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Slideshow: Cruising with Football and Futbol Stars on an ESPN Theme Cruise

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    For a theme cruise that included Super Bowl Sunday, ESPN at Sea brought a group of former NFL and women's soccer players onboard Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas. The five-day cruise -- a partial-ship charter to those willing to pay for the experience -- was filled with events and activities that brought cruisers closer to the athletes.

    The event provided a surprising amount of access and interaction with the players, from dinners -- where talk ranged from Super Bowls to concussions -- to private cocktail functions for the charter group. Plenty of activities were open to those who simply happened to be onboard the ship sailing out of Tampa, too. Activities included clinics, pregame (and postgame) Super Bowl analyses and chance meetings throughout the ship. ESPN cheerleaders also were onboard, handing out souvenirs and mingling with the crowd. The group comprised former cheerleaders for various professional sports teams (such as the Miami Heat), and they quickly developed a following, especially among the 18-22 male demographic.

    Each day, those who paid for the experience had a number of options for one-on-one interaction with the athletes -- things like cocktail hours, Texas Hold'em tournaments and late-night dancing at Votex. On Super Bowl Sunday, we sat in a cordoned-off area of the Coral Theater with the athletes during the game. And dinner each night meant sitting and mingling with the athletes while hearing all sorts of insider stories (including one about a nameless former NFL player who was going to be part of the group but, when he saw his cabin on Jewel -- small by professional athlete standards, we're guessing -- walked off the ship before it even set sail).

    ESPN at Sea doesn't come cheap. You'll pay about three times what you'd pay for a regular sailing on the same ship, but if you're a fan of a particular player or simply love the game and want to have a whole new perspective, this type of cruise is a perfect experience. We loved the way ESPN at Sea looked out for all of us, checking to see if we were having a good time and making sure we knew when all the events were. The group definitely got the V.I.P. experience. By the end, we felt like we had made some famous friends (even if they probably didn't remember our names the way we remembered theirs).

    Photo: Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock.com

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    We boarded Jewel of the Seas the day before the Super Bowl. Our first official ESPN event was a private "welcome aboard" function. The athletes arrived en masse and introduced themselves individually to the gathered crowd. The athletes (or talent, as they were referred to in our various programs) included a number of former football players -- Wendell Tyler (running back; Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers), Mike Logan (defensive back; Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh Steelers), Gary Jeter (defensive line; New York Giants, Rams, New England Patriots) and Jermaine Phillips (defensive back; Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Also joining the group were Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly, two former members of the U.S. women's soccer team, which took home two Olympic golds and a silver between 1996 and 2004, as well as two World Cup titles in 1999 and 2003.

    Photo by Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor

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    Included with the ESPN at Sea package was the opportunity to dine with the sports stars. That first night, we sat with Jeter, Tyler, Phillips and Foudy. Conversation was pleasant and gave insight into what happens when athletes of that caliber get together. Several spoke of the safety issues associated with the game, memories of Super Bowl and Olympics achievements and, inevitably, a comparison of Super Bowl rings. Tyler's, won with the 49ers, was the least showy, whereas Phillips' ring, won with the Bucs, was so blinged out with diamonds that the camera flash rendered temporary blindness. Foudy served as a hand model, sporting three rings (including Logan's with the Steelers).

    Photo by Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor

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    Super Bowl Sunday arrived, and Royal Caribbean opened four venues for the big game, including the Coral Theater, where former NFL players spoke before the game. Cruise director Dennis Charles asked how they had prepared for their Super Bowl experiences as players. While each spoke of pregame prep or locker room rituals, the best answer might have come from Jeter, who responded that he makes sure the chicken wings are just right. While he played 14 years in the NFL, he never played on a team that made it to the big game. Royal Caribbean's spread was decent, too: nachos, hot dogs, burgers, wings and pizza. Each venue had its own buffet. The beverage of choice? Bud Light, according to one bartender.

    Photo by Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor

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    A day after the Ravens secured their Super Bowl XLVII victory, the NFL players hit the ship's sports court for some one-on-one time with passengers. The event, open to all, drew mostly kids, ages 7 to 15. Four stations were set up, each teaching a different skill. Defensive gurus Phillips and Logan tirelessly worked agility drills with the kids, teaching the art of balance, concentration and footwork. Participants ran forward, backward and sideways through a series of cones, then "intercepted" a ball and shouted "Bingo!" -- an indication they had secured a turnover. The clinic wasn't a casual lesson: one young boy struggled to keep up in his flip-flops, so his mother scurried to find replacement shoes for him.

    Photo by Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor

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    "Do you know what 'high and tight' is?" Tyler asked youngsters at his station. "That's how you hold the ball" when running so the defense can't cause a fumble. He showed the kids proper technique, then had them run around cones while holding the ball. At the end of the task, he tried to force a fumble, perhaps not so difficult when the ball is nearly as large as the kids themselves. The surprise on the faces of the kids when Tyler swatted the ball away was priceless. It's been 26 years since Tyler last played professionally, but he still looks like he could put on a uniform. When the sessions finished, participants gathered for autographs and photo opportunities.

    Photo by Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor

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    Not to be outdone by the players, the cheerleaders held a session, too, also open to the public. The cheer session drew a somewhat older crowd, though a couple of adorable kids picked up the pompoms, too. The group spent time learning a quick routine, practicing their high-V's, shakes and hair flips together, then in smaller groups. They were encouraged to personalize their routines by finding their own struts -- something that looks much cooler when the person strutting is wearing 4-inch heels.

    Photo by Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor

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    Part of the paid ESPN at Sea package included an excursion with the athletes in Cozumel. As a group, we indulged in the Salsa, Salsa and Margaritas excursion -- which involved, as the name implies, salsa- and margarita-making and salsa dancing. Booked through Royal Caribbean, the excursion took place at Hotel Cozumel & Resort, where two dancing chefs led the group through the art of making salsa and guacamole. Athletes mingled with the passengers, sitting at tables of eight, taking turns passing ingredients. A light moment came when Jeter attempted to put on his chef's hat, which didn't come close to fitting. A substitute hat was quickly found. The margaritas and salsa were fantastic, though most of us skipped out on the dancing. n

    Photo by Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor

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    The biggest hit of the trip might have been the soccer clinic with Foudy and Lilly, which drew about 25 kids and adults and was open to any passenger. Foudy's enthusiasm was infectious, whether she was teaching the basics of proper kicking or preaching the importance of a memorable celebration dance. (How often can someone say they scored a goal with an assist from a world-class soccer player?) Each participant took away a mini-soccer ball as a souvenir.

    Photo by Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor

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