Heidi Russo has watched her son from the stands, half of her desperately wanting to rise and wave her arms with excitement in hopes that Colin Kaepernick might finally recognize her. She dreams, after all these years, that there might finally be a connection with the young man she once gave up for adoption.
"Then the other half of me calms me down and I just sit there and cheer like the rest of the people," said Russo, a 44-year-old registered nurse who lives in a suburb of Denver and went to see Kaepernick play in-person for the first time in 2010 when his University of Nevada team played at Colorado State. "I kept looking at him, thinking our eyes might meet. He might finally see me. I kept thinking it happened, but he never came to see me after the game."
For all of Russo's joy in watching Kaepernick, who has made a dramatic rise to starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, there is an obvious sense of regret that he hasn't been a regular part of her life.
"I watch him now and I see how happy he is and I'm thrilled for him," said Russo, who said "I have to respect" his decision not to meet.
Yet she holds on to hope. "You can see that everything he wants and everything he has worked for is coming together," she said. "That's something that any parent would be happy to see for their child."
Russo has a Twitter account in which her profile notes that she has "a very special place in my heart for Colin Kaepernick." She said Kaepernick, who through his agent declined to be interviewed for this story, has exchanged a few messages with her, but that most of her tweets over the years have gone unreturned. Kaepernick's adoptive parents, Rick and Teresa, have said in the past they are supportive of whatever he wants to do. At the same time, Colin, Rick and Teresa have always been uncomfortable with the term "adoptive" parents.
"His parents are truly wonderful people," said Denver Broncos tight end Virgil Green, a teammate and roommate of Kaepernick's at Nevada. "I've been out to dinner with them and you can see the job they did raising him. I think he would view it as almost treasonous to them to meet with his biological mother or father. They did such a great job giving him everything he needed to be successful in life."
Russo admits that Kaepernick might have had a harder time becoming successful if she had kept him.
"I know I couldn't have given Colin everything he needed growing up," Russo said. "But I ask myself a lot of the time, 'Would loving him have been enough?' "
Russo was single and pregnant with Colin at 18, and a mother by 19. Along the way, she made the difficult decision to give up her first son (she also has an 8-year-old son). There was nothing easy about it. Russo said she initially interviewed three sets of prospective parents who were interested in adopting Colin. None were good enough, least of all the couple that "wanted to put him in the theater and have him play piano," she said. "He wasn't going to be in the theater."
Like Kaepernick, Russo was an athlete. She's 6 feet tall and played volleyball, basketball and track in high school. She was strong-willed and independent. Through the first eight months of the pregnancy, Russo had decided to keep him. Then, a family friend who worked for the Lutheran Social Services in Wisconsin introduced her to the Kaepernicks, who Russo said had two children of their own already, but had lost two other children to heart defects.
"I knew they were the right people immediately," said Russo, who was living in Milwaukee at the time. "The first thing Teresa did when she met me was give me a hug. They were such giving, wonderful people from the moment I met them."
That eased the situation, but didn't immediately solve it. Under Wisconsin law at the time, there is a six-week period between when a child is born and when he/she can officially be adopted. The child is supposed to go into foster care for that period. Russo would have none of that.
"I refused to have him in foster care, there was no way. I raised him for the first six weeks," she said. The attachment developed from those six weeks became a difficult bond for her to deal with, starting with the day she gave him up.
A day she can barely remember.
"I think your mind and your body do things to help you forget truly painful experiences like that," Russo said. "I remember going to the courthouse to sign all the papers, then we went somewhere else for the exchange. It might have been the Lutheran Social Services building, but I really can't remember. All I remember is that we had to be in separate rooms. [The adoption officials] came and got Colin from me and then took him to the Kaepernicks. That's the one thing I wish I had done differently. I wish I had given him directly to the Kaepernicks."
Over the next six to seven years, the situation got worse. At the time, the Kaepernicks and Russo's father lived in Fond du Lac, Wis., roughly 65 miles north of Milwaukee. When Russo would visit her father, she'd find herself looking for the Kaepernicks, hoping to see Colin.
Russo said Teresa Kaepernick would send letters and pictures, but that came to a halt.
"I would find myself waiting and waiting for the letters and the pictures, so much so that I wasn't moving on with my life," Russo said. "I was depressed and anxious." She said there were "many times" that she wanted to go get Colin back from the Kaepernicks.
"But that wasn't about doing what was best for him, it was about healing the wound I had. That wouldn't have been the right thing for him," she said.
Russo ended communication with the Kaepernicks when Colin was 6 or 7, but resumed her attempts to meet him when Kaepernick got to Nevada. Russo had a friend who went through a similar circumstance and the friend encouraged Russo to contact Kaepernick via the Internet. She found him on MySpace and finally wrote a message to him after roughly six weeks of thinking about what to say.
It took another six weeks or so to hear back from him.
"He had questions about his father and I tried to get answers for him," Russo said. "I found his father and called his house."
Russo said she left a message that was never returned.
On Aug. 26, she attended the 49ers' preseason game at Denver. She reunited with Rick and Teresa Kaepernick and introduced her younger son to them.
"It was like meeting old friends after 25 years," she said. "You couldn't ask for better people than Rick and Teresa, how they have loved him and taken care of him. As a parent, you never think that anyone could love your child as much as you do, but they have."
However, she didn't meet Colin.
"Until he tells me otherwise, I'll continue supporting him," said Russo, who watches or records every game Kaepernick plays. "It's very emotional for me to watch him, especially [when he played against New Orleans] and you could see how happy he was. I just hope and pray for him."
What if he never wants to meet?
"Yes, there's always that, but I just stay positive for him," Russo said. "That's what is important. That's what you're supposed to do as a parent."
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