As they prepare for their last game of the 2010-2011 football season, and maybe for a lot longer, NFL Pro Bowl players enjoyed an evening of kalua pig (Hawaiian pulled pork), ahi poke and Kauai cigars under the stars on Wednesday night.
"I don't smoke," explained Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware as he took a complimentary cigar. "I chew ‘em."
Hawaii's strict antismoking laws were on hiatus this evening at the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort and Spa at Ko Olina on Oahu's west shore, about 30 miles from Waikiki.
After dinner, Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Joe Thomas, selected for his fourth Pro Bowl in his first four years in the NFL, enjoyed a corona made with Hawaiian tobacco.
"It's really good," Thomas said, as he talked to Les Drent, founder of Kauai Cigars. "That was my favorite."
The Pro Bowl week, Thomas said, is very relaxing and Hawaii is much warmer than Cleveland or his native Wisconsin right now. He and other players were happy the game was back in Hawaii after being played in Miami last year. The game is a very big deal in Hawaii, where no other pro football is played.
"In Miami," said one player who asked that his name not be used, "the game is just another in a series of events. In Hawaii, everybody here really appreciates that you're here. We get to know the other players and their families. We're staying at the same hotel and get to talk to each other as people."
The cigars helped everyone relax, as well. Vonta Leach, a fullback for the Houston Texans, spent some time learning about the cigars.
"Which one should I have?" Leach asked Tai Erum, who was handing out the smokes from the Kauai Cigar Company. The cigars contain leaf grown in Kapa'a, Kauai, blended with Nicaraguan tobacco.
"They're both fairly mild," Erum explained to Leach. "We have one with a light wrapper and one that's darker and a little richer in flavor."
Leach took the lighter one.
Even as the NFL's all-stars, their families and football fans enjoyed the food, the Hawaiian dancers and the free cigars, uncertainty over a possible lockout that would cancel the next season lingered in the air longer than the fireworks.
"The biggest issue is the idea of playing 18 regular season games," explained one NFL player's union official. "An additional two games could have an impact on career longevity, not to mention that the owners don't really want to pay any more for the extra games."
The NFL team owners have said they would like to keep the season at 20 weeks, reducing the number of preseason games from four to two, adding two to the regular season. The current labor agreement between the league and the players expires on March 4.
Thomas, listed at 6'7" and 315 pounds, made clear that the players already take a beating playing 16 games—games that count—during the regular season.
"The difference between college and pro football," Thomas explained, "is that everybody's big in the pros. You really have to take care of your body. In college, you could go out and bang heads in practice every time, but you can't do that in the pros. You have to get massages, get in the ice. It's a lot of work."
The NFL 2011 Pro Bowl will be played at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu this Sunday. You can watch it on Fox. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. Eastern time. Get your cigars ready.