MIAMI - I first met Heath Farwell outside Gage Hall in Mankato on a hot summer day in 2004.

Called him "Keith Harwell" at the time. But it didn't seem to matter. To him or me.

He was the Little Rookie Free Agent That Could. And unlike the storybook Little Engine That Could, little rookie free agents who think they can, well, usually they can't.

That's what made Sunday night's Pro Bowl enjoyable to me. OK, somewhat bearable.

A day after Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie made a national joke of himself by being dismissed from his first Pro Bowl, the hard-working Farwell made his Pro Bowl debut by playing on most special teams and extensively at outside linebacker in the second half as the NFC lost to the AFC 41-34 in front of an announced crowd of 70,697 at Sun Life Stadium.

McKinnie has it all athletically. The size, the strength, the first-round pedigree. Yet it took him eight seasons to make the Pro Bowl. A Pro Bowl he begged for, but should have declined since he couldn't stop partying long enough to even pose for the team photo.

Farwell is a much different story. In his fifth year, he made the Pro Bowl no one dreamed he'd make.

"I'm the underdog," Farwell said. "I'm undrafted. I'm undersized. I'm a 6-foot, 225-pound guy. Just to make it in the NFL at this size is a dream come true. And now I'm standing in Miami at the Pro Bowl, playing with these guys. It's been an awesome week."

This was an awkward Pro Bowl because it was moved from Hawaii and played at the Super Bowl site a week before the big game. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell declared it a success because it sold out (although there were a lot of empty seats), but it's hard to share the commish's spin and overall enthusiasm for a game with less defensive intensity than the Lingerie Bowl.

Also, a record 34 replacements had to be used because of injury, apathy and the loss of a combined 14 Saints and Colts who are playing in the Super Bowl. So it's hard to get too excited about an exhibition in which Brett Favre didn't want to play, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees couldn't play, and David Garrard actually did play.

But it was fun to see old buddy "Keith Harwell" on the same Pro Bowl field as Ray Lewis. Farwell made it as a special teams player, a position that was added some years ago because all the stars hate playing special teams. "I've been to seven Pro Bowls, and the special teams guys actually all kind of look alike," Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson said. "They're a Larry Izzo or a Heath Farwell. They're all cut from the same cloth. High-motor guys who run full speed and sacrifice their body on every play."

Five seasons ago, Farwell was just another face in the crowd. The kid from Corona, Calif., and San Diego State was giving the NFL a shot because he thought he could make it. So did Robert Griffith and Brian Russell, two of his summer workout partners who had gone to San Diego State and made a name for themselves after signing with the Vikings as undrafted rookies.

Dean Dalton, Vikings running backs coach at the time, remembers Farwell turning heads in 2004.

"I started calling him 'The Reverend' because Farwell sounded like [Jerry] Falwell," Dalton said. "After that, every time he'd do something, we'd say, 'There goes The Rev.'"

The Reverend basically wouldn't allow the Vikings to cut him.

"Every day, he was prepared and he was 100 miles an hour," Dalton said. "He was that one rookie that veterans don't want around in training camp."

The only time Farwell slowed from 100 mph was 2008, when a torn anterior cruciate ligament ended his season and wrecked the Vikings' special teams. But he was back up to speed in 2009, and a Pro Bowler on the final day of January 2010.

"Relaxing by the pool this week and looking around at who I was with was amazing," Farwell said. "This was a goal of mine. But even I knew it was a long reach to get this far."

Mark Craig •