Employees at Lisa's Cookie Jar in Turlock stay busy making cookies… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
TURLOCK, Calif. — A gas station in this Central Valley town used to sell souvenir hats that read: "Turlock — Known for Absolutely Nothing."
That was before hometown boy Colin Kaepernick went from being a third-string quarterback to leading the San Francisco 49ers into Sunday's Super Bowl.
Now Turlock is swarming with tourists.
They are dropping into Christina's Coffeehouse for a Kaep of Joe, eating Kaepernick Dogs (chili, coleslaw, jalapenos and special sauce) at Footers on Main Street and ordering a No. 7 Kaepernick Special at the Dust Bowl — a jalapeno burger served with a red-gold ale.
At Lisa's Cookie Jar, they are buying dozens and dozens of red, football jersey-shaped cookies with the quarterback's name in white icing.
"I'm really excited for him and the town," Heather Allison, 22, said one recent day as she meticulously lettered cookies. "I just kinda wish his name was shorter. I can't feel the ends of my fingers."
Across the street at It'll Grow Back, the barbershop Ruben Hernandez has run for 26 years, local men hung out beneath a Kaepernick jersey and other 49ers memorabilia stretching back decades. Only Joe Fortuna, on his day off from a maintenance job at a local dairy, was there for a haircut. The others had just dropped in to chat.
"This is where we solve the world's problems," Hernandez said. "But world problems are on hold. For now, it's only football."
While cutting Fortuna's thick hair so it stood up just-so, Hernandez marveled at the influx of visitors to this town of 70,000.
"They're coming from L.A., Selma, Sacramento. We're just a little country town, but they want to be part of Turlock, to somehow feel the magic," he said.
Lance Whitmore, a handyman and Hernandez's friend since elementary school, said that the people coming to Turlock to bask in Kaepernick's glow, were "part of a psychological phenomenon known as participation mystique."
"It's like when all those little girls dressed up as Madonna in the '80s," he said, handing a glass bottle of Coca-Cola from the shop's refrigerator to Hernandez's 81-year-old father, Marcos.
Hernandez dashed into a backroom and came out holding a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, the one with Kaepernick on the cover. He had lined up outside the Walmart at 6 a.m. the day the magazine came out, but the racks had been emptied before he got a copy. Luckily, he found one over at the FoodMaxx.
No one in Turlock mentioned the SI curse (making the cover is said to be bad luck). All they cared about was the story inside: How the Kaepernicks had moved here from Wisconsin when Colin was 4 and his father took a job as operations manager at the Hilmar Cheese Co.
Not that Hernandez will read his copy. He's going to wrap it in plastic and keep it forever, he said.
"Finally, something is happening in Turlock. You can just feel it. Everyone in town is so happy — well, except Mary, the bead lady."
Mary Duarte has been running My Thing Beads, making and fixing jewelry in downtown Turlock, for 42 years. She knows most everyone, so word got around that she is one of the few who hadn't fallen victim to Kaepernick fever. (The city has officially declared Saturday and Sunday "Go Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers Weekend.")
Lisa Fernandes of Lisa's Cookie Jar dropped in to the bead shop to find out if the rumors of Duartes' indifference were true.
"Mary, Ruben said you were sick of Kaepernick. "That's not right, is it?" she gently asked.
"Up to here," said Duarte, raising a hand over her head. After Fernandes left, however, she admitted that she's happy for the NFL sensation — and the town.
"I'm 75. I just like to pull their chain a little bit," Duarte said.
At Footers, a steady stream of tourists have been Kaepernicking (kissing a bicep, in the quarterback's signature victory move) in front of the board listing the specials. Even Kaepernick's sister-in-law , who for years has come in every Tuesday for a salad, has switched to ordering a Kaepernick Dog.
"It's been crazy. For a little while, I thought we had bit off more than we could chew," co-manager Ashley Olson said. "Yesterday we had someone in from Maui."
Back at the barbershop, Joe Fagundes, 68, came in for a trim — and to have his say.
Long involved with youth football, Fagundes recalled the hellos he exchanged with Kaepernick ("Gives me goose bumps, thinking abut it now.") He also noted that Turlock had sent five other young men to play in the NFL, beginning with Paul Larson, who was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals in 1954.
"But there's never been a splash as big as this one," he said. "Even if they don't win the Super Bowl ..."
A sudden, intense silence filled the shop. Fagundes held up a hand.
"Even if they don't win — which I don't think will happen, and really hope will not happen — he's given Turlock bragging rights. Every kid in town is going to be in the backyard throwing a football and pretending they're Kaepernick," Fagundes said.
"And from now on, people who used to drive right past our little town are going to look over and say, "Hey! That's the town Kaepernick comes from."