NFL stars draw crowd
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
For the record, the DJ at Maharaja's Ultra Lounge was in fine form for the club's pre-Pro Bowl bash on Friday, and so were the go-go dancers and the live percussionists.
On a night that found Pro Football Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson chilling near the bar, Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers circling the dance floor and Philadelphia Eagles teammates Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb holding court behind the velvet rope, traditional club lures were left to dangle as die-hard football fans and clueless star-chasers joined for an unabashed night of NFL star gazing.
"This is pretty sweet," said Paul Kleinschmidt, who paid $30 to attend the function.
Kleinschmidt is one of thousands of tourists who have come to O'ahu specifically to attend the oddly relaxed, season-ending spectacle that is the Pro Bowl.
"Like, I don't even know who this guy is," Kleinschmidt said, pointing a thumb at Baltimore Raven Adalius Thomas standing nearby. "But he's definitely a player, and it's just cool to see these guys these unreal athletes just hanging out like regular guys."
Other Ultra Lounge patrons had clear agendas.
John Goudret of Los Angeles brought a Sharpie pen with him in hopes of getting it signed by Owens, who once pulled a Sharpie from his sock after scoring a touchdown on Monday Night Football, autographed the ball and handed it to his financial adviser.
"I actually brought two Sharpies," Goudret said. "One to be signed, one to do the signing. What the hell, right? It's Pro Bowl week. Anything goes."
That's the way it's been all week at top clubs and restaurants around the island as off-the-clock players avail themselves of limitless party invitations and fans follow in their sizeable wake.
To be sure, club owners and promoters are acutely aware of how the presence of a few Pro Bowl players even relatively anonymous ones can attract customers and bolster a club's credibility.
"The NFL has a lot of official functions, but I don't think they're as relaxing for the players because they have to show up, sit on a stage and be showcased," said Ultra Lounge founder Peter Maharaj. "Here, the players host the party and that creates a comfortable, relaxed environment for them to hang out with their friends. You can see them in their truest element, and they aren't defensive at all."
Maharaj, who has helped stage private parties for several NFL players over the years, said Hawai'i, with it's laid-back approach to dealing with celebrities, is uniquely suited to accommodating Pro Bowl parties.
"If this was the Mainland, you couldn't have these parties," Maharaj said. "There would be people willing to pay a thousand dollars to attend, and the feeling wouldn't be the same. The expectations of the fans would be much higher.
"In Hawai'i, people aren't like that," he said. "And the tourists they're just happy to find themselves in Hawai'i hanging out with professional football players."
As today's game approached, the scale and intensity of the unofficial Pro Bowl functions increased.
Retired quarterback Warren Moon and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, former teammates, hosted a fund-raiser for the Sportsdream Foundation at the W Diamond Head Grill, a favorite spot of Pro Bowl players the last few years.
On Friday, Feng Shui at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki threw a Mardi Gras Celebrity Party with an open invitation to Pro Bowl players. And Pro Bowlers have also staged their own impromptu parties during nightly rounds to Zanzabar Night Club and other night spots.
Maharaja's Ultra Lounge has been at the epicenter of Pro Bowl nightlife this weekend, with three straight nights of player-hosted Pro Bowl parties.
At Friday's event, nearly 500 people paid $30 to $50 to share space with the likes of Owens, McNabb, Peppers, Dickerson, Moon, Gonzalez, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper, St. Louis Rams wide receiver Torry Holt, Ravens linebacker Cornell Brown, Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle John Henderson and several other players.
Predictably, Owens and McNabb drew the most attention when they arrived about a half-hour apart. But, as patron Kyle Tacker of Minnesota found out, the two stars weren't quite in a mix-and-mingle mood that night.
"I went up to T.O. (when he was) coming in to congratulate him on the Super Bowl and he wouldn't even look at me," Tacker said. "And then one of his guys nudged me away. I mean, I paid 40 bucks so T.O. could treat me like a piece of dandruff?"
Maharaj said bruised feelings are sometimes inevitable when eager fans meet up with attention-overloaded athletes.
In fact, most of the paying patrons seemed to enjoy the party. Even those who balked at the cover charge came away smiling.
Cathy and Steve Langlois of Rhode Island were among a small crowd of people hanging around outside the Maharaja door collecting autographs from players as they entered.
In their first visit to Hawai'i Steve is still smarting from being stuck on a plane to the Islands while his beloved New England Patriots were beating the Eagles in last week's Super Bowl the Langloises have immersed themselves in the Pro Bowl experience, attending as many of the official and unofficial events as they can.
The Langloises are here to see their cheerleader daughter, Amy, perform in today's halftime show.
Stacy Tothill of Maryland also has a daughter performing in the halftime show. On Friday, Tothill and his wife found a comfortable spot at the back of the lounge to player-watch.
The Tothills are also first-time Hawai'i visitors, and they, too, have put in their pre-Pro Bowl reps.
Tothill said he's enjoyed the various Pro Bowl promotions, although he may have overdosed a bit earlier in the day at a player autograph session. Tothill was there for seven hours, managing to get autographs from Jaguars running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Falcons offensive guard Kynan Forney (a former University of Hawai'i player), and others. He was hoping for Roger Craig, but the former San Francisco 49er was gone before Tothill could make it back through the line.
Still, Tothill said he's pleased with his first Hawaiian vacation.
"I'd love to come back," he said. "Regardless of the Pro Bowl."
And that has to make tourism officials smile.
Last year's Pro Bowl drew 49,000 spectators, including some 30,000 visitors. According to a study commissioned by the Hawai'i Tourism Authority, an estimated 22,000 of those visitors came specifically for the Pro Bowl, spending $29.5 million and contributing an additional $2.8 million in state taxes.
The game also is an important medium for marketing Hawai'i to the rest of the country. Last year's game was watched by some 4.2 million households.
Reach Michael Tsai at firstname.lastname@example.org.