From pranks to bonding among the NFL’s elite, Pro Bowl Games are about making memories

NFL

LAS VEGAS – When Eli Manning reflects on his four trips to the Pro Bowl, he doesn’t dwell on whether his conference won or lost, or how many yards he passed for.

The former New York Giants quarterback can barely remember either, if he’s being honest.

Instead, what comes to mind is his daughter Caroline’s second birthday celebration at the hotel pool in Hawaii in 2016.

“I was like, ‘What can we do?'” Manning said this week. “So, I invited all the players. I said, ‘Hey, it’s open bar on me from, like, 4 o’clock on.’

“So, a bunch of players came. We had a bunch of kids out by the pool and we all sang happy birthday to my 2-year-old, which she’ll never remember. But it was fun. And you tell her about those memories. Got a few pictures of it, too.”

The image of a large percentage of the NFL’s most elite players and their families singing happy birthday to Caroline Manning poolside might not be most people’s defining image of the Pro Bowl. But for Pro Bowl veterans like Eli and his brother Peyton, the most lasting memories are the ones related to the off-the-field experiences.

This year’s Pro Bowl Games are adding to those memories. Eli and Peyton are the NFC and AFC coaches, respectively. The format is different with skills competitions and flag football games (Sunday, 3 to 6 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN/ESPN+) deciding the winner, but the experience remains memorable.

“It’s been awesome, just being around all these guys, obviously the best players in the league,” said 23-year-old quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who just finished his second season with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Pro Bowl offers the unique intersection of players like New Orleans Saints defensive end Cam Jordan — a 12-year veteran playing in his seventh Pro Bowl — and a rookie like the New York Jets’ Sauce Gardner.

Jordan remembers attending Pro Bowls in Hawaii with his father, former Minnesota Vikings tight end Steve Jordan, who was selected six times.

“I can vaguely remember being a little kid and losing my little sand pail out in the ocean,” Jordan recalled. “And we had a babysitter at the time that had to go out and get it. And we had pictures of that. And now you had picture proof that you were at the Pro Bowl crying as a little 3-year-old, or whatever I was.

“To be in Hawaii with my pops there, and now I’ve got a son who was playing around in the sand. He was maybe all of 1? It sort of brings it full circle.”

The time spent together at the Pro Bowl can go a number of different directions. It can, as AFC defensive coordinator Ray Lewis shared, include deep conversations with greats like the late Derrick Thomas. Or, with someone like Peyton, who was a 14-time Pro Bowl selection with the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos, it could mean you wind up on the wrong side of one of his practical jokes.

During the 2009 Pro Bowl, according to the Denver Post, Peyton enlisted offensive linemen Nick Mangold of the New York Jets and Kris Dielman of the Chargers to unsuspectingly throw then-Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler into the hotel pool. Peyton was smart enough to distract Cutler and take his cellphone before the prank so as not to ruin the device, but the joke ultimately went awry. Cutler, a Type 1 diabetic, had his electronic blood-sugar monitor in his pocket. The monitor was ruined.

“It was a bad audible on our part,” Peyton said later. “I think we were thinking right, trying to get the cellphone. Then, we realize the guy gets insulin shots. We missed that.”

Cutler found a replacement and the week went on without interruption. For better or worse, Peyton was always a large presence at the Pro Bowl.

“Peyton knows how to hold court,” Eli said.

He still does. Even among today’s biggest stars, he has a presence that outshines most of them.

Meeting legends is one of the things that tends to stand out for younger Pro Bowlers. It’s what Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens Hall of Famer, recalls most.

“Reggie White said something to me one time that forever changed my perspective,” Lewis said. “He said, ‘Legends validate legends.’ What he was confirming was, we tell you [when you’re a legend]. In this new era, we think it’s social media followers or this or that. But what he was saying is that we’ll tell you when you’re great by [giving] respect.”

He added, “I’m telling you, just all of us sitting at the bar, it should’ve been recorded. Just the conversations, man. Those were like podcasts about greatness and what it means.”

Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley, who’s in his fifth Pro Bowl, remembered the impact of his first one, when he made it in 2014 as a rookie.

“That opened my eyes, seeing some of the other players, seeing some of the top players in the league, seeing their work ethic, just hanging around my peers as a young rookie,” Mosley said. “Von Miller, it was probably a normal day for him, but it wasn’t for me.

“Just seeing his style, he was very laid back in the locker room. He had his big speaker blasting music. He just made sure everybody laughed and he kept good vibes. Just seeing him, and seeing all the older players react off that and be real, like chill and relaxed, it helped set the mood for me because I didn’t know what to expect. I was coming in like, let me get ready for real practice, but everybody was really, really laid back.”

The relaxed vibes can lead to more good-natured foolishness, and not just by Peyton.

For example: Veterans have been known to secretly bill massive bar tabs and restaurant charges to the hotel rooms of younger Pro Bowlers. It’s a tradition that Lewis first experienced when he discovered a $13,000 bill upon checking out of the team hotel one year (he declined to reveal the perpetrator). And it’s a tradition he happily continued by pulling the joke on other young players in later years.

There undoubtedly will be similar pranks pulled this weekend, although if Thursday’s skills competition was any indication, the weekend won’t be devoid of semi-serious competition.

“We need to win,” Peyton said. “I don’t want to hear it all year from [Eli] about losing this competition.

“We have an incredible team, the best football players in the world. I think I’m going to try to stay out of the way and let my guys do their thing this week.”

ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini and Saints reporter Katherine Terrell contributed to this report.

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