IT'S hard to believe, but tomorrow will be the 20th Pro Bowl at Aloha Stadium.
Hawaii has been
good to the Pro Bowl
I remember the very first game in 1980 and it was a giddy time for all of Hawaii's National Football League fans. They finally had an opportunity to see the league's very best players -- live and in the flesh.
Never mind that it's only an all-star game with players participating in cameo roles. Actually, it's more than that. It's a happening that lures the star-and-sun worshippers out in droves.
Tomorrow's game at the 50,000-seat Halawa facility is a sellout for the 19th time in 20 years. The only time it didn't sell out was the strike-shortened 1982 season. Obviously, it's a win-win situation for both Hawaii and especially the NFL, which is getting $7.5 million from the state to host the next two Pro Bowls.
There is still talk that the Pro Bowl might move to Orlando some day. But if the NFL ever decides to leave Honolulu, league officials might be in need of a little refresher course about the last Pro Bowl played on the mainland before moving here.
That was in 1979, when it was played before 38,333 chilled-to-the-bone fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum. There were 13,000 no-shows because the temperature that night hovered in the low 40s. I ought to know, having frozen my buns off in the press box.
THE players welcomed the warm sunshine and the aloha spirit as Honolulu became the first non-NFL city to host the event the next year.
"It's been great to come over here and play. It's fun, not only for the people, but for us as players, too," said Green Bay's Reggie White. He will set a record with his 11th Pro Bowl appearance tomorrow. In Reggie's first Pro Bowl in 1987, he tied a game record of four sacks in being named the outstanding player.
Oh, a few players still skip the Pro Bowl -- and Bill Parcells of the New York Jets became the first coaching no-show -- but absenteeism has definitely declined.
The Pro Bowl has become a destination resort, not the last resort.
And a paid vacation. Realizing the cost of living in Hawaii is expensive, the NFL bumped up the players' shares three times since the Pro Bowl moved here. For the winners, it went from $5,000 to $10,000 in 1983, to $20,000 in 1994 and to $25,000 last year. The losers got one-half that.
The players, though, will tell you that the game's not about money. With their salaries, it's chump change. Although late in the fourth quarter, things can get heated because by then a few minutes can translate into a lot more dollars, besides winning and losing.
"It's relaxed during practice, but it gets pretty tense in the game. Guys want to win," said Minnesota's Randall Cunningham, the Pro Bowl's MVP 10 years ago when he quarterbacked the Philadelphia Eagles.
"We got the best football players in the world competing in the game. They all want to win."
"The intensity of the game picks up as the game goes on," added Viking teammate Cris Carter, who's playing in his sixth Pro Bowl. "To reach this level, every guy has a lot of pride and they want to win."
FOR first-timers, the Pro Bowl gives them an opportunity to fraternize with other players they've only played against and otherwise would never get to know personally.
Buffalo's Sam Gash, one of 27 first-year Pro Bowlers tomorrow, said he is enjoying that aspect of the experience.
"One guy, Rodney Harrison (San Diego Chargers' safety), I had a lot of respect for, and to meet him as a person is outstanding," said the Bills' safety. "I'm more excited about meeting the other guys."
Tennessee's Frank Wycheck, another first-year performer, is simply overwhelmed by the whole experience. "I don't even think about sleeping or getting any rest," he said.