HONOLULU — When Ray Lewis stepped off the plane from his cross-country flight and was greeted with a lei and an aloha, it finally hit him that he was voted back on the island.
"That's when you say, 'OK. I've made it again.' You really appreciate it," the Baltimore Ravens' All-Pro linebacker said. "This is the reward. With the Pro Bowl being here, this is the reward."
Today's Pro Bowl marks the return to Hawaii — where it had been since 1980 — after a spending a year in Miami in an experiment by the NFL to combine the All-Star game activities with the Super Bowl.
"This is where everybody wants to go," said Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzales, making his NFC-leading 11th appearance in the Pro Bowl.
Hawaii is paying $4 million per game to hold the Pro Bowl this year and in 2012 when Indianapolis hosts the Super Bowl. But the Pro Bowl site hasn't been determined beyond that, with the 2013 Super Bowl scheduled for New Orleans and 2014 slated for East Rutherford, N.J.
But Hawaii, which has become synonymous with the Pro Bowl, is reeling from $844 million projected deficit over the next 2½ years.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie in his first State of the State address on Monday suggested diverting some of the $44 million the Hawaii Tourism Authority spends on marketing to infrastructure needs.
The Democrat and former longtime congressman also wants to decide the fate of aging 50,000-seat Aloha Stadium, which hosts the Pro Bowl. He said other than maintenance related to health and safety, "I will divert all other capital improvement dollars for Aloha Stadium to other projects."
It's unclear what this will mean for the future of the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, but they will play key points in future negotiations between the NFL and the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
If the players have any say, they clearly want the game to stay in the islands.
"There's no better place to have it," Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said.
Atlanta Falcons fullback Ovie Mughelli said there's no comparing Hawaii.
"Nothing against Florida, but Hawaii is Hawaii," he said. "For guys who worked hard through minicamp, training camp, the offseason and go through bumps and bruises, I feel Hawaii is so much a better way to reward them than just going down to Miami."
Lewis, who lives in Miami and starred at the University of Miami, said having the game back home wouldn't be a reward for the players since they play in Florida during the season.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson said, "We can go to Miami any time. Going to Hawaii, over the water, is special."
Even the Miami Dolphins linebacker Cameron Wake prefers Hawaii.
"For them to have the Pro Bowl in Miami, I just got to drive down the street, that isn't as much fun as coming out here and getting away to this beautiful city," Wake said. "The views are amazing. The people have been so accommodating and so pleasant. I put in a vote for Hawaii. My vote is in."
The players say the tropical scenery and weather can't be beat. Temperatures this week were mostly in the high 70s, perfect for the Pro Bowlers who went golfing, fishing, jetskiing and toured Pearl Harbor with their families.
"This is like heaven. I'll die and go to Hawaii. That's all right with me," Houston Texans running back Arian Foster said.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick wasn't getting anywhere near a surfboard.
"I don't surf," Vick said. "I watch National Geographic too much, and I've seen too many catastrophic situations."
The players also spent a lot of time lounging at the hotel pool or one of the lagoons at Ko Olina Resort. And the rookies were invited — because they're the ones stuck with the hefty food and drink tabs.
"Everybody's been trying to get my room number, but I've been trying to keep it a secret," New England Patriots rookie cornerback Devin McCourty said. "As long as they don't get my room number, I'll be all right."
Tennessee Titans rookie kick returner Marc Mariani said he's had to pickup several tabs and will find out the damage when he checks out of the hotel.
"The guy that's making the least is buying drinks for the top dogs," he said with a laugh. "But it's fine. We're having fun."