The Bucs and the Pro Bowl
I always feel a twinge of regret when the Pro Bowl comes around. It is the last “real” football (sorry Arena League) that can be seen until August rolls around. As a child I remember watching the game with a lump in my throat. At the time I thought it was because I was really going to miss football. As I got older I realized it was because the Pro Bowl is a really bad way for a football season to end and I was trying not to throw up.

The Pro Bowl is “Dancing With Celebrities” in pads. The players' hearts are not into it, the fans are not into it and the rules of the game are manipulated to open up the offense and prevent injuries. To put the Pro Bowl in its proper perspective, remember it was viewed as an “improvement” over the Playoff Bowl/All-Star Game.

From 1960 to 1970 the NFL had two bad post-season ideas. One was the Playoff Bowl which featured the second place team from the NFL Eastern Division playing the second place team from the NFL Western Division for the right to claim we’re Number Three! This game was played in Miami one week after the real title game. Then the very next week, the All Star game was played.

I can only imagine how thrilled America was to watch these games. In 1970 the NFL decided to scrap the Playoff Bowl and came up with the AFC/NFC Pro Bowl. The thought was that since there were still so many raw feelings over the NFL-AFL war that this would be a high stakes fight for pride. As we all know it didn’t really work out that way.

Even though I am no great fan of the Pro Bowl I did study the history of it. Yes, I really am that big a football nerd. In doing so I discovered some interesting Tampa Bay connections.

The most interesting thing I learned is that the Pro Bowl was once played in our very own Sombrero, the late, great Tampa Stadium. Just weeks after the Buccaneers had defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 17-7 to notch their first ever home victory, the best of the NFL came calling to Tampa Bay.

The game was played on January 23rd, 1978 and featured an AFC squad coached by John Madden and an NFC team led by Bud Grant. Then as now the coaches of the losing teams in the conference title games coached the all-stars. The Tampa Pro Bowl was played on a Monday Night and saw the AFC lose a squeaker 14-13. Baltimore kicker Toni Linhardt’s 52-yard field goal attempt fell short in the final moments after a controversial play. Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler was sacked on a blitz by San Francisco linebacker Cleveland Elam.

Blitzing in the Pro Bowl is illegal (another reason I detest the game), but no penalty was called. Walter Payton was named MVP of the game and more than 50,000 fans went home hoping one day that the Bucs would be able to have players of this quality.

The very next year Tampa Bay did have one of those players. Defensive lineman Dave Pear became the first Buccaneer to play in a Pro Bowl when he took the field in the 1979 game played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. I could not find his statistical line for the game (there are limits to the interest in Pro Bowl history, and apparently one of them is the statistical line of a defensive lineman in a meaningless All-Star game played a quarter of a century ago).

1980 saw two firsts in the history of the Pro Bowl. One was the site of the game, Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium. This was the first time the game had been played in a non-NFL city and apparently Honolulu made quite an impression because the game has been there ever since. The other first was that the players wore the logos of their teams on their helmets. Until this point the players brought their helmets to the game and had them re-painted either red with a block A for AFC or white with a blue block N for NFC. I have to admit this is a tradition I like, especially when it is a Buccaneer on the field.

The first Pro Bowl in Hawaii was also the first that involved a Buccaneer coach. John McKay, just three weeks removed from the end of the glorious “From Worst to First” season, led the NFC to a 37-27 victory. No doubt he would have traded this victory for 10 points against the Rams, but a week in Hawaii couldn’t have been too painful. Lee Roy Selmon also played in the game, his first of many trips to Hawaii. I still find it a travesty that the league snubbed Richard Wood, David Lewis, Ricky Bell and others from that team.

There have also been some great performances by Buccaneers in the Pro Bowl. Lee Roy Selmon was named co-MVP in the 1982 game, Jimmie Giles caught the winning touchdown from Phil Simms in the 1986 game and Tony Dungy coached the NFC to a resounding 51-31 victory in the 2000 game.

The Buccaneers even saw one of their own set a Pro Bowl record when offensive guard Randall McDaniel started his 12th Pro Bowl game in a row in 2001. Granted the vast majority of his starts came with the Minnesota Vikings, but it was still nice to see him wearing pewter in one of his Pro Bowls.

Even I have a connection to the Pro Bowl, but it has only added to my ambivalence about the game. My wife and I honeymooned in Hawaii a few years ago. After a tour of Pearl Harbor (do I know how to show my wife a romantic time or what?), our tour bus incorrectly dropped us off in the parking lot of Aloha Stadium. We got to spend a wonderful hour baking in the Pacific sun in a sea of blacktop while waiting for a second bus. I can honestly say that Hawaii is a beautiful place, but the parking lot of Aloha Stadium is not. It’s Buffalo with palm trees.

Anyway, for those of you so inclined I hope you enjoy the game. As for me, I’ll watch for the smattering of Bucs on the field, but all things being equal I’d rather go to Buffalo.