Kain Colter’s grandmother often spoke about rights and equality, values she brought home from her job managing an office of a Colorado law firm.
Those conversations planted a seed for Colter, who would go on to become a quarterback at Northwestern University – and the face of an exploding movement to give college athletes the right to form unions and bargain.
“He understands that he’s been put on this earth to serve people,” Colter’s father, Spencer, said.
From an esteemed athletic career at Cherry Creek High School in suburban Denver all the way to a football revival at Northwestern, Colter has accumulated a list of admirers who rave about his leadership and intelligence.
After a decision this week by a regional director of the National Labor Relations board who said full scholarship players can be considered employees of the university, he also could leave a legacy as the athlete who formed the foundation of a dramatic overhaul of college sports that could potentially give athletes a chance to fight for a piece of an industry that generates billions based on their performance.
“Looking out for people and making sure people are treated fairly has always been in our family morals,” Colter said in an interview with The Associated Press in Bradenton, Fla., where he is training for the NFL draft. “Obviously people come from different backgrounds and different situations, but everybody deserves to be treated fairly and they deserve basic rights and basic protections.”
Colter’s grandmother, Betty Flagg, died last month and was buried in some of his Northwestern gear. She only watched television when the Wildcats were playing. Colter, 21, said he thinks his grandmother would be proud of his role in the unionization effort.
“We were talking at the funeral and they were telling stories about how she came from picking cotton to working as an office manager in the firm,” he said. The attorney at the firm described how she fought for certain employees to receive fair bonuses for their work.
“She was doing that, fighting for their rights and fighting for them to be treated fairly, basically,” Colter said.
Colter will never benefit from a union if one is formed, but was thrilled by the decision that moved the issue forward. Northwestern immediately said it would appeal the decision to labor authorities in Washington, D.C., and the NCAA came out strongly against the ruling classifying athletes as employees of the university.
“Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns these students are raising,” Alan Cubbage, Northwestern’s vice president for university relations, said Friday in a statement. “The life of a student-athlete is extremely demanding, but the academic side and the athletic side are inextricably linked.”
To see Colter have success in what was once an unthinkable proposition in college sports comes of no surprise to some of the people who know him best.
“Whatever he chooses to do, he can do it, and I mean that sincerely,” Cherry Creek basketball coach Mike Brookhart said. “He’s just one of those kids that gets it and has it.”
Growing up, Colter was regarded as one of the top prep athletes in Colorado. Listed at 6-foot and 195 pounds, he played point guard on the basketball team and competed in the long jump and triple jump for track and field.
But he had his greatest success on the football field, following in the footsteps of his father, who was a safety on Colorado’s 1990 national championship team, and his uncle, Cleveland Colter, who was an All-America safety at Southern California. Kain Colter helped the Bruins reach the state championship game during his junior year, accounting for 31 touchdowns.
“He was one of the more respected kids at school,” said Brookhart, who coached Colter in football and basketball. “He was a great leader.”
Colter’s athletic ability and intelligence made him a great fit for Northwestern, and he helped the Wildcats return to respectability in college football. He threw for 76 yards and rushed for 71 more when Northwestern beat Mississippi State in the 2013 Gator Bowl for its first postseason win since 1949.
“When he got there, I really could see the fire in his eyes from Day One,” former Northwestern linebacker David Nwabuisi said. “He was always the kind of guy that was always trying to push the team further, always expecting more of us.”
Nwabuisi said he helped recruit Colter to the school, and they quickly became friends. But Nwabuisi said that’s a common experience when it comes to Colter.
“Everybody loves Kain, man,” he said with a chuckle.
Colter set Northwestern records for single-season rushing yards by a quarterback and a career rushing yards by a QB. He also played some receiver with the Wildcats, and that’s the position he’s hoping to play in the pros.
The union battle has taken a toll on his relationship with his college teammates and his former school. After the NLRB decision was announced on Wednesday, he took to Twitter to reiterate his love for coach Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern.
“Kain’s never said that he’s been mistreated, never said that he doesn’t love Northwestern,” Spencer Colter said. “He loves Northwestern. He loves his coaches that he played for and his teammates.
“But the bottom line is this is bigger than Northwestern. This is about all of college athletics and everybody understands that but nobody is willing to step out and make a change and Kain’s done that.”
During hearings on the union effort earlier this year in Chicago, Colter presented himself as calm, cool and precise – and wasn’t afraid to challenge the school.
He spoke about abandoning his hopes of entering a pre-med program because of time demands Northwestern makes on football players. He said chemistry was offered at times that conflicted with football practice.
“You fulfill the football requirement and, if you can, you fit in academics,” he said at the time. “You have to sacrifice one. But we can’t sacrifice football. … We are brought to the university to play football.”
This week was pretty much business as usual after the NLRB ruling. Colter got right back to this training at IMG Academy on the southwest coast of Florida, where he’s preparing for a possible late-round draft, or to get a free agent offer to come to an NFL camp.
“To the people that think I’m shaking the boat, I’m changing the status quo, I’m a rebel, I’m this, I’m that – I’m just a guy out there doing what’s right, doing what I believe in,” he said.