January 30, 2013 at 1:00 am

Jerry Green

Jim Harbaugh sees himself in the Niners' Colin Kaepernick

Jim Harbaugh tested the arm strength of then-Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick with a one-on-one competition. (Nhat V. Meyer / San Jose Mercury News)

New Orleans — He is the cool dude with the ready smile, the free-and-easy romp with the football, the kid who started the season hoping to make his ballclub as a second stringer. And made it to Super Bowl XLVII as a starter. The stranger half of the strangest quarterback matchup in the now venerable history of this ultimate championship game.

The dude with the tattoos etched down both his upper arms.

Colin Kaepernick plopped down on one of the special podiums reserved for the stars. His red 49ers cap was worn with a flat brim. His red jersey with the numeral 7 on it had short-cut sleeves so that the muscles bulged and along the muscles were his messages.

"Surround heart. Even if attacked remain Psalm." The numerals were was too small for me to read at my perch alongside Kaepernick's podium on the Super Bowl football field.

Then in much larger letters above the elbow:

"Guide Me."

In front of him were some 50 television cameras attached to some 50 electronic media marvels with perhaps 35 assistants. The poor TV guy from North Platte, Neb., had to work solo. Everybody was shouting questions at Kaepernick.

I finally managed a query from the side of the mob — about the number of the Psalm on the left arm.

Kaepernick said: "27-30."

"I got the tattoos when I was 19," Kaepernick said in response to another question. "I always wanted tattoos. My father wouldn't let me have them. Then I was old enough and got them at 19."

This was the event that Joe Namath skipped 44 years ago before his semi-private poolside interview for seven of us newspaper writers. It is the event formerly known across America as Media Day. Now known — in the U.S., Asia, Australia and Europe — as "Media Day Fueled by Gatorade."

It was held inside the Superdome, where thousands of homeless citizens of New Orleans were billeted and fed during the perilous flood days after Hurricane Katrina. Before that, a building around which was tied a yellow ribbon the Super Bowl Sunday of Ronald Reagan's presidential inauguration when the American hostages were freed from Iran.

On Tuesday morning, the now-named Mercedes-Benz Superdome — as we were reminded in bright, large neon — was the site of the annual wild opening festivities of Super Bowl XLVII.

And Kaepernick was one of the prima donnas.

A bit later Joe Flacco would bottom out on a podium on the same field in the Ravens' portion of the day's histrionics. Flacco is the other half of this bizarre subplot of this bizarre Super Bowl featuring the Harbaugh brothers, Jim and John, as coaching rivals.

The way things work in the NFL, Flacco was not expected to be at this Super Bowl, either. Then again, he did not have to worry last August at training camp about sticking with the Ravens. He has five years of veteran's tenure.

But that is another story.

"At the start of the season, I was just hoping to get on the field," Kaepernick said. "Somehow …

"It was hard work and it was a competition. I was trying to do everything I could to prove that I needed to be at least No. 2, and that I could go out and play."

Two seasons ago Kaepernick was playing college ball at Nevada. Two seasons ago Jim Harbaugh was coaching college ball at Stanford.

Then Harbaugh was hired to return to the NFL as a head coach. One of Harbaugh's first trips was the hop and skip from San Francisco to Reno to look at this tattooed kid, Kaepernick.

Harbaugh's best method to test a young quarterback was to try to out-pass him. So fortified by his years of quarterbacking Michigan, then 15 seasons in the NFL, Harbaugh challenged Kaepernick.

"We had a few competitions, different drills and different accuracy things," Kaepernick told the Super Bowl media. "Just head up and see who could compete and win. We had different goal-post throws, who could throw a better spiral, things like that."

There was a winner.

"I let him win the first one, and I won the rest," Kaepernick said.

Those of us who have known Jimmy Harbaugh from his Michigan years are familiar with his swagger and brashness.

The 49ers grabbed Kaepernick in the second round of Harbaugh's first pro draft. Kaepernick played a bit as backup to Alex Smith last year. Smith did take the 49ers to the NFC championship game a year ago.

But obviously there was something Harbaugh did not like about him. That was proven in Harbaugh's personal trip to North Carolina to try to sign Peyton Manning as a free agent last winter.

The 49ers lost that auction to the Broncos.

So when Smith was injured in November — despite his excellent quarterbacking — Kaepernick was required to play. When Smith recovered and was ready to play again, Harbaugh — controversially — stuck with Kaepernick.

Harbaugh might have seen a vision in the mirror when he made his decision.

"When Colin is running and the stride that he has, the gracefulness with his stride, the ground that he covers, how fast and quick he is," Harbaugh told us here, "he reminds me of myself.

"Then I wake up. But when I dream and have visions of how I run, it's the way Colin runs."

At Media Day Fueled by Gatorade, a TV guy asked Kaepernick if he could describe Harbaugh in a single word.

Kaepernick pondered as he nodded the flat-brimmed red cap. He discovered his word.


Jerry Green is a retired Detroit news sports reporter.

More Jerry Green