The stars were rarely out on the field, but that hardly took the shine off the long-awaited return of NFL preseason football to Hawaii.
About 45,000 fans (49,936 tickets issued) braved the 90-degree weather under a blazing sun for the first such game in Hawaii in 43 years. When the closing fireworks went up in the Saturday evening sky, the scoreboard read: Dallas Cowboys 14, Los Angeles Rams 10.
The Rams, last season’s Super Bowl runners-up, were the designated home team in their partnership with the Hawaii Tourism Authority, and the stadium signage and the field itself bore their imagery.
But both teams received loud ovations as they sprinted onto the field pregame, and the roars continued throughout. If anything, the cheers were stacked more heavily for the Cowboys, who’ve made the postseason in recent years but still seek a run through the NFC playoffs like the Rams.
“So much fun to play here at Aloha Stadium. Great history and tradition,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “I was thinking about it when I was standing on the sidelines, all the great players, the best of the best, who played here.”
Garrett was not surprised by the vast numbers of vocal Cowboys fans populating the stands with Dak Prescott’s No. 4 and Ezekiel Elliott’s 21.
“We have such a big following across the country and across the world. … The Cowboy tradition has been strong for a long, long time across our country.”
The last such game contested here was a 17-16 win by the San Francisco 49ers over the San Diego Chargers on Aug. 21, 1976, seen by 36,364. This one sold out within 24 hours of tickets going on sale back in March.
Unlike the Pro Bowls that were contested — in the loosest possible sense of the word — in Aloha Stadium in past years, Saturday featured competitive play and hard hits aplenty, as fringe pro players sought to make a lasting impact before regular-season roster cuts.
The NFL-starved local crowd, which hadn’t had a Pro Bowl since 2016, ate it all up, including the second half, when it became a punting enthusiast’s dream and a flag festival. Rams punter Johnny Hekker set the tone by pinning the Cowboys at their 3 with a 49-yard punt on the Rams’ first possession.
“The football’s a crazy-shaped object and has a mind of its own. For it to go out of bounds like that was really nice,” said Hekker, a nine-year pro out of Oregon State. “Good aloha spirit on that one.”
But Dallas quarterback Prescott, one of the few stars to play, completed all five of his throws to guide his team on a 97-yard drive on the Cowboys’ first possession, capped with Tony Pollard’s 14-yard rush up the middle. Prescott then gave way to third-year backup Mike White.
NFL veterans Randall Cobb and Jason Witten saw action, albeit briefly, for Dallas.
“A year away from the game, all the work to get back here since March, getting in shape, getting your body ready, having an opportunity,” said Witten, a 16-year tight end who became a TV commentator last year and came back to the game this offseason. “I know I have a lot to prove. … The jitters were real.”
Nearly every Rams starter did not make the trip, including quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley. Defensive lineman Aaron Donald made the trip but did not play. Elliott remains away from the Cowboys in the midst of a contract holdout.
It was 7-7 after a quarter when the Rams’ starting signal-caller Saturday, Blake Bortles, hit JoJo Natson with a 7-yard strike, giving each team its first touchdown of the preseason after losses last week. “America’s Team” fell behind 10-7 by halftime on a string of completions slung by Bortles’ backup, Brandon Allen, and a 29-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal.
The contest grew penalty-ridden as it progressed and players — some of whom were tasting some of their first pro action — were shuffled in and out of the lineup like midseason fantasy football waiver pickups.
Rams rookie linebacker Troy Reeder was tagged with an unnecessary roughness penalty and ejected late in the third quarter for a hit on sliding Dallas quarterback Cooper Rush. Rush was roughed again, a low hit by rookie defensive tackle Boogie Roberts, minutes later.
Rush turned the free yards into an 8-yard fade to fourth-year receiver Devin Smith for the game’s deciding score with 1:50 left in the third.
Rams coach Sean McVay didn’t respond directly to a question about whether the Rams have discussed coming back, but he hailed the two-day experience as one to remember as his team looks ahead to two more preseason games on the mainland.
“What a great atmosphere and environment it was,” McVay said. “The fans were awesome, from the start to the finish. Being here in general over the last couple days has been a great experience for our organization. They certainly have made us feel welcome, and it’s a real credit to the fans and a people here.
“Like anything else, it was a great learning (opportunity). We’ll look at this tape and clean it up.”