With all the money, fame and attention bestowed upon NFL players it is easy to forget that even at the Pro Bowl — where all-stars are recognized for extraordinary performance on the field — off of the field they are still a group of ordinary young men. They are sons, brothers, husbands and fathers, who laugh at and worry about the same things as the rest of us. In the short period of time since the players arrived in Hawaii on Tuesday afternoon there have been constant reminders of that for those of us working closely with them.
In my last NFL.com blog, I mentioned that Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who has been selected to his 12th Pro Bowl squad this year, usually gives a side-splitting speech at a meeting, which all players and coaches attend upon arrival. He did not disappoint this year, but before he got into the jokes, he told a personal story that made a big impact. He talked about the first time he attended the Pro Bowl when he was four years old, and his father — New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning — was selected. He also spoke about the 12 all-star games he has played in since. He explained that during that time he has been fortunate to take the field with seven guys who later were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and described how profoundly both of those experiences had shaped his life.
Manning reminded the room — a mixture of rookies and veterans — that it is an honor to play in the Pro Bowl, and that they have a responsibility not only to each other and the fans to play hard, but also to the players that would come behind them. You could feel the room buzzing with energy, each guy looking at the next thinking “we cannot be the ones responsible for this game ending.” It was very moving, and a great example of why Manning is regarded as the “Patriarch of Pro Bowl.” Always the comedian, he then went on to leave the room in stitches with an assortment of jokes that poked fun at just about everyone.
It struck me how ordinary the scene was as he read a list of which offensive linemen and heavy-set coaches should be barred from taking their shirts off at the pool, and showed a YouTube clip called “The NFL: A Bad Lip Reading”, which I had heard many of my own friends talking about earlier that day.
I was again reminded of how normal these guys are on Wednesday night at the player hotel, when I went to set up their welcome reception. Following a traditional Polynesian luau, the Grammy award-winning band Train was set to play a private acoustic concert, and we had decided to build a floating stage over the pool. As we began to construct it I glanced around to take in the scene. There was New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning building a sand castle with his little girl. His older brother Peyton looked on smiling, before walking over to Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who was holding court with some younger guys at the bar, to embrace him warmly. Nearby was Denver Broncos head coach John Fox telling someone that he could guarantee his team “was going to show up” on Sunday.
On the opposite side of the pool, Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten was bringing his wife a cool drink, and rushing past was New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, who politely said “excuse me” as he bumped into me trying to open the door for someone else’s grandmother, after painfully and publicly losing his own last year.
How many parents have failed miserably trying to build a sand castle? How many of us have watched our siblings with pride, or lost a job or opportunity that we desperately wanted due to illness or injury, only to try to rise above it? How many of us have been devastated by a life lost only to use that pain as a daily reminder to take care of those still with us? Is there any football team in history where offensive linemen are not subject to ridicule?
On Thursday, the Pro Bowl players will take that same positive energy and invest it back into the local community. First, they have a joint AFC-NFC practice at Hickam Air Force Base near Pearl Harbor, where they will honor and mingle with active soldiers and Wounded Warriors. Afterward they will split up and go to a variety of community events around the island and interact with disadvantaged youth. On Friday, they will do it again when they host a large contingent of Make-A-Wish families at practice at their hotel, making dreams come true for terminally ill children.
Well-paid for playing a game? Yes. Blessed with tremendous opportunity? Absolutely. But different from us on the most fundamental levels? Not in my opinion.
Make sure you tune in to NBC on Sunday at 7 p.m. ET to watch these guys defend their all-star game, and learn a little more about the men behind the masks.
– Erin Casey