NEW YORK — Once again, Colin Kaepernick was the story of the night. But this time, he had a little help from a friend.

Beyonce made a surprise appearance to honor Kaepernick with the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award during the 2017 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards.

Introduced by Daily Show host Trevor Noah as "a friend who admired Colin Kaepernick so much she asked me to sneak her in," the artist praised the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback for his courage to open what she called an important conversation about race in America.

"Thank you, Colin Kaepernick," the 22-time Grammy winner said. "Thank you for your selfless heart. And your conviction. Thank you for your personal sacrifice. Colin took action with no fear of consequences or repercussions, only hope to change the world for the better."

"I don't know I could've asked for a better introduction," Kaepernick said afterwards.

Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Astros second baseman José Altuve collected the SI Sportsperson of the Year Award, but it was Kaepernick who won the night.

Sports Illustrated renamed the award in 2015 as a tribute to Ali. Its mission is to "celebrate individuals whose dedication to the ideals of sportsmanship has spanned decades and whose career in athletics has directly or indirectly impacted the world."

Noah paid tribute to Ali and Kaepernick in his presentation, drawing comparisons between the two men, saying it was "what Ali did outside the ring that made him a legend."

"When Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality, no one could have predicted how that one action inspired a national conversation about race," Noah said. "He's faced consequences for his courage. He's been sidelined by the NFL, labeled un-American, and even been attacked by the president."

After accepting the award from Beyonce, Kaepernick said he was humbled to follow in the footsteps of a man whose legacy, he says, paved the way for his protest.

"I am using my platform to protest systematic oppression, racial injustice, and the dire consequences of anti-blackness in America." Kaepernick said. "America is not living up to what America professes to be."

In his speech, which spanned about five minutes and was well-received by a crowd of about 500 at the Barclays Center, Kaepernick only once mentioned the NFL, where he remains without a team after leaving the 49ers before this season.

"I accept this award not for myself, but on behalf of the people," he said. "With or without the NFL's platform, I will continue to work for the people."

Kaepernick has done just that. Last season, when he was playing for the 49ers, he became the first NFL player to kneel during the national anthem to bring attention to racial inequality and police brutality.

This year, hundreds of players followed suit, inducing the ire of President Trump.

Finally, Kaepernick praised the next generation of athletes, saying that it warms his heart to see young people taking a stand on important cultural issues.

One of those next-generation athletes, 10-year-old Maxwell "Bunchie" Young, was among those in the crowd.

The aspiring football player was awarded the SI Kids SportsKid of the Year award, and during the event, named Kaepernick as his number one idol on the red carpet ahead of the event.

"Colin Kaepernick is a big inspiration to me," Young said. "He stands up for equal rights and he won't let anybody tell him what he can't do."

Former winners of the award include: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Jack Nicklaus and Jim Brown.

The show airs Friday (NBC Sports Network,8 p.m. ET.)

Kaepernick, who is a finalist for the Time person of the year, which will be announced Wednesday, also received an award from the ACLU on Sunday.

Contributing: Heather Tucker

Follow Kerr-Dineen on Twitter @LukeKerrDineen and Tucker @HeatherR_Tucker