Colin Kaepernick hasn't changed.
He hasn't let success go to his head. He hasn't become too big too fast. He hasn't succumbed to the hype or taken any shortcuts, even though he could.
Kaepernick has started only 10 games in his short NFL career, but even on a team that has veteran leaders like defensive end Justin Smith, linebacker Patrick Willis, running back Frank Gore and tight end Vernon Davis, Kaepernick is the unquestioned leader of the San Francisco 49ers.
Why? Kaepernick has the entire package. He is the same guy as the rookie second-round draft pick out of Nevada who walked into the Niners' practice facility in 2011. He is comfortable leading by example. Not only is he the best player on the roster, he is the hardest worker. And he has produced results on the field.
As Aaron Rodgers has found out, leading an NFL team is a tricky proposition. It is layered and nuanced and not solely based on talent, titles or trophies. To be an effective leader, you don't have to be a nice guy, but you can't be a jerk. You don't have to be universally liked, but you must be widely respected. You can be demanding and critical of teammates, but you must do so in private, not in public and certainly not for a packed stadium to see.
No one wants to follow a guy who doesn't have his back.
That there are lingering questions about Rodgers' leadership style is telling, I think. You don't hear grumbling about Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan or New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who will face each other in one of the marquee games of Week 1. And you certainly don't hear it about Kaepernick, whose Niners open against Rodgers' Packers.
Even though he is only 25 years old and is entering his third season, Kaepernick seems to get what being a leader is all about. He understands the delicate balance that must be struck to keep a locker room together. He gets that as the quarterback; he sets the tone by how hard he works and how hard he trains.
That's why Kaepernick took just one week off after the Niners lost the Super Bowl to Baltimore before beginning his offseason training program. That's why he spent several weeks in Atlanta in March working with the trainer who helped him prepare for the draft. During offseason workouts, Kaepernick always had the best parking space at the team's practice facility -- not because it was reserved for him, but because he was the first one there. Always. Every day.
On Tuesday, when he wasn't required to be at the team facility until 11 a.m., Kaepernick was on the field at 8:05 a.m. running gassers with a couple of teammates.
Other players notice those things, and it makes them work harder.
Kaepernick has embraced the leadership role, and part of the reason why his leadership plays so well in San Francisco's locker room is that he is genuine and humble. He saw veteran linebacker Parys Haralson hugging teammates in the locker room last week and asked a Niners staffer what was going on. After being told that Haralson had been traded to New Orleans, Kaepernick replied, "That made me really sad," and it did, because he cared.
It is easy to put Kaepernick into a box because he wears hip-hop inspired clothes and is covered in tattoos, but he is much more than that. He's smart. He's driven. He's team-oriented.
Kaepernick seethed inside about not starting last season, but he never said a word. He never undermined Alex Smith. He didn't campaign for the job. He burned to have it but bided his time, and then once the starting job was his, he did not flinch.
NFL Films had a camera crew behind the San Francisco bench for Kaepernick's first road start at New Orleans. The Mercedes-Benz Superdome is a hard place to play, but it didn't faze Kaepernick. Every time the offense was off the field, Kaepernick would offer teammates positive reinforcement and work the offensive line. He inspired his teammates, and they won the game, 31-21.
Earlier this week on his radio show on KNBR in San Francisco, Jim Harbaugh talked about all of the young players he has on his team and noted that they "would be wise to follow the lead of Colin Kaepernick in terms of how he works, how he prepares, how he competes, the fire that burns in him to be great.
"For us, that's a great thing," Harbaugh said. "That is a wonderful thing that we have a young, ascending, improving dynamic player that is Colin Kaepernick, and the way he leads, too. You talk about the leadership, just by example, just by what he does, just what he does every single day, the continuous effort that he displays is a great leading factor."
Kaepernick has proven you can be young and a leader, too, because he has the whole package.