The Pros of Keeping the Pro Bowl in Hawaii

I want the NFL to keep the Pro Bowl going. And I want the NFL to keep the Pro Bowl in Hawai'i. These are sentiments of a football fan who's actually been attending the game, or at least been in town to partake in all of the admission-free festivities, and happens to have a deep love for the Hawaiian islands. While I'm aware of all of the variables in this issue...quality of play, ticket sales, TV ratings...I hope to at least offer a glimpse of what it's like to actually experience Pro Bowl week, beyond just watching coverage on TV.

This year, there was a new addition to the official All Star game events: Eat the Street. Eat the Street is "Hawaii's food truck and street food rally", and it was a fantastic way to share Hawaii's local, signature eats, as well as some new-age fusion mixed in. (Li'l Soul Cafe & Catering. Pacific-inspired soul food. Enough said.) And for this Pro Bowl edition of Eat the Street, vendors were assigned to different NFL teams, with at least one of the dishes on their menu reflecting that team's regional cuisine. (Pop Pop Donuts made "New Orleans Saints beignets" with bourbon sauce!) Hall of Fame running backs Eric Dickerson & Marcus Allen, Pro Bowl cheerleaders, and team mascots were also in attendance. Along with the music and art trucks, Eat the Street: Pro Bowl Edition was everything you'd want in a food festival!

Our first stop was at Aloha Pops. (I was in desperate need of a please-walk-I-can't-carry-you-anymore bribe for my nephew.) These handcrafted treats are usually sold from a custom-made tricycle, and all of the Aloha Pops are made with locally grown fruit. Jon got a Blue Vanilla pop, and it was delicious! Refreshing, and not too sweet :)

Next, we grabbed a bag of popcorn from Kettle Corn Hawai'i. I don't know what it is about kettle corn (really, popcorn in general...) that is so irresistible. If I'm walking around a farmers market, theme park, or stadium, and I smell freshly-popped popcorn, I will go straight to that cart and leave with at least 2 bags. This kettle corn did not disappoint. It was sweet, salty, and crunchy. All of the popcorn is handmade, popped on-site in large kettles, and even bagged individually.

My favorite stop of the day (and, without a doubt, the longest line that we had to wait in) was at the tent for Otsuji Farm. Long lines usually mean a) Service is way too slow. or b) The food is that damn good. One quick glance at the efficient assembly line under the tent, and the happy customers immediately popping food in their mouths, indicated that this case was the latter. The long line, though, gave me some time to do a little research on Otsuji Farm. (What was life even like without smartphones?? Thanks, Google app.) The farm was actually founded in 1954 by Edwin Otsuji, who came to Hawai'i on a boat from Japan. It is a family-run establishment and even offers tours paired with a farm-to-table plate lunch. If you find yourself at farmers markets around Oahu, look for the Otsuji Farm tent!

I tried two items: the Sushi Sliders and the Otsuji Roll. The "sliders" were more like a riff off of nachos, with tempura-fried shiso leaf, freshly made guacamole, ahi tuna, spicy mayo, and eel sauce. AH-MAZING. It sounds simple enough, but this was fantastic. The sweet, salty, & spicy sauces, and the crunch of the tempura, perfectly balanced the richness of the ahi tuna and the creaminess of the guacamole. The Otsuji Roll, although not as strong in flavor, was still beautifully plated and tasty. It was filled with unagi (eel), avocado, and macadamia nut. Then, the whole roll was breaded, fried, and topped with radish and sauces.

Bottom-right: My mom and Auntie Mel buying haulolo.
Our last purchases were made at Pomai Kulolo. Haupia (coconut pudding) and kulolo (made with taro and coconut milk) are traditional Hawaiian desserts. Keanue Kekaula, the owner, made his mark on local cuisine by creating a layered combination of the two desserts and calling it "haulolo". We bought one pack to share (which I forgot to take a photo of) and loved it! These Hawaiian desserts always remind me of similar Filipino sweets!

Left: Lomi salmon, rice, lau lau, and long rice - Right: Lomi salmon, rice, kalua pork, and long rice.
Although the Kalua Pork Nachos looked pretty tempting, Pomai Kulolo was also serving traditional plate lunches, and I couldn't turn down a yummy plate lunch. Lomi-lomi salmon is made with tomato, salted salmon, and onion, Lau lau is made by cooking pork and butterfish in taro and ti leaves, and the long "rice" is actually cellophane noodles cooked with ginger, garlic, and green onions. At the end of the day, this was just the meal we needed. After walking around for awhile, these plate lunches were satisfying and very filling!

It actually started to rain, so we took our food back to the car and decided to drive over to Ala Moana Beach Park. Here, we finished eating with a beautiful view of the Honolulu skyline and Ala Wai Harbor.

We watched the fireworks from Hilton Hawaiian Village, and a couple of tour bus drivers were serenading everyone hanging out by the water. A perfect way to end the Friday night :)

Saturday morning provided a good excuse to wake up early and watch the sunrise...It was Ohana Day!

Ohana Day is when the AFC & NFC hold open practices at Aloha Stadium from 8:30 AM to 11:30 AM. While parking is $1 per person, admission is FREE. "Ohana" means "family", so there's a big emphasis on kids as well. You get to watch kids of different ages compete in football-themed games. (Best Touchdown Dance is always a good one.) On top of all of that, the Pro Bowl cheerleaders perform dance routines, musical guests perform, and there are giveaways, too. There are usually fans who can't make it to the actual game, and they always savor the chance to come to this practice. For Ohana Day, military families can register for free transportation to the stadium and to sit in their own seating section. I've had the chance to talk to a lot of service men and women sitting in the stands, and they're always excited to have the opportunity to get up close & personal with players. The Pro Bowlers also hold a practice at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickham, and it's open to all service members stationed on Oahu and their families. Players run drills, then go out to meet their military fans for autographs and photos.

It's just a great way for fans to interact with players and to see players interact with each other. I remember last year, the NFC ran a play with Cam Newton as a wide receiver, and the AFC once ran a funky flea-flicker play involving Reggie Wayne and Arian Foster.

This year, it was Adrian Peterson doing cartwheels behind Eli Manning and Drew Brees...

Eric Dickerson, who holds the record for most rushing yards in a single season, having a casual conversation with Adrian Peterson...oh, you know...the guy who came up nine yards short of breaking that record...

And Peyton Manning throwing the football around with Andrew Luck, the No. 1 draft pick who had the tall order of filling Manning's shoes in Indianapolis.

You never really know what could happen on Ohana Day. A player might toss a signed football into the stands, mascots might give away t-shirts or tickets...and CBS might show up to film for Hawaii Five-0??? Yup. This happened. Daniel Dae Kim was even there in a 49ers Jesse Sapolu jersey, along with co-stars Masi Oka and Dennis Chun, and they all signed autographs for fans.

Once Ohana Day is over inside the stadium, we always wander around the flea market in the parking lot. There are always some inexpensive souvenirs to be found. And even a fresh, ice cold coconut to drink/snack on! :)

Later in the evening is the All-Star Block Party on Kalakaua Avenue. The whole Waikiki "strip" comes to life. There are different entertainment stages set up for cheerleader performances, player interviews, and memorabilia auctions. There are even live DJ's and performances by local bands. My favorite part, though, is all of the merch booths and food vendors. You can find anything from team gear to Hawaiian specialty items, like jewelry or carved-wood figures. And the food? Barbecue, a beer and wine garden, (my fave) garlic shrimp fries... Not bad at all. Since the block party takes place right in the middle of Waikiki, it's also not a bad time to get some shopping done.

Sunday is, of course, game day. My dad and I were lucky enough to have great seats for the last couple of games. Front row and aisle. But if you're a stickler for new and modern stadiums, no matter where you sit, Aloha is old. It was built in 1975, and its age is one of the reasons why NFL has been looking elsewhere for possible Pro Bowl sites. However, being at a game in Aloha Stadium is still...well...pretty cool. Hawaiian song and dance have a heavy influence on pre/in-game entertainment, and even the concession stands take on the local culture. Huli-huli chicken, garlic shrimp, tropical fruit smoothies..."Yes, please" x 3! Since there's a large amount of teams represented in the Pro Bowl, you also end up with a diverse fanbase in the stands. 

In 2011, I sat in front of David Akers' family, and Jason Witten and Justin Tuck's kids were nearby too. In 2012, a family of Vikings fans and a family of Packers fans were sitting right next to each other and had fun talking trash all game long. Sometimes you'll meet fathers taking their kids to a ball game, old-school fans that have been devoted to their team for decades, or maybe locals that have never even been to an NFL game...

As I mentioned before, being on the island of Oahu, the NFL makes sure that the Pro Bowl gives a proper salute to the military. The pre-game march is always an amazing sight to see firsthand. There are hundreds of men and women who represent every branch of the military. Even if it is "just" an All-Star game, this is an automatic highlight.

Finally, game time. It's the biggest part of the "Should the NFL keep the Pro Bowl?" debate. It's ultimately up to the players to showcase their skills. My hope is that Peyton Manning's latest rally speech to the 2013 all-stars and the increased quality of play in this year's game were enough to keep the Pro Bowl alive. And to keep all of the Pro Bowl events, which can highlight local businesses and recognize the large military population, alive as well. For fans that travel from all across the country and for locals that enjoy the annual festivities, the Pro Bowl needs to stay in Hawai'i!