Bryant’s death was on the minds of Pro Bowl players before and after the game

ORLANDO — All week long, the Pro Bowl had gone on as scheduled. Light practices with players sharing stories about football, family and friends with each other, and taking time each day to spend time with the thousands of fans who made the trip to the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Kissimmee to watch practices and attend the many events around Orlando that make up Pro Bowl Week.

But the news of the tragic deaths of nine people in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles, including NBA legend and Philadelphia-area native Kobe Bryant, put a somber tone everywhere from the field, to the stands, the locker rooms and press box.

“Everybody was hoping it was fake,” Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton said at his locker after the game. “That’s tough, that’s tough.”

On Friday, Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox had said he likes coming to the Pro Bowl for a number of reasons. He gets to meet up with opponents he butts heads with as well as players who play the same position as his.

“You’re hanging around the guys, having a good time, obviously talk about ball,” Cox said Friday during a private event with a group that works with families grieving the loss of a loved one in the armed forces. “A guy like Travis (Cowboys center, Frederick) is in our division, so obviously, you’re going to talk some stuff, then it kind of fades away. But at the end of the day we’re all here at the all-star game, we respect each other. So, we’ll talk a little football so, yes.”

The group Cox was doing an appearance with is called Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). About 20 Pro Bowl players were in attendance, including Darius Leonard (ILB Colts), Eric Kendricks {ILB Vikings}, Harrison Smith {SS Vikings), Jarvis Landry (WR Browns), Joel Bitonio (G Browns), Jurrell Casey (IL Titans), Justin Tucker (K Ravens), Keenan Allen (WR Chargers), Lamar Jackson (QB Ravens), Mark Andrews (TE Ravens), Michael Thomas (WR Saints), Minkah Fitzpatick (FS Steelers), Morgan Cox (LS Ravens), Quenton Nelson (G Colts), Ryan Kelly (C Colts), T.J. Watt (OLB Steelers), Tre’Davious White (CB Bills), Tress Way (P Redskins) and Von Miller (OLB Broncos)

Cox said he had a great time helping put a smile on the faces of people who have had a tough time recently.

“It was good,” Cox said. “We got here, we kind of learned about (TAPS) when we first got here. These families are here, they’ve lost a loved one fighting for our country. That’s a big part of TAPS. It was a great time. We got to build some flags out of wood, made them out of wood, sanded them down, stapled them together. At the end of the day, they had plaques for the families. It was special.”

An announced crowd of 54,024 filled Camping World Stadium on Sunday. The weather was outstanding, and the atmosphere in the building was happy.

Then the news about Bryant started to hit people’s cell phones. Reporters were combing the internet to get updates on what had happened.

The NFL held a moment of silence in the stadium to honor those killed in the accident.

Eagles long snapper Rick Lovato said the NFC locker room was stunned to hear the news.

“As soon as everyone said it in the locker room, I just went completely white,” Lovato said after the game. “I was in complete shock.”

Eagles long snapper Rick Lovato after the Pro Bowl. The 27-year-old said the news of Kobe Bryant’s death just before the start of the 2020 Pro Bowl changed the mood of the NFC locker room from festive to somber. Photo By Al Thompson

Like many of the Eagles from the 2017 team that won the Super Bowl, Lovato has a vivid memory of Bryant’s visit and pep talk to the Eagles just two days before their NFC East-clinching win over the Los Angeles Rams.

“He came and talked to us two years ago back when we played in LA against the Rams to win the NFC East,” Lovato said. “He went and spoke to us before that game. How inspiring he was. You could tell how much of a leader he was, how great he was at just the speech itself. His competitiveness…taking pictures with all of us, cheering us on in the Super Bowl. He had a No. 8 uniform on. It was so sad to hear that a guy, 41 years old, to go like that. And his daughter and his daughter’s friend and her parents as well, it’s a tragedy, it really is a tragedy.” ••

Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii