NFL Pro Bowl 2022: Las Vegas on display as stars align for league showcase

ByPaul Gutierrez ESPN logo
Sunday, February 6, 2022

LAS VEGAS --Micah Parsons is lording above the neon-lit Strip, almost sneering at drivers and pedestrians who are trying to catch a glimpse of theDallas Cowboysrookie linebacker before his image on the big-screen marquee near the Fashion Show mall flickers out.

A sea of NFL jerseys, with the occasional cheesehead, ripples as fans traverse a volcano, dancing water fountains, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and a pyramid complete with a Raiders-inspired, eyepatch-wearing Sphinx standing guard.

It's Pro Bowl week in the NFL's newest market, which is making an audition, of sorts, as host of the league's biggest events. It wasn't that long ago that the NFL wouldn't allow Las Vegas to purchase commercial airtime during the Super Bowl. And now, the league's all-star game is about to be held here (3 p.m. ET, Sunday, ESPN), followed by the NFL draft in April, and in two years, Super Bowl LVIII. Indeed, Las Vegas is in line to become the first city to play host to all three NFL events, thanks to the Raiderssetting up shop here in 2020.

This desert oasis used to be the sporting domain of Jerry Tarkanian's band of Runnin' Rebels from UNLV, rock stars in their own right who probably couldn't have imagined the NFL rolling into town, even if Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson did rock Los Angeles Raiders caps for a photo op during the 1990-91 season.

So there was a certain symmetry in Raiders tight end Darren Waller, Las Vegas' Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year candidate, taking in the Rebels' win over rival Nevada on Tuesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center. Waller was hounded for pictures and autographs and obliged before grabbing the rim on his way off Tarkanian Court. And, remember, it was "Sweetness" himself -- Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton -- who gave the Rebels a pregame locker room speech before they went out and pounded Duke 103-73 in the 1990 title game.

Even Raiders general manager Dave Ziegler, who had no real connection to Las Vegas before being hired on Monday, was intrigued by those old Rebel teams. He showed his knowledge by rattling off the names of the starters on the 1990-91 champs, starting with the least known of them: center George Ackles.

Las Vegas was always a sports-betting town, with Super Bowl Sunday and March Madness especially busy times in the books. But it is now an NFL town with the Raiders following in the footsteps of the NHL'sGolden Knights, an expansion outfit that began play in 2017 and went to the Stanley Cup Final in its first season. Interestingly, the NHL All-Star Game is also this weekend at nearby T-Mobile Arena.

But on a frigid and windy Wednesday night in a ballpark used by theOakland Athletics' Triple-A affiliate in nearby Summerlin (yes, even the A's are flirting with the idea of following the Raiders from the East Bay to southern Nevada), it was a shirtless Parsons who stole the show at the Pro Bowl Skills Showdown in the fastest man 40-yard dash.

Or maybe it was Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson going off in the precision passing contest. Then again, Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs winning the best catch contest -- yes, a defensive back claimed the trophy -- with an acrobatic somersault number that would have wowed fans at any NBA dunk contest, raised some eyebrows. It also beat a trampoline-leaping, between-the-legs catch by Minnesota Vikings star Justin Jefferson that harkened memories of another guy with both Oakland and UNLV ties -- Raiders fan Isaiah Rider and his East Bay Funk Dunk.

"It's big to have the Pro Bowl here because now the NFL is having it in the entertainment capital of the world, and at Allegiant Stadium," Raiders season ticket holder Rick Cruz said. "SoFi Stadium [where Super Bowl LVI is being held]? That's Hollywood. Vegas is more cutting edge, and it's being delivered to a fan base that has been starving for the notoriety they have deserved."

Las Vegas has long been the fight capital of the world, from Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson to Oscar De La Hoya to Floyd Mayweather Jr. to the UFC, and the city knows how to host an event ... and an after-party.

Raiders Pro Bowl defensive end Maxx Crosby has taken to playing host for his AFC West brethren.

"I told [Kansas City Chiefs tight endTravis] Kelce and [quarterback Patrick] Mahomes, they ever need anything, they need a little lay of the land, they got my number," Crosby said. "Yeah, I'm that guy today.

"It's perfect. I'm staying at the house. I just woke up and drove right here. Yeah, it's incredible being here in Vegas, the best city in the world, so we're having fun."

Officials expect close to a sellout for the Pro Bowl, which moved from Hawaii to Orlando, Florida, in 2016 before arriving in Vegas, for this year at least. It was canceled last year because of the pandemic.

Just don't lean on Raiders linebacker Denzel Perryman, a first-time Pro Bowler, for any helpful hints or Sin City do's and don'ts.

"They asked me, 'Man, you gotta show us where to go,'" he said. "I'm like, 'Good luck with that. Y'all gonna be on Yelp because I don't know. I don't go out like that, man. I'm a homebody.' After Sunday, then I'll be out in Vegas and venturing off and I'll have all the lists of things to do for everybody.

"After Sunday, you might see me somewhere. Somewhere. Eating, though. Eating. I don't gamble or nothing like that. You ain't going to see me in a casino. Just walking through."

The NFL, though, is in Las Vegas to stay.