Saturday, February 1, 2003

Newcomers get notice with first-time Pro Bowl selections



By Greg Beacham
The Associated Press

KAPOLEI, Hawaii - After the AFC's Pro Bowlers posed for the big team picture and the smaller group shots with two Hawaiian dancers on Friday, LaDainian Tomlinson wanted another photo.

"Let's get all the rookies," the San Diego Chargers running back said, referring to the dozen first-time AFC all-stars enjoying their first trips to the Pro Bowl.

But as Tomlinson gathered Chargers teammate Donnie Edwards, Buffalo running back Travis Henry, Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter and New England kicker Adam Vinatieri, he realized a problem.

"There's not enough room to fit everybody," Tomlinson said with a laugh. "OK, forget about it."

Tomlinson won't need photographic proof to remember how much of the NFL's best young talent will be on display Sunday at Aloha Stadium, where first-time Pro Bowlers make up nearly one-third of the rosters. In addition to the AFC's 12 rookies, there are 13 first-timers on the NFC roster.

From Miami running back Ricky Williams to Carolina defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, many of football's brightest young stars got their first chance this week to spend time with their peers and enjoy the perks of NFL stardom. Even the absence of Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, who dropped out last week with a foot injury, hasn't dimmed the importance of this gathering.

"There's a lot of young guys here who are going to coming back for many years to come," said Kansas City tight end Tony Gonzalez, who's in his fourth Pro Bowl. "The first time you come here, it's an incredible motivation to keep working hard and striving to get back here. It really fuels you.

"If you can't win the Super Bowl, this is the reward for all of your hard work. It's a great feeling to know you're one of the best, and these young guys are starting to appreciate that."

Most of the newcomers aren't new to the league: New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey is the only actual rookie at the game. But an inordinate number of players under 25 took important roles on their teams this season - something that's partly the result of the salary cap's thinning of most teams' veteran depth.

The numbers also were helped by several veterans who dropped out with injuries: San Diego linebacker Junior Seau, Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp, Minnesota receiver Randy Moss and St. Louis tackle Orlando Pace were among the absentees. Kansas City running back Priest Holmes also won't play, though he still made the trip to Hawaii and posed in uniform for the AFC team picture.

Many of the young players who got big opportunities this season cashed them in by making the Pro Bowl. For instance: Green Bay receiver Donald Driver, a former seventh-round pick who barely hung on with the Packers during his rookie season in 1999, took advantage of Antonio Freeman's offseason departure to become Brett Favre's favorite target, catching 70 passes for 1,064 yards.

"There's a lot of young guys with a lot of responsibility in this league now," said Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher, who's leading the AFC team. "That's just the nature of our game now. Every year, more young guys emerge. As a coach, you have to welcome it, and you find young guys like the ones on these teams."

Williams, the former Heisman Trophy winner who found his stride in Miami this season, isn't surprised by the number of fellow first-timers in Hawaii. He hadn't thought much about the Pro Bowl during his three seasons in New Orleans, but he realizes its importance now.

"Sometimes in this league, it takes one or two years to get to where you want to be - three years, in my case," said Williams, who led the AFC with 1,853 yards rushing for the Dolphins. "This is my first time, but I always thought this would be the result of having team success. Once we had some success, all of the other rewards started coming."

It's a particularly strong year for first-timers at running back and receiver. Tomlinson, Williams and Henry will be countered by New Orleans' Deuce McAllister and Minnesota's Michael Bennett, while Driver, Shockey and Chicago's Marty Booker will catch passes from the NFC quarterbacks.

Then there's Cincinnati fullback Lorenzo Neal, who was rewarded for a career of near-anonymous hard work with his first Pro Bowl trip in 10 seasons. At 32, Neal is the fifth-oldest player on the AFC roster - and he's having just as much fun as his younger first-time teammates.

"Better late than never," Neal said after a light practice at the Ihilani resort. "I'm feeling a little bit raggedy with so much going on this week, but you never know when you're going to get back, so I'm working hard while I'm here."




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