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Pro Bowl? It's more like Pro Bore

When I was a kid, I would desperately root for the AFC to win the Pro Bowl. Well, OK, I'm exaggerating a touch. The adjective "desperately" is too strong. I wasn't painting "AFC" on the side of my face or anything. I did care, though. I honestly cared. I can remember feeling happy when the AFC scored, unhappy when the NFC scored. I can remember, late in games, going through those mental gymnastics fans do when watching games and figuring what their team needs to do to win the game. It mattered.

Then, I suppose everything mattered when I was a kid. It mattered that the Globetrotters won on Wide World of Sports*. It mattered that Evel Knievel made his jump. It mattered who won the Superstars competition. It even mattered who won on Battle of the Network Stars. That Patrick Duffy ... what an athlete. But you could not never count out the competitive spirit of Robert Conrad.

*And I can remember feeling frustrated because Howard Cosell or whoever was calling the game would not give the score often enough. Were the Generals coming back?

I would watch the Pro Bowl with interest and passion -- Go AFC! -- until I realized that I had more interest and passion in these games than the players. I suppose I came to that realization when I was about 13 years old. When you care more than the players do, the event became pointless. And after that, the Pro Bowl became more or less pointless to me. I might watch. I might not. But it never again mattered.

It's interesting: All-Star games in every sport are always teetering on the brink of oblivion. The others use little tricks to make us care more.

Baseball's All-Star Game, for instance, was interesting for many years because of the complete separation of the two leagues. The All-Star Game was the one place where you could see Ted Williams face Warren Spahn (home run! Mickey Mantle follows with a homer too!) or Sandy Koufax pitch to Al Kaline (pop foul out to first -- overpowered him). Interleague play and easy travel between the two leagues took away some of this thrill, but there's still some separation between the leagues and there is at least a hint of meaning in the games. Even if the value has diminished, players would still rather win than lose the All-Star Game.

The NBA All-Star Game -- and to only a slightly lesser extent, the NHL All-Star Game -- are shows. No defense. No coaching. Lots of dunks and breakaways. No, nobody cares who wins, but they go around this by making it into a laser show. It's sensory overload, but there is some fun in that. No, it's not emotionally riveting, but it can get you through the day.

But the Pro Bowl really could not offer any of those things. The AFC and NFC do not have much separation. The players don't care who wins -- and football is such a physical game, that caring who wins pretty much defines the game. That's why exhibition football is the single most boring thing on earth. Football on television is not really a game of matchups -- most of us are not really spending a lot of our time wondering how Jordan Gross will block DwightFreeney. And, anyway, football -- probably more than any of those other sports -- is a game of teamwork and timing and repetition. The other games allow the players the freedom to show off their athleticism and skill. Football ... not so much. And the Pro Bowls tend to be dull beyond words.

To me, the one thing the Pro Bowl had was ... Hawaii. We all love Hawaii, right? And that gave the game a little extra romance. Players, in general, liked going to the Pro Bowl because it meant taking their families and teammates to Hawaii. It was a reward. The coaches and announcers would wear Hawaiian shirts. The players would hang out on the beach after light practices. Everyone would eat until overload. There were television shots of hula dancers and volcanoes and surfers and palm trees and all sorts of beautiful stuff. It was our visit to Hawaii.

Sure, even with Hawaii the Pro Bowl was the least interesting and meaningful of any All-Star game. And every so often, you would hear ideas about how to make the Pro Bowl better -- and I guess by "better" they meant "more profitable" -- but it seemed to me the Pro Bowl did not have much potential to GET better. It was what it was: a fun reward for the players who would party all week and television viewers buried in two feet of snow. And the big idea was for nobody to get hurt*.

*I have told this story before ... but I cannot write about the Pro Bowl without telling my favorite Bill Belichick story. People have often asked: What is it that makes Belichick so good at this coaching thing? Sure, he's brilliant about breaking down film and devising a gameplan that attacks another team's weaknesses. Sure, he's all about winning -- and as such has not allowed loyalty (Sorry son, we're letting you go), tradition (Fourth and two -- go for it) or good taste (Are those cameras pointing right at the sidelines?) to muddle the mission.

But there's something else -- something harder to describe. Tony Gonzalez was in the Pro Bowl every year from 1999 to 2008. He is, in my view, the best pass-catching tight end in NFL history. Tony -- and I say this with a great deal of affection -- is also very Hollywood. Oh, he plays hard and he blocks and he will get dirty if necessary. But he also invented this new position: The glamour tight end. He co-wrote a diet book. He worked with Oprah. He's friends with the Naked Chef. And so on.

So ... he was at the Pro Bowl and Belichick was coaching (unhappily, no doubt -- the Pro Bowl coach is the one who LOST the Championship Game) and he put Gonzalez on special teams. Well, that's part of the deal with the Pro Bowl -- stars have to play on special teams. So Gonzalez was going through the motions on special teams, like Pro Bowlers do. He wasn't about to get hurt blocking someone at a Pro Bowl -- everyone understood the rules. Well, Gonzalez thought everyone understood the rules. He was walking off the field and Belichick says: "Why don't you (bleeping) block somebody, Gonzalez?"

Gonzalez looked back at the man. Was he serious? He looked serious. Wait, WAS HE SERIOUS? Tony Gonzalez, playing in his eighth consecutive pro Bowl, and this guy was telling him to block somebody on special teams. He had to be joking. No, seriously, he HAD TO BE JOKING.

But he was not joking. Gonzalez was furious. He fumed on the sideline. How dare this man -- HOW DARE THIS MAN -- yell at him, curse at him, who in the hell did he think he was? And on the next kickoff, Gonzalez was still raging -- HOW DARE THIS MAN -- and the ball went over his head, and he found an opponent, and he crushed the guy, absolutely pancaked his guy. And then Gonzalez made sure, absolutely sure, to walk by Bill Belichick, that SOB, and Belichick did not say a word, not a single word, and Gonzalez thought: "Yeah, that's right." And just as he was almost out of range, he heard Belichick say: "Nice block."

And then he knew -- he had been utterly manipulated by the master. And how did he feel about it? Well: "I felt really good," Gonzalez said sheepishly.

You know, if we could see stuff like THIS happening, the Pro Bowl might be a lot more fun to watch.

So, we know what the Pro Bowl meant in Hawaii. It was a reward for players. And it was fairly exotic for fans. No, that did not make it must-see TV, but I just don't think Pro Bowl can ever be must-see TV -- not unless they come up with some sort of crazy idea like:

1. Give some ridiculous sum of money to the winners (million dollars a player) and nothing to the losers.

2. Have Pro Bowlers face off against college football's national champion.

3. Give each team only eight plays, and let fans who love the old "Tecmo Super Bowl" coach each side.

4. Make it USA vs. Canada and play with a 55-yard line and big end zones.

But the NFL instead decided to do something much more bizarre. First, they took the game out of Hawaii and put it in the Super Bowl town -- Miami, this year -- thus taking away the exotic nature of the game and any reason that the players would want to play. Oh, ow, I think I tweaked my hammy. Yeah, thanks for the invite. Don't think I can make it.

Second, they moved the game to the week before the Super Bowl -- thus taking out all the players who are actually playing in the Super Bowl. Hey kids, how about a Pro Bowl without Peyton Manning and Drew Brees? Sound like fun?

Third ... where are the hula dancers? How can I have a Pro Bowl without hula dancers?

Oh, maybe the timing of the game will punch up the ratings ... I don't know enough about the TV side of it. Maybe some accountants will find that the game makes a few more bucks. Maybe.

But, from here, it seems to me they took a flawed game and made it significantly worse. They took a game already without much star power and took away its star power. They took something that was at least unique and stripped it down so that it's now both boring AND commonplace. Yes, I'll admit, it has been a long time since I cared about the Pro Bowl as anything more than a novelty. But now I don't even care about it as that. Hey, look, I get to see Matt Schaub and Aaron Rodgers play in a meaningless game in Miami? Really? What time is that on? Because there will have to be some golf on somewhere.

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