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  • Writer's pictureAl Thompson


ORLANDO: When you talk to NFL fans about the Pro Bowl, the reaction is usually not good. The biggest complaint about the game is players not taking the AFC-NFC All Star contest seriously.

Cleveland Browns Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio was having (at least) as much fun as the kids he was coaching at the 2019 Pro Bowl Activity Day in Orlando. Photo by Al Thompson

While there is certainly some merit to that argument, what can’t be argued is the fun fans and players have during Pro Bowl week.

For last three years, the five-day event has been held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee, Florida, located just outside Orlando.

During the week, fans can see and meet their favorite players at practices, skills competitions and various camps and Community Day.

Players selected to the Pro Bowl give their time at these events, all are locked in to meeting fans of all ages, but a few, you can tell are using events like Community Day youth camps, to hone their skills as coaches, possibly for football camps where they live.

The Community Day football-themed youth camps are held the day before the game, for kids from all over, and range in age from first grade to middle school.

It was easy to see players such as Chris Harris, Jr. a cornerback from the Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins Xavien Howard, also a corner, were hands on with their group of youths.

So was Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who was handling a group of middle schoolers. Perhaps the most enthusiastic player coaching the kids was Cleveland Browns offensive guard Joel Bitonio, a five year veteran making his first Pro Bowl appearance. At one point it was hard to tell who was having more fun, Bitonio, or the grade school kids he was coaching, along with Detroit Lions long-snapper Don Muhlbach.

“I’ve done a lot community events while we’re (The Browns) in camp, but I just enjoy being out there,” Bitonio said at his locker after the AFC knocked off the NFC 26-7 at Camping World Stadium on January 27. “For me it’s a privilege to just be able to support the NFL and support these kids and let them have a little bit if fun. It is just as much fun for me as it is for them.”

Bitonio’s group was in the 6-8 year old range and the object of the one drill his unit was asked to perform was tossing footballs into a relatively tall cardboard box. At the other end of the field, Prescott was running the same drill with a group that was a bit older, so the box was a little further away.

Purely based on an eye test and no actual counting, it was obvious Bitonio’s pack of throwers crushed Prescott’s band of would-by quarterbacks.

The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder out of Nevada laughed when her heard his kids were the more accurate team. “Very good, very good,” Bitonio said, still laughing. “We were coaching them up, making sure they were celebrating and all that stuff. Maybe I have a little quarterback coaching in my future.”

He was drafted by the Browns in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft. He played college football at Nevada.

After making the Pro Football Writers Association (PFWA) All Rookie team, Bitomio ended the 2015 and 2016 seasons on injured reserve. In 2017, Bitomio played all 16 games, but the Browns went 0-16. Cleveland’s personnel brass never lost faith in Bitonio and it paid off; he was a big part of the Browns resurgence in 2018 when the team finished 7-8-1.

Bitonio not only made his first Pro Bowl this year, he was selected second team All Pro.

“It’s been great,” Bitonio said. “It was a great season for us. We won seven games and we’re still improving. Being All Pro and a Pro Bowler was pretty cool. These are things you think about…’for the rest of my life, I’m a All Pro and a Pro Bowler’ hopefully I can stay in the same direction. It’s an exciting time and we’re looking forward to next year and getting a spot in the playoffs.”

Talking to Bitonio during week, he said he watched the Eagles improbable run to the franchise’s first ever Super Bowl title and first NFL Championship since 1960. The win ended a 57-year drought.

The former Nevada standout lineman said he saw comparisons between the passionate Eagles fans and Browns fans, who have not had a NFL Championship since 1964. The Browns have never played in a Super Bowl since the first one was played in 1966, let alone win one. Browns offensive lineman Joel Bitonio said he sees similarities between Browns fans and Eagles fans.

Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Browns

“In Philly, it was really cool to see them win the Super Bowl,” Bitonio said. “Obviously we want the Browns to win the Super Bowl for us. To see a team that hadn’t won in a long time and break, I guess you could call it a curse, is was really cool. I know in Cleveland we’re on the up and up. We’ve got a quarterback, we’ve got some good players. We’re really trying to improve year-to-year and hope to be in (the Eagles) situation.”

Players need to have vision of success in order to achieve success. The 27-year-old, who starred at three sports while attending Long Beach Wilson High School in Long Beach, CA, said watching the Eagles break through give him confidence the Browns can do the same, now that they have a talented quarterback in Baker Mayfield, who will headed into his second season in 2019.

“You see other teams find success, other teams winning after a long delay, and you know we have a chance to do that someday,” Bitonio said.

Bitonio was asked what kind of impact has Mayfield had on the Browns this year. Has his swagger been contagious?

“Baker’s been unbelievable,” Bitonio said. “He’s a great quarterback to play with. He’s got great energy, great competitiveness. He’s a real franchise quarterback. You need a quarterback to win in the NFL…and he’s our guy. We’re excited to build with him. Hopefully for the next 10 to 15 years, he’s the guy in Cleveland.”

“Baker’s swagger is unbelievable,” Bitonio continued. “I’m not a huge swagger guy, but Baker’s got it. It’s pretty cool to have that on your team. He knows what he’s doing out there…good or bad, he’s the same guy. To bring that energy every day is pretty awesome.”

Bitonio, who was joined by rookie corner Denzel Ward representing the Browns at the Pro Bowl, was asked about an Eagles-Browns Super Bowl next year. “That would be incredible.” You won’t get any argument from Eagles fans. *

Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii

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