Pro Bowl revises Hawaiian vacation schedule

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OAHU, Hawaii - When my wife Margaret and I were unable to book a room at a popular resort that we had discovered here a couple of years ago, we didn't realize that the National Football League was to blame.

We instead settled for a property a short distance up the road where we were guests (translation renters) at a vacation club. And we were certainly not disappointed.

Both facilities are located about a 30-minute drive west of Honolulu and are sandwiched between the Ko Olina Golf Club and four man-made lagoons that are fed by the Pacific Ocean surf. The brand new Disney Aulani Resort rises between them.

We were in the islands for obvious reasons. A rare escape from Walla Walla's January blues, made harsher still by last month's snow and ice storm.

The NFL, on the other hand, was there on business (chuckle, chuckle) - its annual Pro Bowl Game. The league's all-star game has been played at Oahu's Aloha Stadium 32 times in the past 33 years, largely because Hawaii is one of the few places NFL players can be enticed once the rigors of the regular season conclude.

As it turned out, the league locked up exclusive rights to the resort where we had previously stayed. Roads in and out of the area were restricted. Restaurants were off limits to those not wearing an NFL badge. And even the jogging path that I had faithfully used two years earlier was barricaded.

Still, I managed to get in my daily exercise, jogging west along the lagoons until I reached the blockade, then retracing my steps east to a marina and then west again until I was back at the edge of NFL headquarters.

As you can guess, there's a lot to see running along one of Hawaii's most popular beaches. And it's not limited to tropical palm trees swaying in the push and tug of the trade winds, monstrous breakers crashing on the rocks of the outer shore, and that mysterious place where the green of the gulf meets the blue of the sea.

But being a sports writer, I was constantly on the alert for football types who might have ventured beyond the restricted area. And I spotted a few, too.

But sans helmet decals and uniform numbers, I was unable to identify any of them apart from their hard-to-miss physical stature.

The game was on Sunday but we didn't attend, even though tickets were available. Instead, we drove downtown and attended a park concert put on by the Royal Hawaiian Band that was every bit as entertaining.

We caught the second half of the game on television, and I was glad we hadn't ponied up the price of admission. The score was 28-28 at the break, and by all reports neither side had played a lick of defense.

Unlike baseball's All-Star Game, and to a lesser degree the NBA's annual mid-season showcase, the Pro Bowl in no way represents what we come to expect of NFL talent on any given Sunday. It simply can't, because there's no justified reason to risk injury of any kind in a game that doesn't count for anything.

The Pro Bowl more resembles a controlled scrimmage where hitting is limited and players, especially the quarterbacks, are protected.

That said, the Pro Bowl did get a little interesting in the second half as the American Conference stars overwhelmed their National Conference counterparts for a 59-41 victory.

Perhaps it was the $25,000 difference between the winning and losing player shares that motivated the AFC. Those on the winning side were awarded 50 grand, the losers half as much.

I'm not buying that, however. Everyone knows that money is never an issue for high-paid pro athletes, at least not until it comes to contract negotiations.

NBC announcers Dan Hicks, Mike Maycock and Doug Flutie suggested that the NFC coaching staff - Green Bay's Mike McCarthy and his staff of Packers assistants - kicked a hornets nest by indulging in some trickery. Twice the NFC recovered onside kicks, and on another occasion the Nationals passed for a first down out of punt formation.

That certainly could have done it.

But it's my perception that Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers' rookie quarterback who played the entire second half for the NFC, lit the fire when he broke one of the Pro Bowl's unwritten rules. Several times Newton scrambled out of the pocket and extended plays, which in turn led to extra effort on the part of AFC defenders.

That's clearly above and beyond the call of duty in the Pro Bowl.

Newton was not particularly sharp to begin with. Although he did complete a 55-yard touchdown pass to Panthers teammate Steve Smith in the third quarter for a 35-31 NFC lead, he was 9-for-27 passing in the second half and was intercepted three times, one of them returned for a TD.

Perhaps frustrated by wobbly passes that often sailed high over the heads of his intended receivers, Newton tried to take the game into his own hands by improvising. And that is what probably agitated AFC defenders the most.

Newton was sacked once - unheard of in a Pro Bowl Game - and he managed just 14 yards on four rushing attempts. Furthermore, he was hurried, harassed and run out-of-bounds, several times the recipient of a genuine hard hit.

Meanwhile, the AFC's Andy Dalton, also a rookie, played by the rules. The Cincinnati Bengals QB stood poised in the pocket, found receivers on seven of his nine passes for 99 yards, and twice connected for touchdowns as the AFC dominated the fourth quarter 21-6.

Dalton's efficient play allowed AFC kicker Sebastian Janikowski of the Oakland Raiders to pin the NFC on its own 20-yard line with booming kickoffs that cleared the end line with ease. And when Newton couldn't move his offense, the NFC was forced to punt.

And if one thing was clear, the NFC had not practiced punt coverage in the laid-back week leading up to the game. The AFC returned four punts for 115 yards in the second half, each time giving its offense a short field.

Nevertheless, the Hawaiian people seem to love the Pro Bowl. They pay attention to and support the game. It is their one and only opportunity to connect with the NFL.

And I suspect they also appreciate an economic impact that is something in the neighborhood of $30 million.

Here on the mainland, the Pro Bowl was little more than an afterthought when it was played the week following the Super Bowl and more recently a distraction in anticipation of the big game.

As for me, well, I'll be watching today when the New York Giants take of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. Most likely rooting for the Giants, although I never know for sure until after the game kicks off.

But I'll be glad we're not in chilly Indianapolis. Instead, I'll fondly recollect those sun-splashed Hawaiian days when we hung out with the Pro Bowlers on the beaches of Ko Olina.

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