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Pro Bowl Skills Showdown ready to ignite competition

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Looking back on it now, Matt Hasselbeck's fondest memory of Pro Bowl Skills Challenge greatness was seeing his grey-blue Seahawks jersey fly across the grass field in Hawaii during the 40-yard dash, neck and neck with some of the NFL's fastest players.

The details, like DeAngelo Hall winning the footrace or the fact that Hasselbeck's jersey was actually being worn by then-Falcons quarterback Mike Vick following a premature uniform swap between both signal-callers, aren't as important. He's never seen No. 8 move like that before.

"It just looked awesome," Hasselbeck told me last week. "It was just so cool to see my jersey in the fastest man competition. I was probably more proud of that than anything."

The truth is that Hasselbeck, like many other NFL players, are secretly drawn to events like the Pro Bowl Skills Challenge, even when they are theoretically on a free vacation to some warm destination with their families. For years, the event took place just a few days before the Pro Bowl and featured a lighthearted mix of races, lifting challenges, accuracy drills and catching contests before a small audience in Hawaii.

But inside the elite position groups an inner turmoil raged: Do I act cool and pretend I don't care? Or, do I lock in because Peyton Manning is about to go ahead of me and I don't want to embarrass myself on ESPN?

"I mean, at first I actually tried not to be competitive and go with the flow, because I felt like people would judge me if I was trying too hard or something like that," said Hasselbeck, who participated in the 2006 "On the Mark QB Skills Competition" a week after the Seahawks lost in Super Bowl XL. "When it's your turn, you're competitive. You're absolutely trying your hardest."

He admitted he once competed in a different quarterback skills challenge -- a separate All-Star special that ran from 1990-2005 in the summer -- with a shoulder injury. The competition included a distance throwing contest against Ben Roethlisberger and he was eager to post respectable numbers.

The Pro Bowl Skills Challenge, now called Pro Bowl Skills Showdown, returns after a 10-year hiatus this week. The reimagined version, which will tape on Wednesday and air Thursday night on ESPN, features a dodge ball game, a "power relay challenge," a precision passing competition and a best hands showdown. But in its essence, the best part about the competition -- athletes on vacation, letting their hair down but still unable to shed the fear of athletic humiliation -- remains unchanged.

That goes for the broadcasters, too.

"My two goals I remember were, one, don't take it too seriously, but two, try to sound like you don't have a hangover," said NFL Network's Rich Eisen, the last broadcaster to call a Pro Bowl Skills Challenge before it disbanded. "The Network did put us up in the team hotel, so I got to see it from the bird's eye view and the bar's eye view and a karaoke bar's view."

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Two-time Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley arrived at the Pro Bowl in 2005 knowing that he would be competing in the bench press portion (225 pounds) of the Skills Challenge against, among other players, Cowboys guard Larry Allen, Lions defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal.

Upon check-in, two days before the event, he went down to the resort gym for a quick workout and noticed Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, also slated to be in the event, getting his pump on.

The way Bentley tells it, an unforeseen curiosity took over. He had to know exactly how strong Merriman was.

"I had sized everybody up," said Bentley, who now runs a successful offensive line-based training facility in Arizona called OLine Performance. "I knew Lorenzo Neal would do well, and I thought, Shaun Rodgers, I've got him. But Shawne and I worked out together before the event and I kinda knew after watching a few sets that he did on the bench press that I had him. I was peeking out the corner of my eye, watching him work out.

"Osi Umenyiora was in it too. I think Osi went first and did like nine reps. So I was like OK. Everyone, in their own way, was taking it seriously."

Bentley noted that players were innately curious about the cash prize for second-place finishers given that Allen, a player who once bench pressed 700 pounds, was kicking off the competition (players were compensated for a win. For example, in 2006, the winner of Hasslebeck's "On The Mark" challenge took home $16,000). In an interview with ESPN's Suzy Kolber, the typically soft-spoken 330-pound Allen said, "I'm just going to keep going until I can't go anymore."

Without much of an effort, he hurled up 43 reps -- eight off the all-time Scouting Combine record. It would be tied for fifth in recorded combine history.

"We're all jockeying for second," Bentley said. "Once he went ... (breaks for a long laugh) ... and it wasn't how many he did. It was how easy he made it look. The sad part was, he didn't have to stop. He decided to stop. We're all like OK, let's get this second-place check."

After the competition, Bentley, then 25, followed Allen through a horde of interviews and well-wishers as he waddled back up to the hotel. Bentley stopped him and asked if he could have Allen's jersey and the future Hall of Famer obliged, handing it over in a bundled, sweaty ball before scribbling his name on it.

Bentley still has it framed in his home.

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The Pro Bowl itself has come under fire in recent years because of a visible lack of effort. With Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert injuring his ankle in the game last year, forcing him to undergo surgery and miss the first six weeks of the season, the fear has only deepened among athletes hoping that the exhibition will not impact their wallets.

"I've seen Pro Bowls where people don't play hard for the first three quarters, until they realize that the winner's share is larger than the loser's share and breaking even on the week depends on whether you win or not," Eisen said.

Perhaps that is why the skills challenge was one of the headlining aspects of a "reimagined" All-Star weekend in 2017. The league returned to an inter-conference matchup, eliminating the "legends draft," which took place each season between 2013 and 2015. Then, a highlight leading into the actual game consisted of watching Jerry Rice bungle his selection process, picking a horde of pass rushing specialists and interior linemen for what ended up being a flag football-style showdown.

While it might not bring acceptable, regular-season caliber quality, the Skills Challenge does inject some organic competition back into the fold. Even if players intend on blowing it off, something inside won't allow them to.

"When you take everything away from football and get it down to its essence, which is individual skill, you're asking an athlete to showcase his individual skill," Bentley said. "I mean, if you can't get gamed for that, what can? What can get you going?"

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