Football? On a cruise? One fan checks it out.

I figured I knew what I was in for when I boarded my pro football cruise on the SS Norway.

With hotshots like Denver Bronco wide receiver Rod Smith and 18 other current or former National Football League players aboard, I thought the ship would be wall-to-wall with face-painted fans. "Cheeseheads" from Green Bay would compete for deck space next to these big guys. Atlanta's "Dirty Birds" would flit around as the "hounds" from Cleveland dogged football's famous.

I was wrong.

They were there, I found out, just not en masse.

This was a theme cruise, no question. But the emphasis was on "cruise." The majority of the 2,000-plus passengers had passing the sunscreen -not the pigskin -foremost on their mind.

During the obligatory life drill, for example, I stood at my muster station looking like a dollop of sherbet with my orange life preserver, when Merton Hanks of the San Francisco 49ers - a guy thousands of people stare at every Sunday during football season - walked by. Nobody even looked up.

Right off the TV screen

But for anyone who wanted it, there was plenty of time to get up close and personal with guys who face off on Sunday afternoons.

I soon met Tom Jordan, a New York Giants fan from Jersey City, N.J., who came specifically to pal around with the players. He said the average fan doesn't get to know what players are really like.

"This is outstanding!" he gushed after a question-and-answer session with the players. "I really enjoyed talking to Pepper [Johnson]. We talked about college basketball. He even likes women's basketball!"

Norwegian Cruise Line is known for its sports cruises devoted to, among other things, baseball, hockey, and basketball. They've even had a NASCAR cruise. If sports isn't your thing, though, cruise lines offer plenty of other options, including everything from Elvis to mystery and gardening themes.

We left from Miami for our Caribbean sojourn at the end of February, when the Super Bowl was still fresh on people's minds.

On the first day at sea, a handful of curious onlookers crowded into the fitness center and stared at three footballers who gave people a brief overview of how they prepare for an NFL season.

Men in wicker hats, sun-toasted women in floral outfits, and fresh-faced college boys all listened to what players do to keep limber, fast, and well-muscled.

We stretched and watched as former linebacker Pepper Johnson of the New York Jets and Travis Hall of the Atlanta Falcons - whose biceps were the size of stovepipes - demonstrated proper weightlifting techniques. The players glossed over some of the details, but gave the average fan a basic understanding of what they did. Miami Dolphin running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar put player conditioning into perspective for the eager exercisers. "We're preparing our bodies for a car accident. You don't need to do that," said Mr. Abdul-Jabbar.

After the session, I walked right up and began a conversation with the congenial Mel Renfro, a former Dallas Cowboy defensive back who had dizzying speed. He seemed more like an old family friend than once one of the most feared defensive backs in the NFL.

And he wasn't the only one. The players were always polite and willing to chat.

On Great Stirrup Cay, one of our ports of call, the players snorkeled with the rest of the passengers. But while on the ship, they were more of an added attraction rather than the main show.

An afternoon with the 'yams'

When they did show the crowd what they could do, it was stunning. After a kicking demonstration and telling the crowd some of the finer points of banging yams (kicker lingo), Brad Daluiso of the New York Giants and Al Del Greco of the Tennessee Titans, who are both kickers, wowed the crowd by kicking the ball off the Olympic Deck, over the throngs of greasy sunbathers, and into the blue water. Spectators ran to the edge of the deck and watched the ball float like an olive in a bathtub toward the horizon.

Rubbing elbows with the pros

One of the best parts of the cruise was that everyone from grandmas to kids could play with a pro.

Brad Whitlatch took full advantage of the opportunity. He and his wife, Stacy, came on the cruise to get married on the island of St. Thomas, another port of call. While Stacy baked in the sun, Brad and I, both former kickers, "unleashed the beast," as Brad affectionately called it, in the kicking competition.

I also worked on my passing technique with Oakland Raider quarterback Rich Gannon. Unfortunately, I failed to throw the ball through the suspended life ring each of my three tries (as I said, I was a kicker).

But you didn't have to hone your football skills if you didn't want to. The S.S. Norway offered plenty of alternatives. The teenagers with whom I dined were fond of dancing the merengue. They took free lessons from a professional dancing couple on board.

One afternoon I checked out some of the many non NFL-related activities. I watched one lady pay $10 and miss 10 clay pigeons in a row while trapshooting off the back deck. I considered getting an 80-minute head-to-toe seaweed massage in the Roman Spa, but opted for an equally refined activity: perusing some paintings at the art auction.

Of course, with all these chiseled NFL physiques walking around, I had a lot of catching up to do. Norwegian has a blue-ribbon fitness center that helps burn off the excess calories that everyone accumulates while cruising.

I crunched my abs at the grueling phenomenal abdominals workout. As if that wasn't enough, I then dusted off my rusty jump shot and ended up winning the three-point shooting contest. A complete surprise, as shooting on the rolling seas feels like tossing a cantaloupe from a rocking chair.

As the trip ended, I wondered if the memories of the players and the islands would fade like my tan. But the other night I was reminded of my trip. I was watching a preseason game between the Denver Broncos and the Miami Dolphins. Rod Smith ran a quick route, caught the ball, juked a defender, and bulled over a would-be tackler.

Just think, only a few months ago I was under the Caribbean looking at parrot fish with Mr. Smith, one of the best receivers in the game.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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