- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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HONOLULU -- To date, 17 players -- 11 on the AFC squad -- decided to pull out of Sunday's Pro Bowl.
It's an annual ritual that has many wondering about the long-term future of this all-star game. Players awaiting surgery or carrying over aches and pains from the regular season naturally cancel. When selected, Tom Brady -- whether healthy or hurting -- opts for the golf venue at Pebble Beach rather than a one-hour daily commitment to the loosest practice a pro ever sees. A few decide at the last minute to save their bodies and pass on paradise.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was seeing Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow on the practice field this week. Of the 86 players out there, Winslow has the most at stake. He's contemplating his fourth operation on his right knee, the one reconstructed after his 2005 motorcycle accident.
One of the past operations was a microfracture, a Hail Mary procedure when the knee is basically bone on bone. Winslow's only 24 but he has the knee of a player much older. When given the call to replace an injured Antonio Gates, Winslow naturally could have declined the Pro Bowl invitations.
He accepted for three reasons: First, he thought the Pro Bowl was his birthright. Kellen Winslow Sr. was a Hall of Fame tight end and his son came into the NFL as one of the most talented tight ends ever selected. Second, it's football. Winslow loves the game and wants to play. Third, he wanted to be with five other Browns teammates who shocked the world with a 10-win season.
"Kellen is a warrior," Browns wide receiver
Braylon Edwards said. "He's overcome a lot in his life. I'm proud of him."
Winslow fought through more pain in 2007 than most people could imagine. Both knees ached. He played most of the year with a dislocated shoulder. In the end, he finished with 89 catches for 1,106 yards and the respect of critics who wondered about him.
This was more like the Winslow pro scouts raved about when he was coming out of the University of Miami. Winslow was the sixth selection in the 2004 draft. He was fast, physical and fearless. Many thought he was more talented than his father.
After missing 14 games his rookie season with a broken leg, Winslow compounded his problems with a foolish motorcycle accident in May 2005. The scars around the knee were souvenirs of immaturity and being hard-headed.
"I'm not going to talk about it," said Winslow of the knee injury he's touchy about discussing. "
I really don't need to."
Winslow did confirm he's contemplating a fourth procedure.
"It's something I'm going to look into," Winslow said. "I might have said it wrong a week ago when I said I was worried about it. I want to get it looked at. I'm not really worried. I just want to take care of it. I want to play for a long time. Longevity is the key for me."
Winslow might not admit it, but he probably realizes this Pro Bowl honor might never happen again. It was a four-year struggle to get here; he couldn't miss this chance. Most 24-year-olds don't fret about their mortality rate in a sport, but Winslow isn't like most 24-years-olds.
He loves the game of football, and it shows in his old-school style. In a passing era, many of the tight ends are just big, mobile wide receivers. Tony Gonzalez and Gates are considered the best and they were basketball players; basketball gave them the instincts to weave their routes through zone defenses and position themselves for receptions.
Winslow's more a center than power forward. Near the end zone, he's more Shaquille O'Neal than Dominique Wilkins. One of Winslow's patented plays is to run to the goal line and box out a defender like Shaq would. The linebacker covering him might be heavier, but Winslow almost always outmuscles him and defies him to break up the play. Of all the tight ends, he might have the strongest hands. Try knocking the ball away from him.
"Really, it's like playing basketball out there," Winslow said. "It all helps out. I played basketball when I was younger. Soccer really helped me with the footwork."
The style comes from my mom. My mom don't take no crap, man. She always told me, 'Don't let nobody push you around.' I guess it stuck with me.
--Kellen Winslow Jr.
As far as his fierce style on the field goes, Winslow credits his mother, Katrina Ramsey, instead of his Hall of Fame father.
"The style comes from my mom," he said. "My mom don't take no crap, man. She always told me, 'Don't let nobody push you around.' I guess it stuck with me."
Though the knee and possible surgery hang around Winslow's thoughts, he couldn't be any happier than he is this week. He's with his teammates the Pro Bowl. The last time the Browns had a Pro Bowler was 2002, when Jamir Miller went as a linebacker.
Having six in the game is a dream.
"I guess in my head I dreamed about it," said quarterback Derek Anderson, who was called in Sunday to replace Brady.
"To think what's happened to me over the past year, it's been crazy, but it's pretty awesome. It's been the same for the rest of my teammates. We went from 4-12 to 10-6, and I guess that's why guys get in this game."
"We really came out and wanted to go 11-5," Winslow said of the Browns' season. "We wanted to win our division and we didn't do that. To finish second place was disappointing. That happened when we lost late in the season to the Bengals. We felt we had to get that last win to get to 10-6 because the city of Cleveland deserved the turnaround we had. In our hearts, we were winners."
Added Edwards: "Look, nobody respected us coming into the season, but everybody on the team played a role in turning things around. Kellen and I talked about this the past two years: We wanted to try to get to the Pro Bowl together. We wanted to change the Browns together. We came to the Pro Bowl together as Browns."
Winslow wasn't going to miss this moment.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.