As I passed Yerba Buena Gardens and made my way up Mission Street towards Fourth, I finally found what I was looking for: a small, blonde-haired boy with the number “88” and the name “Olsen” on his back, holding the hand of a woman dressed in a tasteful top blending black, blue, white and silver.
Gloriously, they turned out to be part of a larger group of Carolina Panthers fans with tickets to the game – an extended family of 17, who converged on San Francisco this week via flights from Houston, Orlando and Charlotte.
Thanks to the city’s designation as Super Bowl Central, finding football fans here is about as easy as finding snow in Antarctica. Yet somehow, someway, it took me 42 minutes of wandering around the heart of it on Thursday morning to spot anybody in Panthers garb.
And those first ones I tracked down? Well, they weren’t just anybody. But let’s come back to the boy and the woman and this family that managed to score a block of 17 Super Bowl tickets a bit later...
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Unlike down the road in Santa Clara, where Sunday’s game between the Panthers and the Denver Broncos is actually being played, there are signs of Super Bowl 50 everywhere in San Francisco.
On Market Street, one of its busiest thoroughfares, a pair of 6-foot-tall by 3-foot-wide “Super Bowl 50” banners adorn every light pole. Pop-up merchandise stores seem more plentiful than Starbucks locations; there’s one at 719 Market, and another across the street and less than a football field away, at 764.
The Old Navy store has Panthers and Broncos tees pulled over mannequins standing in its windows. The Levi’s shop’s dummies are wearing denim jackets dyed in Bronco orange and Panther blue. Rodrick “Zebra” Bailey, an artist who roams the country selling $10 copies of his photo-realistic charcoal-drawings on sidewalks, sits on Market Street pushing his portraits of opposing quarterbacks Cam Newton and Peyton Manning.
“I was in Charlotte for the (NFC) Championship Game,” he says. “Sold $1,200 of Cam Newtons.”
But how many today?
“I ain’t seen no Panther fans,” he says. “I guess they ain’t got in town yet.”
Broncos fans, meanwhile, are here in force. So are people in Raiders jackets. And Niners jackets. And Packers, Giants, Vikings, Bengals, Rams, Seahawks, Eagles and Cardinals hats, sweatshirts and jerseys. Panthers, though? Not so much.
“Denver’s closer, so right now it’s more Denver. Charlotte’s gonna be here Friday,” says Don Mensen, an employee inside one of the pop-up shops on Market, providing no scientific basis for his claim.
At any rate, when they do finally get here en masse this weekend, Carolina fans might feel like strangers in a strange land.
It’s a land of cable cars, and hills that rise into the sky like ski slopes, and $2.75 gallons of gas, and $9.50 yogurt parfaits, and 1,000-square-foot studio apartments that list for north of a million bucks.
But it’s also a place where a police officer will politely ask a stoned young woman to go legally smoke her marijuana somewhere else; where tiny dogs are the only size dogs you’ll see (if you can spot them in the satchels their owners tote them around in); where people – large amounts of people – actually use bicycles instead of automobiles.
In the end, I found only a couple of other Panthers fans over the course of an entire morning of looking. One, Salisbury-born and Lexington-raised Andrew Cross, was walking along by himself wearing a Luke Kuechly shirt. He lives here now, and had one word to describe the dearth of fellow faithful: “Weird.”
Another, a San Fran resident named Kenny who’d just spent $150 on a Cam Newton jersey emblazoned with a “Super Bowl 50” logo, insisted several times that he was “rootin’ for Cam” but honestly didn’t seem that interested in the Panthers in general.
And so my big score, really, was that cadre of Carolina fans walking along Howard Street toward where the “NFL Experience” fan fair at the Moscone Center. I caught them as they regrouped by the entrance, which – at this hour – was closed.
Yes, they are excited to be here. Yes, they are going to the game. Yes, believe it or not, they managed to get 17 seats at the Super Bowl together.
“My daughter, Kara, she’s pretty effective. Resourceful,” says John Dooley, as he watches her corral three young boys.
When I ask if they’re all Panther fans, another member of the group points to the boy in the No. 88 jersey and says: “The tie is that number right there.”
I’m still not putting it all together. The woman politely asks me to take a big group photo with her iPhone, and I oblige. When I hand the phone back to her, I ask for her last name for the story.
And so, just days before the most popular sporting event in the United States, in the middle of a strange city, a strange thing has happened: One of the only Panthers fans I can find happens to be Carolina tight end Greg Olsen’s wife.
San Francisco, it seems, is just full of surprises.