The beast at play is a sight to behold: It is never completely tame and is always a bit awkward in the sunshine, but that doesn't mean it can't get a tan. The beast is the National Football League, the mightiest monster in American sport, and when it comes to Hawaii for the annual Pro Bowl between the best of the NFC and the AFC, the rule book stays home.
The Pro Bowl is the least compelling of the four major all-star games, but the culture that surrounds it is rich. From the middle of July through the end of January, the NFL operates with the urgency and single-mindedness of an army in combat. Then it comes to Hawaii and gets footloose and funky. Bitter rivals rub elbows, and coaches devise game plans as complex as Dick and Jane. There are no long meetings or bed checks, and football starts to feel like a game again, the way it was before the money got crazy and the players began taking themselves too seriously.
"The Pro Bowl is the one time when players can let down their guard, enjoy their status and revel in the joys of their profession," says former New England Patriot and San Francisco 49ers tight end Russ Francis, who is now sports director at KGMB-TV in Honolulu. "It's camaraderie and adventure—the way football used to be."
The game itself, though, has more restrictions than the Pritikin diet. The rules say that on offense there can be no motion, no shilling and no formations that have three receivers on one side of the line. On defense, players must line up in a standard 4-3 formation and are prohibited from using pass-rush stunts, linebacker blitzes and extra defensive backs. For the further protection of the quarterbacks, there is no penalty for intentional grounding.
While some superstars, most notably Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, find excuses not to play in the Pro Bowl, others, such as San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice and Green Bay Packers defensive end Reggie White, show up as faithfully as the big surf on Oahu's north shore. Rice, who in 1995 caught a career-high 122 passes for a league-record 1,848 yards, comes because he is quite possibly the most determined and obsessed performer of his time. Hanging out last week by the enormous circular pool at the Ihilani Resort, 30 miles northwest of Waikiki, Rice said with a straight face, "Last year was pretty rough for me. The day I get home, I'm starting my workout program, and I feel like if I really work hard over the off-season, this year can be a very good one."
The NFL used to house the Pro Bowl players at a high-rise hotel in the heart of bustling Waikiki Beach. The proximity to nightlife was enticing to many of the players, but others were put off by the constant barrage of autograph hounds and video cameras. This point was underscored when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, drained and frazzled after a week in Hawaii, left the 1993 game after the third quarter and headed straight for the airport.
Perhaps as a result the NFL decided to bunk the players at the Ihilani, a lovely resort that sits on a private cove. More players are now bringing their families with them, and this year, in addition to nonparticipating players and a swarm of agents, executives from many NFL teams made the scene at the Ihilani. Ostensibly they were scouting Pro Bowl practices; in fact, they were trying to get a jump on the free-agency signing period, which doesn't officially begin until Feb. 16. That might have been bending the rules a bit, but, as we said, normal rules don't apply at the Pro Bowl.
Which makes it the perfect place for a free spirit like Cowboys defensive end Charles Haley, who on Jan. 28 became the first NFL player to play on five winning Super Bowl teams. Sharing a pool-side table with former Niners tight end Jamie Williams, Haley was holding forth on the 49ers, his employer until they traded him to the Cowboys in 1992. "If they had just left me the I—alone, I could have stayed there," said Haley, who collected two of his Super Bowl rings with the Niners.
In what might seem like a scary notion to potential suitors, Miami Dolphins linebacker Bryan Cox, a free agent this winter, said he was learning a great deal from Haley. "He's teaching me to not let other people's opinions influence my behavior," said Cox, who was fined $17,500 by the league this season for spitting at Buffalo Bills fans as he headed for the locker room alter being thrown out of a game on Dec. 17. "He simply doesn't back down, and that's eye-opening."
This was evident as Haley discussed his most recent season with the Cowboys. "At one point I lost too much weight, and they were going to fine me," he said. "I told them they might as well take away a game check too, because I wasn't playing that week. Do you think they fined me? Hell, no!"