Bears play Pro Bowl in a daze after learning of Kobe Bryant’s death

“It was surreal,” Bears safety Eddie Jackson said. “It don’t seem right. It don’t sound right, just saying it.”

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Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller backpedals during Sunday’s Pro Bowl.

AP

ORLANDO, Fla. — Comically large cell phones chirped and buzzed Sunday, crackling with news reports those in the cramped NFC locker room at first refused to believe were true.

The Pro Bowl was set to start in 15 minutes. Players would be asked to preen on a stage the NFL built in the south end zone of Camping World Stadium, then sprint onto the field as fireworks exploded behind them. There’d be the national anthem, a field-sized American flag and a military flyover. The NFL’s all-stars would revel in their showcase.

Instead, they were dazed. Before they put on their helmets and left the NFC locker room, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson led them in a prayer: for the soul and the family of Kobe Bryant, the former Lakers star killed earlier Sunday in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. They didn’t know it yet, but Bryant’s daughter Gianna was among the nine to die on the side of a foggy mountain.

“It was surreal,” Bears safety Eddie Jackson said. “It don’t seem right. It don’t sound right, just saying it.”

Cornerback Kyle Fuller, like his teammates, was stunned when he heard.

“It was more so unbelievable, sad,” Fuller said. “Is that really true?”

The Pro Bowl, which ended with a 38-33 AFC victory, was smothered by the specter of Bryant’s death. Players exchanged updates and nagged bystanders for news during the game. When the NFL eventually announced his death on the videoboard, a moment of silence morphed into fans chanting Bryant’s first name. In the third quarter, Packers outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith and teammates celebrated a sack by pantomiming Bryant’s trademark fadeaway jump shot.

Even by Pro Bowl standards, though, the game felt insignificant.

“It threw your vibe off,” Jackson said. “For me personally, I felt like I knew him. To others, it might sound crazy. . . .

“People might say it’s weird: ‘You don’t know Kobe.’ I know I don’t know him, but it felt like I knew him, I’ve been following his career for so long. You feel like you know aperson.”

Jackson’s only connection to Bryant was that he loved his tenacious playing style and unrelenting work ethic. The first jersey Jackson ever bought, at 16, was Bryant’s yellow No. 8. He later added a No. 24 in yellow, then Bryant’s Lower Merion High School jersey.

Jackson, who was raised in Florida, hoped a perk of his celebrity would be to meet Bryant one day. He wasn’t alone. In NFL locker rooms, Bryant’s name, more than any other NBA player, is holy. It’s generational: Bryant played his first NBA game when Jackson was 3 and didn’t retire until Jackson was 23.

“We just tried to follow in his footsteps,” Jackson said. “Even though he played basketball, the type of legacy that he left behind, that’s something that I take pride in. I want to be remembered as one of the greats — jersey retired, Hall of Fame, all those types of things.”

Drew Brees saw him differently. Bryant was only 145 days older than the Saints quarterback; unlike his younger teammates, Brees followed Bryant’s career from the start. Both were fathers of four.

“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 that transcended the game and inspired so many people,” said Brees, who met Bryant twice.

Brees spoke while his two sons helped him pack up his locker. He stood precisely where he was when he found out about Bryant’s death three hours earlier.

“It affected everyone in here the minute we all heard about it,” he said.

“There are some of those things that I think you’ll always remember in your life, both tragedy and triumph. I think this will be one of those moments that many of us remember.”

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