Janet Jackson and the decline of the Pro Bowl

Some folks say it’s not a coincidence that Jim Steeg — the one person most credited with developing the Super Bowl into the extravaganza it is today — left his job as the NFL’s top exec in charge of special events shortly after the 2004 Patriots-Panthers game, which was most famous, or infamous, for its halftime show featuring the baring of Janet Jackson‘s breast by Justin Timberlake at the end of a duet.

If that less-than-one-second incident did lead to Steeg’s departure it can also be at least partly blamed for the 12-year gradual decline of the Pro Bowl in Hawaii.

The NFL is expected to announce before the end of this month that the game is moving to Orlando, Fla. — the same city which Honolulu staved off in the 1990s.

Steeg, who left his NFL vice president post to become the San Diego Chargers CEO, never said publicly if complaints stemming from Jackson’s so-called wardrobe malfunction resulted in him being forced out of his job.

Steeg worked well with Hawaii government officials, business people, volunteers and other community members in coordinating Pro Bowl events … not just the game, but the week leading up to it. It wasn’t the same after he left. Steeg had aloha, and when he was in charge the NFL and Hawaii truly were partners. Negotiations were tough, but fair. A way was always found to keep the game in the islands on his watch, and he was a proponent of the branding of Honolulu as the NFL’s 33rd franchise city.

There was more of a vibe of the NFL and the state working together to make the event a success. Today’s column refers to how players sensed that, too, and were more accessible around town during game week than in recent years.

“My favorite moments were in the old days (when) kids could get autographs,” said Chris Hart, host of “The Sports Animals” radio show on 1420 AM. “The Pro Bowl experience with vendors, activities and actual Pro Bowl players being available to the fans at Kapiolani Park. When they started taking away the great events leading up to the game, that’s when Hawaii people started losing interest in my opinion. For years, there doesn’t seem to be a buzz leading up to the game.”

The Saturday practice at Aloha Stadium the day before the game was an opportunity for kids who didn’t have tickets for Sunday to interact with the players.

“The players would throw their shirts, pads, gloves towards the crowd. Seeing the guys you see on TV right there in front of you, very cool for a kid,” said Luki Thompson.

Chris Walz, a University of Hawaii baseball and basketball player at the time, still remembers Reggie Roby booming punts at the UH practice field on campus.

“And where else can you go to tailgate parties for every NFL team in one parking lot?” Walz asked rhetorically.

Another Rainbows baseball player, future-Major Leaguer Chuck Jackson, still laughs about Eric Dickerson telling him he “took a paycut” to join the NFL after college at SMU.

Rick Emmerich had a humorous interaction with Lawrence Taylor at a Waikiki show.

“I got a handshake from that big paw of his and the autograph,” Emmerich said. What was funny was that the pen broke in his hand. He continued to sign using the filler.”

Howard Yoshino said he unintentionally “gave a drunk OJ Simpson a ride from one hotel to another.

“He jumped in my car when I was picking it up at the valet. It was obvious he was trying to avoid someone or some people.”

Don Tokunaga still has his program from 1980, the first Pro Bowl in Hawaii.

“Program was $1.50 back than,” he said. “Best memory of the Pro Bowl in Hawaii would have to be Marc Bulger (leading a) fourth-quarter comeback in 2004.”

Indeed, the 2004 Pro Bowl was the most thrill-packed of them all, with the NFC coming back from a 25-point deficit and winning 55-52.

It spawned one of my most vivid sports memories, talking to Chris Berman right after it, both shaking our heads in amazement.

“How can it get more exciting than that?” Berman asked. “I’ve announced Ivy League basketball games in my days at Brown that were lower scoring than that.”

The greatest Pro Bowl ever came a week after the Janet Jackson Super Bowl.

And we didn’t know it then, but after that it would be pretty much all downhill.

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