The Pro Bowl, as was the entire sports world and beyond, was overshadowed Sunday by the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter in a helicopter crash earlier in the day.
NFL players began learning of it shortly before kickoff in Orlando, Fla., and according to Green Bay linebacker Za’Darius Smith, it was Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson who gathered the NFC team for a prayer as the news began to sink in.
“He called us up and said a prayer for his family,” Smith said during the ESPN telecast of the game, which was won 38-33 by the AFC.
The NFC team was coached by Seattle’s staff, and Pete Carroll told players before the game to play in a style that would honor Bryant.
“Go play and go play hard because if he was here that’s what he would do,” Carroll said, according to Tampa Bay’s Shaquil Barrett, via ESPN.
After the game, Carroll told the NFL Network that when the news began to circulate “our guys were crushed. They all were.”
Carroll said that initially playing the game “didn’t seem like the right thing to do.”
But he said that if Bryant “would have had a say in it, he would want us to go play.”
Carroll said he crossed paths with Bryant regularly when he was coach at USC from 2001 to 2009 and Bryant played for the Lakers and said he has “cited” Bryant to his own players many times.
“We have used his stuff a lot,” Carroll said, adding “it’s a very crushing loss.”
Wilson was one of two Seattle players to take part in the game, the other being cornerback Shaquill Griffin.
Here is what you need to know about what the Seahawks did in the game:
Wilson gives up starting spot to Brees
Wilson was scheduled to start the game but decided to give up the starting nod to Drew Brees of New Orleans, who is 41 years old and considering retirement.
Wilson has long regarded Brees as a role model. Brees is listed at 6 feet and Wilson at 5-11, and Wilson has cited Brees’ success for giving him encouragement that height doesn’t always matter for an NFL quarterback.
“I appreciate it very much, obviously,” Brees said of Wilson’s gesture in a sideline interview with ESPN during the game. “He was the starter and decided to give it to the old vet — let me start it off right there and get one touchdown, and now I’m going to let him take over and run around make a ton of big plays.”
Wilson told ESPN that Brees “means the world to me. I remember my rookie year, it was my first Pro Bowl and everything else, and Drew was one of the QBs on the team and just how he led, how he did everything, how he respected the game. He does it better than anybody else.”
Wilson throws TD
Wilson entered the game on the final play of the first quarter, and things did not start out well as he was sacked by Denver’s Von Miller on his first snap after faking a handoff and attempting to roll out.
But Wilson rebounded from that to lead a 70-yard drive that ended in a 6-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper of Dallas that gave the NFC a 14-7 lead.
Wilson played two more series in the second quarter, neither of which ended in a score, before sitting out the rest of the game. Wilson finished completing 5 of 11 passes for 78 yards and a touchdown.
Griffin gets three tackles
Griffin, who was added to the game this week, saw ample action and was credited with three tackles.
He was also involved in one of the game’s few “controversies,” when he hit receiver Andre Roberts as Roberts caught a pass in the end zone from Lamar Jackson. The ball came loose, and it was initially called incomplete.
But upon review it was determined Roberts had two feet down (and that he also might have been letting up because it was the Pro Bowl, in which the real hitting is kept to a minimum), and Roberts was awarded a TD.
Thomas thwarts Carroll’s test
There wasn’t a whole lot of coaching moments in the game.
But Carroll did have a chance to make good on what he promised earlier in the week, that he would take advantage of an experimental rule allowing teams a chance to convert a fourth-and-15 instead of attempting an onside kick if the opportunity presented itself.
It did when the NFC scored with 4:37 remaining to cut the deficit to 38-33. Carroll eschewed the onside-kick attempt and sent out his offense for a chance to hit a fourth-and-15 from its 25-yard line. If the NFC had converted it would have kept the ball at the spot.
Instead, a deep pass from Kirk Cousins was intercepted by former Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, which effectively ended the game.
Carroll had said during the week he was interested to see how that might work as a possible alternative for onside kicks. Teams recovered a mere eight of 56 onside kicks this season in the NFL.
“I think it’s fun to try to find a more competitive way to find a way to give the team behind a chance to go for it,” Carroll said.