Orlando, Fla. – They played the Pro Bowl, and there were passes, runs, blocks and "tackles."
But before the NFC and AFC teams took the field at Camping World Stadium, and the AFC posted a 38-33 victory, they needed a reset. Minutes before the clock started, news circulated that Los Angeles Lakers Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant and eight others – including Bryant's 13-year-old daughter, Gianna – died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., Sunday morning.
"I was actually standing right here in the locker room, and somebody showed me the newsflash on their phone," said New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who completed four of seven passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. "That was literally right before we went out there and played the game."
"We heard the news when we were about to head out on the field for the first time and it just completely took the energy out of the room," left tackle Terron Armstead said. "Everyone was just in disbelief, really. Kobe is an icon to us, influenced everyone in attendance today. Just extremely unfortunate. My condolences to them and his family. It's absolutely heartbreaking."
Most of the players grew up watching Bryant in the prime of his illustrious basketball career, during which he was a five-time NBA champion, two-time NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, one-time league MVP, 15-time All-NBA, 18-time All-Star and 12-time All-Defensive team player. He finished with 33,643 career points, fourth most in league history.
"You talk about the icon Kobe, the "Mamba mentality" Kobe, everything that we grew up watching," defensive end Cam Jordan said. "I'm an Arizona kid, I've been seeing Kobe all my life. You watch him go from (jersey Nos.) 8 to 24, you see everything that he's ever done. He was a living legend.
"So him dying the way that he did, I don't know what to say. There's no words you can put in to say the hurt that you feel. I immediately texted my wife (Nikki) about what happened. She's from California, she's from Pasadena. Her life in basketball terms is when he was in his prime and he was the greatest that he could be in basketball. So for him to be gone, there's no words to put on it."
"Just unbelievable," said tight end Jared Cook, who caught three passes for 84 yards. "When we heard it in the locker room, we didn't believe it. And I was praying that it wasn't true. Kobe's done so much for the world, he's done so much for the game of basketball, and just other sports in general, just teaching kids to have a strong mental focus and mental purpose toward your game and life in general. It's a sad and terrible story."
Brees, who turned 41 just 11 days ago, is one of the few NFL players whose career essentially ran a parallel course to Bryant's, who was 41.
"It's heartbreaking," Brees said. "It's such a tragedy. Not only was he one of the greatest competitors of all time, one of the greatest champions of all time, in any sport, but I think he was somebody who transcended the game and inspired so many people.
"So many guys in our locker rooms looked up to him, grew up watching him. I'm similar in age to him, so I feel like I was kind of right there every step of his career, watching him grow and develop and accomplish some pretty incredible feats. I had the chance to meet him on two occasions and will always remember that.
"He was one of those guys who was kind of bigger than life. Such a tragic loss, and thoughts and prayers to his family. But his legacy will live on. So many people that are playing today modeled themselves after him, not just with his intensity and his competitiveness and the way he played the game, but I think in the way he approached a lot of things."
It also struck deeply among the Saints players who are fathers. Bryant is survived by his wife and three daughters.
"I couldn't imagine leaving my babies right now," Jordan said. "I couldn't imagine what his wife is feeling, what the other kids are feeling. That immediately touches your heart."
"You've got to reflect and just understand how fragile life is and how precious it is that someone that's beloved and can have everything materially and financially, that doesn't stop tragedy from happening," Armstead said. "It's just one of those things that makes you reflect and just think about living life to the fullest while you can, and doing the most and just living with no regrets. Enjoying these times and these experiences with your loved ones, family, friends. Anything negative, there's just not much time for it."
Said Brees: "You think about it, that could happen to any one of us. When you talk about a helicopter crash or a plane crash, a car crash, any one of these things – life is so precious. You ask yourself, 'Why do these things happen?'
"And yet, you really have to lean on your faith during these times and know and hope that the power of the Holy Spirit is with them. And also, that we all realize that people are brought into our life for a reason. And it's to bring out the best in us, it's to mold us and strengthen us and mentor us and inspire us, and certainly he did that for so many."
Cook said it makes clearer the need for everyone to count their blessings.
"You can have the whole world in front of you, and when God calls you, it's just that time," he said. "So count your blessings, stay prayed up. Pray for Kobe's family, pray for his teammates, his friends, the Lakers organization and the people that are close to him. It's a tough day for the sports world, a sad day for the sports world and just the world in general."