Pro Bowl looks like Hurricanes homecoming
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — When he was packing for South Florida a few days ago, New England defensive lineman Vince Wilfork hadn't realized he would be attending what essentially has become a meeting of Miami Hurricanes alumni.
They're calling it the Pro Bowl.
"Everywhere I turn," Wilfork said, "I see a Hurricane."
As the popular gameday chant around Miami goes, the Pro Bowl has "got some 'Canes over here." All told, 11 former Hurricanes were selected to play in the Pro Bowl, easily the most of any school, and nine of those players are expected to actually appear Sunday at the NFL's All-Star showcase.
New Orleans' Jonathan Vilma and Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne were excused — they'll be in Miami a week later for the Super Bowl.
"I'm happy to be home, playing in front of my fans," San Francisco running back Frank Gore said. "I haven't played here in like five years. So I'm happy to be here. It's big, real big. Shows you how good the program is, how good it's been in the past and how successful we've been sending great players to the league."
Miami has been nothing short of a pipeline to the NFL.
Until the string was snapped in 2009, the Hurricanes had a first-round pick in the NFL draft for 14 straight years, by far the longest run ever by any school. Warren Sapp got the streak started in 1995, Ray Lewis continued it a year later and 31 more Hurricanes followed into the first rounds from 1997-2008, including an NFL-record six in 2004 alone.
And that run of success will be on full display Sunday, in the stadium the current Hurricanes now call home.
"Makes us proud," Wilfork said.
Lewis is still a Pro Bowler, picked this season for the 11th time. He enjoyed Honolulu, where the Pro Bowl had been for the past three decades and will return again for 2011 and 2012.
But getting to play this one in Miami just seems special to the Baltimore star.
"Miami is always a good place, weather-wise," Lewis said. "Just having it here ... the people around, that's one of the reasons they chose it. We just have to carry the tradition."
Ravens safety Ed Reed, who has such a following in Miami that even members of the NBA's Heat organization hoped to meet with him this week, is among the 'Canes selected for this Pro Bowl as well, although his status for the game appears doubtful because of injuries. Minnesota offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie is also in the gamel, along with Arizona safety Antrel Rolle, New England safety Brandon Meriweather, Houston receiver Andre Johnson, Lewis, Wilfork and Gore.
If they weren't enough, the list of Miami Pro Bowlers grew to 11 on Friday afternoon.
Carolina linebacker Jon Beason, a South Florida native who played for Miami before getting picked in the first round of the 2007 draft, was a late add to the NFC roster.
"I've got a lot of them on my side," Rolle said.
Miami's program has struggled a bit in recent years, going from 7-6 in 2006 to 5-7 in 2007, 7-6 again in 2008 and then 9-4 this past season. Most of the 'Canes in the Pro Bowl agreed that Miami coach Randy Shannon — who worked with many of the players with local ties who'll be on the field Sunday — is on the cusp of getting the program back to the top rung of college football.
If that happens, there might be a lot more Pro Bowls like this one.
"A lot of people in the NFL don't like the Hurricanes, one reason being because we're so dominant," Wilfork said. "We were dominant. We were a dominant program down at the University of Miami and we're going to try to continue that. Over the past couple years, we've been rebuilding, but I think Randy Shannon has that program on the right track."