How a Chicago Bears linebacker and Brooklyn-born rapper created a snapshot of hip-hop fashion through All-Star events.
It’s Feb. 2, 2003. Groundhog Day in Honolulu.
Hours earlier out East, Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow, signaling six more weeks of winter. However, this means little to Al Michaels as he addresses the viewers at home tuned in to watch the 2003 Pro Bowl. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and smile thanks to temperatures in the low 80s, Michaels announces All-Stars from the AFC and NFC, each draped in patriotic apparel.
Coming on the heels of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ first-ever Super Bowl victory, the NFL season is officially over and fans are focusing on that spring’s draft, regardless of Phil’s forecast. Aside from Dante Hall hitting the juke button on special teams and Jason Taylor picking off a pass, the island exhibition is mostly a spectacle of sideline conversation, highlighted by Peyton Manning calling Mike Vanderjagt an ‘idiot kicker’ and Ricky Williams elected as the game’s MVP.
What the showcase lacked in substance, it made up for in style. That year’s uniforms introduced a star spangled aesthetic, akin to that of the Tracy McGrady-era Orlando Magic tanks.
Like Pro Bowl ratings, Pro Bowl jersey sales were often just as lackluster with core football fans preferring traditional team gear suitable for any given Sunday rather than random one-offs worn in an exhibition.
However, the stars would align months later as a Brooklyn born rapper, Chicago Bears linebacker, and another seasonal celebration added extra life to the oft-forgotten threads.
Despite different paths and professions, Brian Urlacher and the artist born John David Jackson had similar ascents as a new millennium approached.
At New Mexico, Urlacher exploded on the college football scene as an upperclassman, leading the nation in tackles as a junior while returning punts and lining up at wide receiver in his spare time. A 4.57 40-yard-dash at the NFL Combine made the Lobo legend a top-10 pick, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year in his Chicago Bears debut.
In Bedstuy, a Ralph Lauren-loving MC named Fabolous Sport was also rising in the ranks. Outclassing his peers in pricey Polo, the senior student started rapping as a way to earn coin to cop clothes. Quickly, he caught the ear of DJ Clue who invited him to freestyle live on famed New York hip-hop station Hot 97. By jumping on the “Money, Power & Respect” beat, Fab landed all three, soon signed by Quick to his label, Desert Storm
After rapping live for thousands in ’98, he was making millions by ’01, releasing his debut album Ghetto Fabolous on the same day Jay-Z dropped The Blueprint. In the meantime, Fab followed Clue on The Hard Knock Life Tour, headlined by Hova who wore a different jersey at each spot.
“As I became an artist in the late ’90s and early ’00s, the jersey thing came,” Fabolous recalled on Full Size Run. “I loved that because jerseys have a lot of color. That was another thing that really locked me in, my love for jerseys and the combination of matching.”
Forever fashionable and sporty as his surname suggested, Fab pivoted from horseback to throwbacks, quickly owning the arena of athletic apparel.
Around the same time, Urlacher was doing damage in the jersey game just the same.
In only his second season, the Bears linebacker was the toast of the NFL, holding an All-Madden Michael Vick to 18 rushing yards and even catching a touchdown pass. Fans flocked to Urlacher by voting him into eight Pro Bowls while his jersey sales ascended nationwide.
By 2002, Urlacher had the best-selling jersey in the entire NFL, coming in third the following year behind only Vick and Jeremy Shockey.
While fans from Chicago and around the world rocked Urlacher’s navy and orange Bears uniform — a style that has remained relatively unchanged since the 1970s — Fabolous fancied Urlacher’s appeal through a louder lens.
Months after the linebacker took the field at 2003 Pro Bowl, the stars aligned oceans away from Honolulu.
Clash of the Giants
When it comes to licensed apparel, Fabolous has championed jerseys more than any artist ever.
Since making his mark on DJ Clue mixtapes and Hot 97 freestyles, Fabolous introduced himself to the world at-large on Lil Mo’s “Superwoman” in 2001. The song’s Chris Robinson-directed visual saw regular rotation on BET and beyond, positioning Fab as an agile artist running through punchlines in tops tied to Ricky Watters and Jamal Anderson.
Rotating teams would prove the norm for Fab from red carpet to TRL. Months after “Superwoman” swept countdown shows, his breakthrough single, “Can’t Deny It,” doubled-down on airplay and aesthetic.
Sonically, the single caught fire in New York and across the country thanks to a Nate Dogg hook highlighted by a nod to the late 2Pac.
On the fashion front, Fab outpaced all rappers as the frontrunner for the throwback jersey movement, rocking Texas Rangers, Virginia Squires, San Fransisco 49ers and Philadelphia 76ers threads in just over four minutes of Rap City screen time.
From that point on, F-A-B-O-L-O-U-S was officially hip-hop’s jersey king.
While Big Boi introduced the genre to Mitchell & Ness throwbacks and Jay-Z popularized them, no one was seeing Fab when it came to the depth, drip and accessorizing of kits cut for all associations. Whether on wax or on stage, you had to pay attention to just who Fab would pay homage to.
While award shows and music videos provided a platform for Fab to flex his closet that likely looked more like a locker, one event meant more to hip-hop and the region he called home above any other: Hot 97’s Summer Jam.
The buzz was big for the annual event in the early aughts. In 2001, Jay-Z declared war on Nas and Mobb Deep with the debut of “Ether,” upping the ante by bringing out Michael Jackson as a walk-off home run as the PA played the Kanye West produced, Jackson 5 sampling single “Izzo.”
On brand, Hov did it all in a New York Knicks Latrell Sprewell jersey, cementing his love for fan gear and his city.
In retaliation, Nas was supposed to headline the 2002 installment. Leaked plans revealed a mock lynching of a robotic Jay-Z figure during the QB rapper’s set, a stunt Hot 97 was not feeling that eventually led to Nas skipping his set. Due in part to this snafu, Hot 97 had to book all the superstars for 2003.
And they did.
Highlighted by Eminem smashing his Source award, Nelly running through his hits and Busta Rhymes bringing out everyone from Mariah Carey to Sean Paul to Diddy, the summer spectacle was back with its seasonal bouquet of hip-hop beef and radio singles.
Despite all the antics and A-listers, it was Fabolous who won Best Dressed. Donning dual Jesus pieces, a pinwheel fitted, and shin length jorts, the Brooklyn bar spitter took it all home with custom flag-striped Air Force 1s and a Brian Urlacher jersey.
As alluded, this wasn’t any Brian Urlacher jersey.
Rather, this was an authentic 2003 Pro Bowl jersey, identical to the one Urlacher wore in Honolulu just months earlier.
Through Fabolous, the oft-mocked Pro Bowl jersey had its moment in the sun.
However, much like Phil seeing his shadow, there were still cold days ahead.
From Nothin’ to Somethin’
Historically, the NFL’s competition of the conferences has had little draw aside from Hawaii hosting it. The timing around the Super Bowl and risk for injury makes this showcase an odd exhibition for power players and a tough sell for football fans who typically ride more with teams than individuals.
In 2022, the Pro Bowl continues to reach for ratings and reception. Few fans care about the actual game and the forever unkind Internet makes a sport out of smearing each year’s uniforms.
Even with Nike now at the helm, search results tied to ‘Pro Bowl jerseys’ conjure editorial pieces headlined by words like ‘gross’ or ‘dreadful.’ Currently, throwback manufacturer Mitchell & Ness only sells the 1994 Barry Sanders style online.
Nevertheless, the NFL looks to make the Pro Bowl profitable for players or fans whether it’s as a vacation destination, contests of skills and strength, or simply searching for eyeballs through wild uniforms.
These days, pages of Poshmark and search results on eBay are populated with worn and vintage jerseys from the 2003 Pro Bowl, including Urlacher’s. Where collectibles are concerned, a Topps Chrome card with a swatch of fabric from that Honolulu highlight fest fetches more money than something you could actually wear.
Will the 2003 Pro Bowl jersey be the next uniform to turn the tide on what was once hated yet now hot? Historically, football fans like team and tradition. Conversely, hip hop heads rally towards individuality and disruption.
Trend cycles see today’s youth expressing an appetite for nostalgia with more nuance and novelty than tried and true styles. With that in mind, Fabolous could come up not only as the purveyor of the throwback but the forecaster of the future.