The Pro Bowl might be leaving, but the memories will endure


POSTED: Sunday, February 08, 2009

No TV in my room, no quarters left to salve the Space Invaders addiction, this 18-year-old freshman sat in the student union watching Chuck Muncie rumble through the AFC as the NFC won 37-27. It was a sunny day back home, reinforcing the dread of trudging the quarter-mile through the snow back to the dorm for another tussle with that fat blue tome of mystery, the calculus text.

My memories of the first Pro Bowl in Hawaii, in 1980, are very clear. The skies in Evanston, Ill., that day, however, were far from it.

So I know it's true this really is a 3-hour commercial for Hawaii. The TV ratings aren't the greatest, but the Pro Bowl has helped promote our islands.

I covered many of the next 28 games, and will be at Aloha Stadium today for what will be the 30th and last here until at least 2011.

In the early 1980s, we did a lot of airport interviews. You get a captive audience at baggage claim—and salty, if he's the losing quarterback of the Super Bowl. Dan Marino, John Elway ... would've been a thrill to meet them under any other circumstances.

Joe Theismann—he's one person I'll always associate with the Pro Bowl, and not just because he tore it up in 1984, before Lawrence Taylor tore him up in 1985. As a fellow sideline practice observer, he's always good company, informative, and never made me feel like an idiot. The guy even offered me a hot dog from the exclusive ESPN “;buffet”; one year.

Chris Berman and John Clayton were fun and helpful, too.

Suzy Kolber, the other extreme. I wanted to talk to her because I enjoyed her thorough analysis, and had read somewhere that “;Little Suzy Kolber”; played high school football. Unapproachable, though, seemed to have an invisible electric fence around her. Paul Arnett slipped through the perimeter once, and asked for a quick interview. Her reply of “;During the game?”; was classic, considering that's when she often talks to players.

I made myself busy getting stiff-armed year after year by Terrell Owens. I had a harder time trying to cover him than do NFL cornerbacks. Finally, he agreed to talk to me. But when I said, “;I'd like your thoughts on your teammate, Garrison Hearst, the NFL comeback player of the year,”; T.O. said “;I'll catch you later.”; Of course, he never did.

By the time Owens and Kolber had arrived on the scene, I'd learned the first rule of covering Pro Bowl practice—always have an outlet receiver.

About a quarter of the time, the guy you want to feature is going to be unavailable, or give you nothing you can use. They're interested in mai tais, not my stories.

So that's why you must always have a John Lynch, Tony Gonzalez or Hines Ward open in the flats. Not only accessible, but engaging and candid. Eventually, I found Ray Lewis to be the same way. And any first-year guy—they're not as interview-weary as the vets, and might actually tell you something that hasn't already been written 46,000 times.

One year I wanted to talk to Simeon Rice. But before I could he was sent home for being mean to hotel staff, the only Pro Bowl player to ever be cut.

Troy Aikman left early one year on his own accord. During the game.

The most interesting—and dangerous—thing to watch is the intensity escalate as the game wears on.

That's when you get things like Kenny Easley's big hit on Neil Lomax (against the rules, no blitzing). That whack was the biggest Pro Bowl hit until Sean Taylor pummeled punter Brian Moorman two years ago.

The best game was in 2004, when the NFC won 55-52.

Personal favorite performances: Michael Vick in 2006. His skill set was ideal for this event. And Steve Tasker, the greatest special teams player ever, the 1993 Pro Bowl MVP.

Yeah, it's not a real game. But it's always been enough to keep me away from calculus and Space Invaders, even if I had some quarters.