HONOLULU, HI - JANUARY 29: Fans enjoy the 2012 NFL Pro Bowl pre game show at Aloha Stadium on January 29, 2012 in Honolulu, Hawaii.Photo Credit: Kent Nishimura/Getty Images
In the life of every football fan, there are tailgates, and then there are TAILGATES! You know what I mean. We’re talking about those can’t-concentrate-at-work, think-about-it-every-waking-moment, counting-down-the-milliseconds tailgates for which you, and your fellow tailgating brethren, are just utterly consumed by the event. These are, of course, reserved for special occasions — tailgating before a BCS game or tailgating before a once-in-a-generation, program-defining game. (Hawaii versus Boise State in 2007 comes to mind.) For me, this Friday also qualifies.
But wait, isn’t football season over except for the Super Bowl? Yes it is. But thanks to some creative, out-of-the-box thinking, and the fact that the Pro Bowl is back in Hawaii where it belongs, my friends and I get one last hurrah. You see, the Pro Bowl is the closest that we in Hawaii will ever get to having an NFL team to call our own. Being a fan of a college team is a uniquely surreal experience and something that I take seriously. But there’s just something different about the NFL, some magically undefinable quality that you really cannot find in any other sport.
Ihilani Hotel Entrance (Photo Credit: Harrison Goo)
And so, for the last few years, we’ve held our own version of a Pro Bowl tailgate, as a way to get close to our idols. The Ihilani Hotel, where the players stay when they come for the event, shuts down for two weeks prior to the game. This means there are no room vacancies or entrance onto the premises. This makes a lot of sense: The NFL and the hotel staff don’t want tons of people (like us) trying to get close to the players, thereby ruining the relaxing experience they so justly earned. But there is a way in.
A few years ago, we drove out and foolishly tried to sneak onto the premises. That decision was met with stern words and threats from security. Clearly that approach wasn’t going to work. Eventually we stumbled upon a loophole. Although reservations at the hotel itself were booked, reservations at the hotel restaurant were not. So, in December, we called in and… success! We booked a table for an afternoon of player watching. It seems silly to shut down the hotel but not the other facilities? Still, we were more than happy to take advantage of the loophole.
If you’ve never actually been to the hotel (or Hawaii for that matter), then mere words can’t really help you understand just how beautiful it is. So I won’t even try. Ko’olina, the area where the players stay, is actually a private cove. There are only a few places at the resort where the players congregate, and thus only a few places for us to congregate as well: the lagoon (man-made swimming area by the ocean), the pool, the bar and the restaurant.
Ihilani Lagoon (Photo Credit: Harrison Goo)
We get there around 5 pm for a 7:30 pm reservation, since it’s still light and most of the players are with their families by the water areas around this time. We always begin outside and work our way in. The lagoon is at once the most beautiful and the most difficult area to walk through. It’s the only place that you can reach as a member of the non-reservation-making public, and so it’s usually pretty crowded. The players themselves are also the most reluctant to take pictures here since they want to enjoy the time with their families rather than just stand around smiling.
After moving inside, the hallways and lobby area of the hotel make a nice place to happen upon players. We ran into Mike Vick here once, and I mean that literally. We actually almost ran him over. (He’s really quite small in person.) We also saw Justin Tuck, who we could not possibly run over. He is one gargantuan human being; even in just a t-shirt, he looked like he was wearing pads. But most players are hesitant to take pictures in the hallways and lobby as well, since they’re usually on their way somewhere. Our group always takes a picture by the banners since that’s really the only thing standing still.
With Jeff Saturday (Photo Credit: Harrison Goo)
Finally we get to the restaurant, which adjoins the pool and the bar. This is important because the entire pool area is designated for players and families only; there’s no way to get out there. But if you’re in the restaurant next to the bar (like we were), however, the players come to you! And, since there’s usually alcohol involved, they typically come without families and kids and other people that scream “leave me alone I don’t want to talk to you right now.”
This is where we typically have the most success. Whether it’s Justin Smith sitting in a chair that’s too small wearing a shirt with sleeves slightly torn to accommodate his biceps, or Jamaal Charles and Arian Foster exchanging phone numbers, sitting and eating here gives you access behind a curtain that few people ever get to see. The whole experience is so exciting that we almost always take fewer pictures than we initially anticipated. We get so caught up in seeing and watching and observing (it’s not as creepy as it sounds, I swear) that we ultimately lose track of our main reason for being there. It’s an annual experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.
With Davone Bess (Photo Credit: Harrison Goo)
Our annual excursion out to the Ihilani is not a “traditional” tailgate by any stretch. But it still has the essential ingredients: food, friends and football. And if the whole point of a tailgate is spending time with your best friends, eating and drinking and having a good time, then our version absolutely qualifies. The game isn’t for a couple more days, but tracking down and taking pictures with NFL starts certainly qualifies as sport. So if this is indeed the last Pro Bowl game (in Hawaii or anywhere), at least we have our tailgates to remember it by.