With James Lofton’s rookie season off to a strong start in 1978, another member of the Green Bay Packers casually tossed some praise his way in the locker room one day in early December.
Keep up the production, his pal said, and he might find himself in the Pro Bowl.
“I said, ‘That would be great.’ Then I had to ask another teammate, ‘What’s the Pro Bowl?’” Lofton recalled this week with a laugh. “I didn’t have a TV at Stanford, so I didn’t watch any NFL games. I knew about the 49ers and the Raiders, but it wasn’t like you watched ESPN. The internet hadn’t been invented. So I was more consumed with just being a college student.”
Four decades later, the Pro Bowl still does not count as an appointment-viewing event. Television ratings, though still higher than almost any other cable network show, are roughly half of a typical prime time regular season game’s viewership. Each year, several of the biggest stars back out for injury reasons, whether serious or not. Players from the two Super Bowl teams are pulled off the rosters, too. The on-field intensity and drama that fuels so much of the national interest in the sport is nonexistent.
The annual all-star exhibition does not lack for history, however, with a genesis traced back to Jan. 15, 1939. That’s when the first such game was staged in Los Angeles between the 1938 champion New York Giants and a team of assorted stars. The model — supported by commercial sponsorship and not officially sanctioned by the NFL — lasted for five years.
The all-stars were largely assembled from smaller professional leagues on the West Coast. According to Joe Horrigan, the former executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, this was the first time the NFL ever took on another league, planting a seed for the Super Bowl that began three decades later as an NFL-AFL competition.
After an eight-year hiatus for World War 2, the game was revived after the 1950 season pitting standouts from each conference. Once the AFL and NFL merged in 1970, the current AFC-NFC format was enacted. Football lagged behind baseball in popularity then, so the all-star game was a way to try to keep up. The problem was the contact nature of the sport required a postseason date, instead of the midsummer classic that Major League Baseball created, so the Pro Bowl has always had a hard time avoiding that anticlimactic feel.
The league sure hasn’t stopped trying, at least, to prevent such insignificance from pushing fans away. Ten years ago, the Pro Bowl was moved to a week before the Super Bowl rather than the stale week after. For the games played in 2014, ‘15 and ’16, the teams were divided up in a special draft — instead of by conference — directed by Hall of Famers like Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin. This season, each player on the winning team receives $70,000, while each player on the losing squad earns $35,000. The game Sunday will be the fourth one in a row in Orlando, Florida.
The exhibition hasn’t always been a mainland event, of course. After being played primarily in Los Angeles, the game truly became exotic following the 1979 season with a move to Hawaii. The Pro Bowl was held for 30 straight years there, with Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium filled to its 50,000-seat capacity each time.
“It was a brilliant idea,” Horrigan said. “They made it more of a family affair for the players. They’d bring their wives and kids, or if they were single, their girlfriends or brothers and sisters. They made it kind of a retreat.”
Skills competitions were initiated to add television programming. Group outings for kayaking and snorkeling were arranged. Everyone hung out by the hotel pool in the afternoons. Lofton even got married there, his family still friends with the bakers who made the wedding cake for the ceremony. His son was born there, too, prearranged to align with his wife’s due date.
The Pro Bowl was more physical then, too, more than the wink-wink approach to blocking and tackling that typically and softly takes place these days. Lofton recalled lining up in the slot for one play opposite Seattle Seahawks safety Kenny Easley.
“I looked inside, and next thing I know I was getting up off the ground,” Lofton said. “I said, ‘I thought this was supposed to be a fun contest.’”
For the players, it usually is. The honor of being selected among the best in the league is never one to be taken lightly. The newbies, like the rookie Lofton when the NFC quarterbacks were Roger Staubach and Archie Manning, have long reveled in the opportunity to learn from the greats. The presence of Staubach and fellow Dallas teammate Tony Hill with him at lunch that year, his first of eight trips to the Pro Bowl, created an indelible memory.
“I was just blown away,” Lofton said. “It was kind of like a rookie right now meeting Tom Brady for the first time. He had that type of cachet.”
The Pro Bowl, as an event, is still seeking such prestige all these years later.