as receiver Torrey Smith and linebacker Eli Harold retweeted it with pride in their coach's stance.

Smith was the first to retweet it, along with the words, "That's my coach."

"Knowing that he respects what (Kaepernick) is doing, he doesn't have to agree with how he's doing it, but he respects why he's doing it -- and I think that means a lot because there are real issues that need to be addressed, and Kap's protest has started the conversation and is keeping it going," Smith said. "I would go to bat for him any day of the week.

"We all have to have each other's back. He says it, and obviously when you do something like that, it shows it too."

Harold knelt during the anthem for the first time on Sunday in Seattle, joining Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid, who had joined the QB previously. Harold, who raised his right fist during the anthem before the first two regular-season games, expressed a sentiment similar to Smith's while noting the criticisms of how Kelly handled some racially sensitive situations in Philadelphia.

"I loved it (the video of Kelly's support)," Harold said. "I retweeted it. It was very respectful. When he wasn't our coach, you hear a lot of things that happened with the receiver Riley Cooper and the racial stuff that they had over there, and when I saw that (video), I was like, that's amazing, that's beautiful. Supporting the backup quarterback, a guy who was a star in this league, that's what it's all about, is having each other's back -- and I feel like coach Chip gained a lot of respect from a lot of guys for that.

"Knowing that he's in your corner and he's going to fight for you. That's big, man, real big."

During Kelly's tenure in Philadelphia, former Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin, running back LeSean McCoy and Tra Thomas all questioned Kelly's ability to relate to black players or alluded to race playing a factor in his personnel decisions. After a video showing Cooper shouting the N-word at a security guard during a concert surfaced in 2013, he received a five-year, $22.5 million contract.

Kelly said Cooper made a mistake and acknowledged the need to back him up as a team. Other Eagles also backed Cooper, including then-quarterback Michael Vick and receiver Jason Avant.

49ers safety Antoine Bethea, who has also joined the protest by raising his right fist during the anthem, made it a point to have no preconceived notions about Kelly based on things he'd heard or read previously.

"I was always taught by my family (that) to be a grown man, you judge people for yourself," Bethea said. "From the first time I talked to Chip when he first got hired -- and I talked to him on the phone -- to now sitting face to face and talking to him, from what he's showed us since the spring when he got here and now in the season, he's a great leader, a great man, character out of this world, and smart. Definitely the things that were said last year in Philly, I don't see.

"If you agree with what (Kaepernick) is doing or not, you have to respect it, and I really appreciate coach Chip doing that. For the locker room, for this organization, that says a lot. It says a lot about him and it says a lot about his character. I think a lot of guys are seeing that. I take my hat off to Coach."

To this point, seven 49ers have joined Kaepernick in some form of protest: Reid, Harold, Bethea, cornerback Rashard Robinson, safety Jaquiski Tartt, cornerback Keith Reaser and running back Mike Davis. But other players, besides that group, have expressed positive feelings toward Kelly for the way he's supported the quarterback from the beginning.

Count center Daniel Kilgore among them, even though he said he was initially offended by Kaepernick's kneeling during the anthem before listening to the QB's reasons for doing it.

"I think it's huge," Kilgore said. "I think any head coach on any sport at any level should stand up for their team, and coach Kelly, he's an awesome coach. I wouldn't expect anything different. He's a big-time military guy, big-time historian. He does great with motivation, and I think the whole situation with Kap is Kap is going to do what he wants to do, and the fact that we all stand with him and the coaches do, that's huge, and it says a lot about this organization, this team and the people who are following Kap. I believe they appreciate that. Myself, I appreciate that as a player, as a teammate, for sure, 100 percent. I think it's awesome."