You’re headed to the Pro Bowl. Congratulations. But before you go, here’s some advice: Set your alarm. No Super Duper Mai Tais after 8 p.m. Never, ever, say your room number out loud. And don’t scrap with Chuck Liddell.
But I’ll get to all that.
A lot of you guys have been there before, so you know what I’m talking about. But with so many vets passing on this year’s invite and the 14 dudes missing it because they’re playing in the Super Bowl, there’s an unusual amount of you first-timers out there, too. And if you guys are anything like me when I went to my first Pro Bowl as a rookie back in 2005, you’re in your early 20s and you’re riding a crazy high right now. You probably just experienced the best year of your life, on and off the field, and now, you’re recognized among the elite out of some 1,700 players in the league. That’s outstanding.
But don’t get it twisted. The Pro Bowl is the last big event of the season before the Super Bowl — but for you, it’s more like the first day of school. You’re gonna walk into that hotel in your Hawaiian shirt with that lei around your neck, and you’ll be among the best of the best. Future Hall of Famers. You might know some of the guys, but odds are you don’t know many of them off the field. Well, they don’t know you, either. And they’ll all be wondering: I’ve seen this guy play. But who is he away from the field?
We’re all macho and tough when we step between those lines and the whistle blows. But the Pro Bowl is a place where you really get to know what guys are about.
So If I’m gonna give you a heads up on what you’re in for, that’s a good place to start.
Forget everything you know about “practice.” It’s not like that. Pro Bowl practice starts at like 8 or 9 a.m. and lasts about an hour. It’s just coaches installing simple versions of their systems so everyone’s on the same page on gameday. By 11 a.m., you’ll be back at the hotel, ready to hit the pool with your family and the rest of the players and their families.
Take advantage of this time at the hotel and out at the pool. This is where you get to really know the rest of the guys, and where you get to show them who you really are, too.
You’ll be sitting around the pool drinking Mai Tais — or in my case, Super Duper Mai Tais that we had made extra strong — and all the guys are having a good time relaxing, cracking jokes, telling stories. You can just walk in circles around the pool and overhear guys talking about games they’ve played against each other, or coaches they’ve played for and guys they’ve played with. Each set of beach chairs you walk past is like a new radio station with a different group of guys telling different stories. That’s when it’ll really hit you that it’s an exclusive club, and you’re a part of it.
One of the best dudes I met at my first Pro Bowl was Peyton Manning.
This was at peak Peyton in 2005, too. He was already on his way to being one of the all-time greats at that point, and I’m sitting there, just a rookie, and he’s kickin’ it with me at the pool, spending time talking to me and my family. I just remember the coolness. There was no ego or arrogance. It was just Peyton, imparting wisdom and treating me and my family like his own. It was a great example of how a true pro conducts himself, and I still remember thinking, That’s how I’ve gotta be. That’s how the best of the best roll.
And that’s how all the guys were. So the same way I used to emulate my favorite players growing up, I started taking cues from all my favorite guys I met around the hotel. It’s a learning experience, man. Don’t waste it.
And they’re learning about you, too. So take it easy on the Super Duper Mai Tais.
I was sitting at a table eating lunch at the hotel with some other guys — Ray Lewis, Lorenzo Neal, LaDainian Tomlinson and a few others. The waitress came by and I ordered something else, and she said, “You got it, Mr. Merriman. What’s your room number?”
Just as I opened my mouth to tell her, somebody kicked the hell out of me under the table. I snapped around and the guys were just looking at me with wide eyes, shaking their heads, like, Are you crazy?! Don’t say your room number out loud …
I didn’t know any better, so I’m like, Why not?
And they told me that if you say it out loud, the veteran guys are gonna remember it and charge all kinds of stuff to the room. They’ll use it all week. You’ll check out at the end of the week and you’ll have $10,000 in charges and have no idea where they came from. And the vets want you to pay it, because you’re the rookie.
So I’ll say it to you because I was lucky enough to have guys there to say it to me: Never give your room number out or say it out loud. Period.
We Talkin’ ‘Bout Practice
Remember when I said forget everything you know about practice? That doesn’t mean you can skip it. They can fine you for that, and sometimes they’ll even send you home, like they did to Simeon Rice in 2004.
But it’s not just about setting your alarm to wake up. It’s about the night before.
By Friday, you’ll feel like you’re coasting through the week. You’ve had a few days at the pool. You’ve done the Pearl Harbor visit (which you absolutely should not miss). You’ve been out to the beach, out to eat and out to events with your family and the other guys and their families. You only have one more light practice Saturday morning before the game on Sunday. So come Friday night, you’ll think, I’m gonna go out tonight and have me a good time.
At least that’s what I did.
I was drinking Super Duper Mai Tais all afternoon at the pool, and that night, I went to the club.
They always have celebrity DJs out at the clubs for Pro Bowl week, and Lil’ Jon was DJing at the club I was at. So I introduced myself, and we started talking.
Then the shots happened … and they kept going and going.
So there I was, 21 years old, in the club, taking shots with Lil’ Jon, thinking, This is the best week of my life!
Then, I run into Chuck Liddell.
By this point, I’m already mushed after an afternoon of Mai Tais and a few rounds of shots. I was a huge fan of Chuck’s, and we started talking MMA. We were joking around, sizing each other up, and next thing you know, we’re squaring up, pummeling — which is basically standup wrestling — right there in the club with people circled around us.
It was all in good fun. We were just having a good time. But it was crazy.
I don’t remember who won, but from what I heard from people who were there, I wasn’t too shabby.
At some point, I finally caught a taxi back to the hotel. When I got there, I jumped right in bed and went to sleep. I didn’t even set my alarm. When I woke up the next morning, I looked over at the alarm clock.
You know that “Oh, shit!” moment when you realize you’re late?
Meetings started at 8 a.m. Practice was right after. It was 9 a.m., and I was still in bed.
I jumped out of bed, threw my clothes on, scrambled for my stuff and took off running down the hotel hallway.
I didn’t get more than halfway to the elevator before I saw the other guys walking back in from practice.
It was Saturday, the day before the game, so practice was super light and super short. A dress rehearsal. And my “Oh shit!” moment turned into an “Aw, f***” moment. I had slept through everything.
So I went back to my room thinking, It was a good week. I had a good run. And I started packing my stuff.
Later that morning, I ran into Coach Bill Cowher in the hallway at the hotel. I apologized for missing meetings and practice, and he was actually cool about it. He let me know I messed up and that I can’t do that, but he didn’t send me home.
Man, did I get lucky.
Don’t be “that guy.” Don’t drink Super Duper Mai Tais all day and hit the club after. Don’t go shot-for-shot with Lil’ Jon. Don’t scrap with Chuck Liddell.
And don’t miss practice. Set your alarm, man.
Make It Last Forever
You’ve probably all traded jerseys with one of your boys after you played a game against each other. That stuff is always cool. It helps you remember the important moments. They’re keepsakes.
The Pro Bowl is a great place for that kind of stuff.
You’ll probably have your whole family there — I was rolling eight or nine deep my first Pro Bowl because I wanted to share the experience with everyone. Make sure you get all the autographs you can. Get pictures with guys. Gather as many things as you can to look back at and remember that week.
I still have Peyton Manning’s practice jersey that he signed for me. I have Zach Thomas’s helmet, which is cool because he was one of my favorite players. I have photos with so many guys.
It’s the kind of thing that, when you’re living in the moment, you can forget to do. But capture every memory you can, because when you start to look back 10, 15, 20 years down the road, you’ll really appreciate them as keepsakes from one of the most exciting times of your life.
You’re a Pro Bowler. You’re among the best of the best. Congratulations. Enjoy it, and take it easy on the Mai Tais.