KAPOLEI, Hawaii -- For many reasons, Tony Gonzalez will never forget his first Pro Bowl, which followed his third season as a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs.
What has stuck with Gonzalez in the nine years since was looking across the AFC locker room and seeing Tennessee Titans offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, who at the time was making his 12th Pro Bowl appearance.
"I was thinking, 'Man, that dude's old,'" Gonzalez said this week with a laugh.
Now the football cleat is on the other foot. With 10 Pro Bowl appearances apiece, Gonzalez and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis share the lead among the players in the Aloha State for this year's NFL all-star game. New York Jets quarterback Brett Favre and Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks each were selected to the Pro Bowl for the 11th time, but both withdrew from their spots in Sunday's game.
What does the future hold?
Tony Gonzalez and Ray Lewis each have played for one team in their NFL career. Will that change next season? Find out what they told Vic Carucci in NFL.com's Pro Bowl blog.
Gonzalez can only imagine how many "old guy" references the 37 first-time participants on hand are quietly directing his way. Gonzalez constantly fields questions from the newcomers about practice schedules and other Pro Bowl matters that someone who has been here so many times would be expected to know.
"Ah, 10, man," Lewis said with a sigh. "That means me and (Gonzalez) have been doing a lot of things right for a long time."
Among them are maintaining a youthful approach to the game. Neither player takes for granted being selected to the Pro Bowl year after year. And both seem genuinely enthusiastic about taking part in an event that ultimately carries no more weight than a preseason game.
"The reason I keep coming back is because, first of all, my family loves this trip," Gonzalez said. "I bring my 90-year-old grandmother over here; she's been here 10 years in a row now. And every year, as soon as I get voted in, she calls up and says, 'OK, I'm coming to Hawaii.'
"And, to me, it's not really about the game. It's about coming in the locker room. It's about going out by the pool and seeing guys like (Indianapolis Colts quarterback) Peyton (Manning) and Ray and saying, 'Hey, what's up?' and talking trash and talking about what's going on around the league. The wives and girlfriends get tired of it. They say, 'Are you guys seriously here talking about football again?' But it's our nature. It's what we do."
For Lewis, who recently expressed disappointment that the Pro Bowl won't be in Hawaii next year, the game is "always special." He loves everything about spending a week in the islands with family and friends. He especially loves being part of an ultra-elite group of players.
"When you find yourself over here, you always greatly appreciate it because it's (an indication) of people really watching you saying, 'Wow! He's still there and still doing great things,'" Lewis said. "So it's always a great honor."
Lewis, 33, and Gonzalez, who turns 33 later this month, take exceptionally good care of themselves. They also know they've been fortunate to be healthy enough at the end of each season to play in the Pro Bowl. In most cases, players who don't participate usually are recovering from an injury.
Lewis, who played a vital role in helping the Ravens reach the AFC Championship Game, said he has never felt better physically in 13 NFL seasons. He largely credits that to changing his approach to physical conditioning during every offseason. Lewis' theory: If you do the same thing, you'll get the same results.
Lewis' newest routine includes a program called P90X, which operates on the principle of "muscle confusion." The concept is to constantly introduce the body to new movements and exercises so it won't plateau.
"I just incorporated it in a lot of different places in my workouts, and it's given me the challenge that I needed," Lewis said. "Greatness is not just one big thing -- it's a lot of small things done well. So whether it's Tony working out the way he's always worked out or he's catching a number of passes he catches each day, or whether it's me sitting down for film study for hours and hours and hours, whether it's the crazy workouts, these are the things you can look back on in your career (as reasons for individual success)."
Lewis and Gonzalez have immense talent, but their incredible work ethic and deeper understanding of all aspects of the game make them special. Both also know the importance of creating legacies.
For instance, one night earlier this week, Lewis took the time to show NFC Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson a book containing logs of all of his workouts. Lewis wanted the youngster, who has received Pro Bowl berths in his first two NFL seasons, to see what it would take to have his sort of longevity and be selected to many more all-star games.
"You can't mind sharing," Lewis said. "You can share anything with anybody. The question is, are they going to do it?"