My week with an NFL Hall of Famer

Post date: Jun 17, 2019 8:2:59 PM

(More photos at the bottom)

When I was a teenager, I was a really good bowler.  Many weekends were spent at bowling alleys around the state competing in tournaments for scholarships.  One of the tournaments that I competed in was sponsored by the NFL.  In that tournament, I won at the state level and advanced to the regionals which were held in Ames, Iowa.  I finished 3rd at the regionals.  The top 4 finishers advanced to the finals in Honolulu, Hawaii and would bowl as a team.  

There were 12 regionals held around the country.  Each regional team was paired with an NFL alumni player to compete for scholarships.  My region was paired with Willie Lanier.  For those of you who don’t remember that name, he was a Hall of Fame linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs.  The same Kansas City Chiefs that beat the Vikings in Superbowl IV. 

The other NFL players that attended were: Babe Parilli, Dick Szymanski, Tommy Nobis, Otto Graham, Lem Barney, Elroy ‘Crazy Legs’ Hirsch, Bobby Bell, Ollie Matson, Tom Fears, and Bobby Mitchell.  Kenny Stabler was originally scheduled to attend but something happened at the last minute that he couldn’t

I remember thinking when I met Lanier that he was the biggest man I had ever seen.  But I also remember him being very friendly, kind, funny, and ALWAYS smiling.  He seemed to tolerate us kids more than some of the other NFLers. 

We all were housed at the Sheraton Waikiki hotel.  The word 'housed' is an understatement.  The hotel was right on the beach.  My room had a view of the ocean and Diamond Head.  Not only did us bowlers and our families stay there, the NFL players and their families stayed there as well.  

This wasn’t a one-day event.  It was a week-long affair.  So we all spent a lot of time together. They had a schedule for us every day.  We ate meals together, did site seeing etc. 

Because it was sponsored by the NFL, we were there during the Pro-Bowl.  We got to attend a practice session at aloha stadium and the Pro Bowl game itself.    We did a group excursion to Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial.  They had a luau for us every night with food and music.  At one of the luaus my dad was watching some attractive female Hula dancers alongside Elroy ‘Crazy Legs’ Hirsch.  Hirsch said to my dad, “Isn’t it amazing how their feet barely move when they’re dancing?”  My dad replied, “You're looking at their feet?”   My dad.  What a guy.

The tournament was held at the bowling alley at Hickam Air Force Base near Pearl Harbor.  After round one of bowling our team was in first place.  The NFLers scores didn't count toward the team's overall score.  But it's too bad they didn't.  Lanier was a pretty good bowler. He may have been the best bowler out of all the NFLers.  In the end we weren't able to hold the lead and finished third.  How Minnesotan is that?  Like most Minnesota teams, I've never been 'clutch'. 😊  Finishing third wasn’t too bad.  We were awarded $300 scholarships for it.  I also got an incredible experience with memories to last a lifetime and a great story to tell.   

Unfortunately, the tournament cost so much that they couldn't justify holding the event again the following year.  Therefore, my experience truly was once in a lifetime. 

Most of my free time in Hawaii was spent running around with the other kids and goofing off.  I was 14.  I didn't have the appreciation for sports history that I do now.   I regret not getting to know Lanier better or even asking him more about that Superbowl and beating the Vikings.  Although part of me wonders if maybe he appreciated being treated like a regular person and not having to talk football all the time.  I also regret not speaking more to Bobby Bell.  He was also a Hall of Fame linebacker on that Chiefs team in addition to being a member of the 1960 Gophers National Championship team. 

Andy Worhol once said “In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.”  I don’t know that I’ll ever be famous. Sometimes when I'm in the grocery store, a student sees me and says hello.  That's probably about as close as I'll get.  But I’ve been extremely fortunate.   As an average kid who loved sports, I’ve had some really unique experiences with professional athletes that most people don’t.  I’ve written about a few of those experiences already and I have a few more yet to tell.  But this one might be the most unique.  How many people can say they spent a week in paradise bowling with an NFL Hall of Famer?  I’m very appreciative for having more than 15 minutes.  I’m also appreciative that these athletes have given me some of their time and been a part of my life.  That week with Willie Lanier was just like him. Legendary. 

Scroll down for photos

Football card Lanier autographed for me (It's really faint).

Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell at the Luau

Willie, the Mrs and Bobby at dinner

Our team

Bobby Bell photo bomb.  

Entire Group: Bowlers and NFLers at the Air Force Base

I'm pretty sure this is Scott Studwell.  My mom had a crush on him. 

Sweetness himself, Walter Payton signing autographs at practice

Dad with some Rams Cheerleaders.  Doesn't he look happy?

Dad and Otto Graham.  

Aloha Stadium

Ticket Stub