SANTA CLARA – They hustled down southbound 680, their red flags flapping at warp speed. Others bought train tickets and sipped on morning coffee as they beat the traffic. To paraphrase the old Dionne Warwick song, everyone knew the way to Santa Clara.
Their destination was Silicon Valley, the land of high tech, venture capitalists and, yes, Levi’s Stadium, the splashy new home of the San Francisco 49ers. There were seemingly hundreds of smiling attendants, more Levi’s signs than humans could count, and season-ticket holders willing to spend more than they ever imagined at Candlestick Park.
The new confines radiated 21st-century newness along with an oddity – most seats filled at kickoff for a mid-August NFL preseason game. Curiosity was the order of the day. This is not a reference to the most popular day-after question: How can you be outscored 57-3 in your first two preseason games?
The 49ers, it appeared, politely receded to a quiet corner and let what experts already call “the smartest stadium in the world” jump to center stage. It doesn’t matter that Denver’s Peyton Manning, 38 and entering his 17th season, seemingly took a better liking to the place than the home team.
No, Sunday was about an amazing football palace at an address people never would have predicted a decade ago. But it’s happened, all right, and – to underscore the reality of it all – the Super Bowl will arrive next year in all its Roman-numeral glory.
Levi’s means business, for sure.
“Isn’t it exciting?” a red shirt-wearing fan lounging in the parking lot gushed about three hours before kickoff. Not far away, roller coasters already swooped up and down the tracks at Great America.
A quick tour before the 49ers’ 34-0 loss – more on that later – revealed a $1.3 billion venue dedicated to the 49ers, the title sponsor, the Faithful and the NFL. Not necessarily in that order.
The stadium’s bandwidth is four times the NFL mandated standard, which means you can tweet, browse and multitask on smart phones, tablets and laptops. You can check your stock options while sampling boutique beer.
A visitor couldn’t walk more than 100 feet or so before stumbling upon a bar or restaurant. The Brocade Club on the stadium’s east side could be mistaken for any Manhattan hideaway. The 49er museum, a fanatic’s fantasy, drew hundreds of paying customers Thursday.
All hallways and courses, thankfully wider than anything at Candlestick, featured 49ers nostalgia – from photos of Joe “The Jet” Perry to Ronnie Lott. The press room lobby celebrated all five Super Bowl victories with newspaper headlines disguised as wallpaper.
A poster recalled the Nov. 4, 1956, game at Kezar Stadium between the 49ers and Detroit Lions.
“Detroit, 17-13,” deadpanned Ron Lent, a 49ers employee since the late 1970s and a virtual one-man bible on all things 49ers. “Hugh McElhenny was tackled by Joe Schmidt. That decided the game.”
I looked it up. Right on all counts. Lent even knew about the late Visco Grgich, the former 49er who called Oakdale home until his death in 2005.
“Norm Van Brocklin wanted to fight him after a game. Visco said to meet him outside the locker room later,” Lent said. “Visco got there and Van Brocklin said, ‘Let’s have a beer.’ That’s what they did.”
I suppose there was a low-level panic when the 49ers switched from Kezar, their cozy home in Golden Gate Park, to that blustery outpost by Candlestick Point in 1970. It’s a sad new day when the blue-collar fans are priced out of the new digs.
And so it goes again. The same arguments are heard today about Levi’s, and they even echo the Giants’ switch 14 years ago from Candlestick to AT&T Park. Will the real fans follow, and will they bring the old-school vibe with them?
Granted, beer costing $10.25 a cup – the asking price at Levi’s – will get your attention, even if it doesn’t quench your thirst. Sticker shock again exists, but methinks it will be followed by a sense of normalcy.
The fan base will stay, of course, as long as the 49ers put out a good product. So far in this preseason, the 49ers have yet to score a touchdown. They were snowballed 34-0 by Denver and pretty much insisted, from the roster’s last entry to Colin Kaepernick, to doing little if anything right.
Yes, final scores in the preseason are about as relevant as rotary-dial telephones and 19-inch TVs. But listen to 49ers tackle Joe Staley, a veteran truth-teller:
“I don’t think there’s any, ‘Well, it’s preseason,’ ” Staley said. “It all means something.”
Right now, it means the 49ers have some catching up to do. They’re owners of the NFL’s newest playground and a team lagging behind schedule.
“I think we will have a lot more noise here than at Candlestick, from what it sounded like today,” Kaepernick said.
Kaepernick’s words amounted to the most positive on-the-field development on this day. The fans will return, too, and grow comfortable taking new roads to root on their heroes. They’ve left dirty, foggy Candlestick in their rear-view mirror and found a virtual football Taj Mahal.
A new era has begun. But does it also extend to the scoreboard?