ORLANDO, Fla. – On a day in which tragedy rocked the professional sports world, usual rivals joined forces – and shared a bond – during the NFL Pro Bowl.
Shortly before kickoff, news of NBA star Kobe Bryant's passing in a helicopter crash (which also claimed the lives of his 13-year-old daughter and seven others) rippled through the AFC and NFC locker rooms.
"We were getting ourselves ready, we were dancing to some music when we found out about it – and then everybody just stopped," Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter said postgame. "Everybody just went to their lockers and sat down. It was crazy. It's sad."
The shocking news hit especially hard for first-time Pro Bowler and California native Eric Kendricks.
"He meant so much to sports in general. The ultimate competitor," Kendricks said. "Being from California, he's a big deal to all of us. So, I definitely took time to just be thankful that I was out there playing today. Every time I'm on the green grass, I feel blessed.
"Everybody in this locker room, we grew up watching him, you know?" he added. "The championships, just the mentality he had. It's super upsetting. I'm just praying for his family. I don't even know what to say, honestly."
Through heavy hearts, Kendricks and his NFL comrades continued to compete in an all-star game that often promises a flashy play or two, and this year's matchup at Camping World Stadium — a 38-33 win by the AFC — was no different.
Vikings safety Harrison Smith and Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox starred in the NFC's highlight-reel play midway through the third quarter.
On third-and-12 from the NFC 20-yard line, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson threw deep for Chargers receiver Keenan Allen, but it was Smith who made the diving catch instead.
Smith, in his fifth career Pro Bowl, made the pick at the 3-yard-line and ran it 36 yards before being cut off by Broncos receiver Courtland Sutton. The safety looked to his right and pitched a lateral over the shoulder of Browns receiver Jarvis Landry to Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.
With the help of blocks by Smith's Vikings teammates Everson Griffen and Xavier Rhodes, Cox was off to the races.
View photos of 8 Vikings players as they compete in the 2020 Pro Bowl hosted in Orlando, Fla.
Although it looked at one point that Cox might be brought down, he made it all the way to the end zone for an NFC touchdown.
"Once I got my hands on the ball, I thought I was going to score, but they had a couple guys with some angles. So, I brought out my inner Ed Reed and went ahead and pitched it," Smith said of the play. "[Cox is] an athlete; all those big dudes are athletes. Everybody can run, so give 'em the ball and let them go with it."
Kendricks also was in on the play but sprinted downfield ahead of Smith right after the turnover.
"I was too fast running ahead, so when I saw him do it, I was like, 'Oh no!' Because I really thought he was going to be right behind me," Kendricks said. "But thank God, I saw Fletcher go up with his big arms and catch it. And then I knew he wasn't going to get stopped after that – it was a touchdown, automatically.
"I thought Harry was going to score," he added. "But it didn't surprise me that he pitched it – we do that all the time in practice. … That was pretty fun. I was tired."
The defensive score put the NFC back within three points of the leading AFC squad.
Smith's interception was one of three by the NFC, joining Green Bay's Za'Darius Smith and Arizona's Budda Baker.
Za'Darius Smith also forced a fumble by Watson. Following the strip sack, he joined Griffen, Cox, Jaylon Smith (Cowboys), Grady Jarrett (Falcons) and Chandler Jones (Cardinals) in a celebration that paid ode to Bryant.
"It was very respectful. A lot of respect for The Man," Hunter said.
Minnesota's five defensive Pro Bowlers combined for 14 tackles (press box stats), two QB hits, one interception and a pass defensed.
Offensively, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins came in late in the third quarter to finish the game.
Cousins accounted for five of the afternoon's 10 longest plays, including a 38-yard pass to Saints receiver Michael Thomas, and he threw a pair of touchdowns to Packers receiver Davante Adams.
Cousins finished the day 13-of-22 passing for 181 yards, two touchdowns and an interception (by Earl Thomas) with a passer rating of 97.0.
The NFC ran the ball very little. Running back Dalvin Cook led the team with three carries for 17 yards.
"The defense wasn't trying to give up any big plays," Vikings fullback C.J. Ham said. "We had a couple, but there were a lot of interceptions and fumbles, and the defense really – on both sides – came out to play."
Hunter called it a fun matchup despite the AFC pulling out the win.
"It was a lot of back-and-forth. I think it was a defensive overall game, with all the stuff that we had – the fumbles and the touchdowns that we had," Hunter said. "[But it] was fun. EK, his first time out there, and Ham, Cook – it was just fun to see them go through the experience and for us all to be out there, having fun and just playing."
Smith was proud of the way his teammates represented the Vikings.
"They all played well. A bunch of ballers here," Smith said. "Obviously, I wish we would have won, but it's a good time."