Picture day has 2007 Pro Bowl class excited
Yesterday was picture day for the NFL Pro Bowl's AFC and NFC all-stars. Patriots coach Bill Belichick -- he of the hooded-sweatshirt "Unabomber" look -- combed his hair and wore a nice aloha shirt. Chargers center Nick Hardwick stood on his tiptoes. Broncos safety John Lynch smiled for his eighth Pro Bowl picture (he's starting to look like Joaquin Phoenix in "Walk the Line").
The players seemed as giddy as the few lucky fans who had somehow scored behind-the-scenes badges for the event. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning asked a "civilian" friend for a camera, so he could snap a few candids as the guys waited around. The team photo area was fenced off like a red-carpet situation, and players would come up to the fence so their families could get assorted group shots of them and their all-star friends.
Then they broke off into group pictures by team. The Patriots portrait consisted of the entire coaching and support staff (having earned the honor by losing the conference championship game), and one guy -- offensive lineman Matt Light. (Richard Seymour was injured and Tom Brady is speculated to have turned down an alternate spot.)
The Steelers' Troy Polamalu was told to pull up his socks. As the only Jet to make it, kick returner Justin Miller got to put both arms around the two pretty hula girls who stand with the players at the end of each shot.
Colts center Jeff Saturday snuck past the fence long enough to take an impromptu picture with his three kids. His oldest son was upset when dad left to go back to the picture taking with the rest of the millionaire NFL all-stars.
"I have to go back to work now," Saturday said.
Neal's biggest fans: Wearing powder-blue San Diego Lorenzo Neal jerseys on a closed, private Pro Bowl practice sideline, Bill and Charmaine McNeill of Brentwood, Tenn., look like proud parents.
Well, calabash uncle and auntie maybe.
Bill met Neal at an autograph event when the Pro Bowl fullback was playing for the Tennessee Titans. McNeill asked Neal to sign a sports section from the day after the famed "Music City Miracle" game. Neal said he wished he had that section himself.
Neal seemed so nice McNeill framed it and sent it to his new favorite player.
A friendship started from there and grew deeper when Charmaine started cleaning the Neals' home -- and Lorenzo's wife, Denisha, helped her start her own business by recommending her to other Titans families.
Now, they've grown so close, "They're like my kids," Charmaine said. "And we spoil their kids just like a grandparent would."
Neal moved to the Bengals, then the Chargers. When he started making the Pro Bowl -- after 10 years in the league -- the McNeills would come along.
The Chargers play at Tennessee next season, and a dinner party for Neal and his teammates at the McNeills' house is already in the works.
He speaks to them: Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez's free time is filled with service projects -- everything from breast cancer research to dolls given to sick kids to help them through hospital stays (his No. 88 "Shadow Buddy" is also distributed to kids in Hawaii, his bio reads).
"It was raised in me," he said.
"I think that comes from my mother. We were given a lot -- I guess it's up to each individual, but to me it doesn't make sense not to. This (the NFL life) is all going to be over pretty soon."
He added, "Five minutes in one kid's life can last a lifetime."
But the thing he's done that may have touched the most people may have been his decision to learn Spanish, and start speaking it publicly.
He said he originally was determined to learn the language because so many people wanted to speak Spanish to him because of his name. But about that same time, he also discovered some family history.
"My grandfather is from Portugal, grew up in Argentina," Gonzalez said. "Real interesting story with him, he never ever told us where he was from."
Gonzalez said he plans to travel to Argentina this year to learn more and visit his grandfather's old hometown. Meanwhile, his decision to speak Spanish has further endeared him to Latino fans who have cheered him as one of their own.
"I'm Latin," he said proudly. "I mean, Portuguese is Latin, too."
More notes: Yesterday was the Pro Bowl Skills Challenge featuring current all-stars and an alumni flag football game made up of former NFL players. The skills challenge will be televised during tomorrow's Pro Bowl halftime on CBS and in its entirety on the NFL Network after the game. ... Aiea football coach Wendell Say will be honored prior to the game as the Hawaii High School Coach of the Year. ... Today is Ohana Day at Aloha Stadium from 9 a.m.-noon, featuring free and open AFC and NFC practices and an appearance by Jasmine Trias. ... Security has been beefed up for game day this year, including pat-downs. The NFL suggests fans cut down on the size and number of carry-in items. Camcorders, strollers and backpacks are among the prohibited items, which will not be held by the stadium. Stadium parking lots open at 8:30 a.m., gates open at 10.