Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell (left) talks with Texans defensive end J.J. Watt during a Pro Bowl practice this week.
Calais Campbell and Joe Staley lined up across from each other on Thursday afternoon, just like they've done twice a year since 2008.
This time, the game faces and helmets were removed, replaced by large smiles as they playfully engaged in a pass-rush simulation.
Staley, the longtime 49ers stalwart at left tackle, has been through these low-key Pro Bowl practices before, attending this week's walk-throughs at Luke Air Force Base and Scottsdale Community College as a four-time Pro Bowl selection.
Campbell is the newbie. While the Cardinals' standout has been among the most productive defensive ends for the past several seasons, the Pro Bowl recognition never came. He isn't the flashiest player, doesn't play in a big media market, doesn't put up huge sack totals, and for a long time it left him outside the elite Pro Bowl circle.
Finally, 2014 was his year. Campbell was sidelined for two games with a knee sprain and didn't have his best statistical season, but maybe word has finally spread. The 'underrated' tag can go.
"I've been voting for him for the Pro Bowl for, like, four years," Staley said. "I was so pumped for him. He's a guy that deserves it. He's been doing his thing for a long time. We played them in Week 17 after the Pro Bowl rosters were announced, and I told him after the game that I was really proud of him, happy for him that he made it. He deserves all the recognition he gets."
Campbell's Pro Bowl chances have always started at a disadvantage, because the fan vote has regularly placed more well-known defensive ends above him regardless of overall play. This year it wasn't enough to leave him out, as the coaches and players' tallies spoke loudly by rocketing him up the ballot.
The votes from Staley and the others made Campbell smile broadly.
"Me and Joe have been battling non-stop for so many years," Campbell said. "When you have the respect of your peers, especially your opponents who are rivals, that says a lot."
Some of the Pro Bowlers are good-naturedly grousing about the location of the all-star game, preferring the beaches of Hawaii over Arizona. Campbell, though, looks like he's having the time of his life.
He's struck up a friendship with Texans star defensive end J.J. Watt, the best defensive player in the NFL.
Campbell has his eyes on the new truck awarded to the Pro Bowl's most valuable player, and is trying to take a preemptive strike by slowing down
Watt, a teammate in the game but a top competitor for his award. A McDonald's meal was passed out to interested consumers at the Pro Bowl draft, and it's where Campbell hoped to begin his sabotage.
"Here, eat a burger," Watt said Campbell told him. "I was like, 'I don't think I can do that, man.'"
"He's always eating healthy," Campbell lamented. "Even when he has a cheat day, it's healthy. I'm like, 'OK, well you're making me feel bad because I eat pretty bad sometimes.'"
Campbell said he's enjoyed picking up tips from players like Watt and others he respects. He's also quickly learning there is a mutual admiration. Watt asked Campbell about some of his techniques, and both Watt and Staley marveled at the fluidity of a 6-foot-8 player who begins each play with a hand in the dirt.
"A big dude that can move, and then he uses his hands for leverage," Staley said. "Overall, he's just a really good football player."
While this is Campbell's first Pro Bowl, he doesn't look or sound like a fish out of water. He's been a menace on the defensive side of the ball for a half-decade, and while it took time to break onto the Pro Bowl scene, the others on hand are well aware of his ability.
"He's been a good player for a long time," Watt said. "It's good to see him out here (getting recognized)."
Campbell has a lingering sports hernia injury which will require surgery in a few weeks, but it's not bad enough to make him miss the Pro Bowl festivities. He's hoping this is the first appearance in a long line of them.
"I could get used to this," Campbell said. "I could definitely see myself doing this again sometime."
Cardinals Pro Bowlers practice with Team Carter at Luke Air Force Base