Drive through the busier parts of this city and you’ll see citrus trees in front yards and tiny, unassuming houses that list for a million bucks. You’ll see students skateboarding across the Santa Clara University campus and Girl Scouts selling cookies out of wagons at the Amtrak station.
You’ll see people yielding to pedestrians at crosswalks – every single time – and you’ll see entire blocks that don’t seem to have a speck of trash.
What you won’t see are any signs that up on the northernmost of edge of town, a one-year-old football stadium is getting ready to host the largest and most popular sporting event in the United States this Sunday.
Unlike 45 miles to the north in San Francisco, where there are roughly a bazillion signs featuring the words “Super Bowl 50,” the city of 120,000 that is actually hosting The Big Game seems to be carrying on like nothing is happening.
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“I was expecting, just from like a neutral perspective, more ... stuff,” said Santa Clara University freshman Brendan Molloy, as he stood on the quad about 30 feet from a 10-foot bronze statue molded into the university’s mascot: a Bronco.
A Bronco! That’s the closest you might come right now to finding something related to the Super Bowl in Santa Clara (and obviously, that’s a stretch), aside from the Bud Light “SB50” advertisements hanging from the rafters of C&J’s Sports Bar.
“Yeah, I haven’t really seen anything out there around town,” said bartender Monica Reyes, who when we spoke only had one customer to take care of in the entire joint. Business was not exactly booming, just five days out and a few miles away from the Super Bowl.
“I think if the 49ers would have been in it, it would have been a completely different story,” said Bernie Barlow of San Jose, as he smoked a cigarette while waiting on an oil change. “If anything, most people are talking about what the traffic is gonna be like on Thursday and Friday.”
Or the ticket prices, which often are brought in as conversation starters: “Can you believe what some people are paying to go to the game??” Or the fact that some residents are planning to sublet rooms, or entire houses, for thousands of dollars in some cases.
Sometimes, they even talk about Cam Newton. Or have heard of him, at least.
Me: “Can you name anyone on the Panthers?”
More often than not, them: “Um... Cam Newton?”
Me: “Anyone else?”
Me: “Well, so what about Cam Newton?”
Ahmad Martinez of Stockton, standing outside the Santa Clara Courthouse: “Dabbin’. That’s pretty much all I can think of.”
Meanwhile, people here will look at you like you’re stupid when you ask them whether they know where in Carolina the Carolina Panthers are based. And then they immediately feel like you’re looking at them like they’re stupid when you ask whether they know what state.
“South Carolina?” Santa Clara University senior Grant Adams guessed.
How about the city?
“Oh no, what is it... uh... uhhhhhhh, Charl...eston?”
Of course, we can’t expect regular people in this laid-back, friendly, tidy, even picturesque (especially if you gaze off at those mountains to the east) but otherwise regular town to know off the top of their heads which Carolina the Panthers belong to.
After all, spend a couple of days out here trying to figure out the lay of the Super Bowl 50 land, and you’d be just as confused about the geography here as Santa Clara folks are about the NFL geography on the East Coast.
But here’s what you need to know: Most of the activity is in San Francisco. The Panthers are staying in San Jose, 55 or so miles to the south. The Broncos’ hotel is 15 minutes back up the road, in Santa Clara.
And so is Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers and host site of the Super Bowl.
You just wouldn’t necessarily know it’s coming, from looking at it right now.