The sun already had set in Charlotte by the time the Pro Bowl kicked off last month, but on the sidelines at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii, the scene was reminiscent of a sunny southern afternoon for TopCats cheerleader Laura R.
A week later, as the sun set in Indianapolis near kickoff of Super Bowl XLVI, seven representatives of the TopCats were leading a Super Bowl Sunday celebration near Tokyo – a couple of hours after the sun had risen Monday morning.
The TopCats traveled far and wide in recent weeks to represent the Panthers, passing through time zones nearly as often as Carolina's offense reached the end zone this past season.
Travel can be taxing, but the participants said they'd travel to the ends of the earth to spread good will to football fans everywhere on behalf of the Panthers.
"It was weird seeing football at eight in the morning, but our bodies still thought it was later in the day, so it wasn't that bad," said Myra, who represented the TopCats at a Super Bowl party for about 700 residents of Camp Zama, a U.S. army base in Japan. "Every time we started feeling tired, we'd go to the next event and meet new people, and we instantly were not tired anymore."
Six TopCats - Myra, Candis, Cynthia, Katie B., Marissa and Stacey - were selected to join TopCats choreographer and coordinator Richelle Grant for the trip on the strength of essays they submitted for consideration.
The week before the Super Bowl, Laura R. was the Panthers' representative on the Pro Bowl cheerleading squad based on a vote by her fellow TopCats.
"Being chosen in that way made the experience even more meaningful," said Laura, who learned of her selection during a ceremony prior to the Dec. 11 home game against the Atlanta Falcons. "My initial response was disbelief when it was announced on the field. I think I literally stood there for 15 seconds before I truly realized what had occurred. It was a flood of emotions. I was just overwhelmed."
Both transcontinental trips presented their share of logistical challenges, but it all proved worthwhile.
"The last few weeks have been very busy, yet exciting," Grant said. "Making sure each TopCat has the proper paperwork and tools she needs is key to any overseas trip, and we started rehearsing nearly two months prior to ensure everyone was performance-ready.
"Appearances like these are very important, because we have a small amount of time to meet so many people and interact with children whom we may never meet again, and we want that impression to be a lasting one."
TOKYO - At 6 a.m. on the Friday prior to the Super Bowl, the TopCats' contingent bound for Japan departed Charlotte.
They finally arrived in Camp Zama around 5 p.m. on Saturday, the end of a 21-hour trek that featured a 14-hour flight from Dallas and a 14-hour shift in time zones.
"It actually wasn't as bad as we thought it was going to be," said Stacey, the TopCats' representative at the Pro Bowl a year ago. "We chatted a lot and we watched some movies, then we chatted some more. We slept a little, then we chatted some more."
The next day, the cheerleaders got the chance to explore the region before being the featured attraction at a Super Bowl celebration. They visited Meiji Jingu, a breathtaking Shinto shrine where they witnessed a couple of traditional Japanese weddings, and they checked out the unique fashion district of Harajuku.
"Just being around the Japanese people and seeing the culture and how they interact with each other was pretty neat," Cynthia said.
The next morning, the main purpose of the trip found the cheerleaders spending time with Americans homesick for their native culture. Super Bowl Monday as it is in Japan featured a game party, postgame autograph session and cheerleading clinic for the children of Camp Zama.
"The Super Bowl is such a big part of American culture, so to be there and be able to bring that little piece of America to them was awesome," said Cynthia, who was emotionally impacted by "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the game and clinic and autograph session after the game.
"Sometimes you don't realize how much you impact little girls' lives. During the autograph session, girls would just come up and share their heart with you. Some would say, ‘I'll never forget this day,' and tell you how special you are. It was touching."
Before heading home, each TopCat received her most prized souvenir from the adventure – a coin presented by U.S. Army Garrison Japan Commander Col. Eric Tilley, a native of Kannapolis, N.C.
"Everybody was so appreciative," Stacey said. "Every single person we went up to talked about how special it was to have a piece of home on such a special day.
"It was a whirlwind – from seeing Tokyo to the Super Bowl party to being with the kids to being with these girls. And it was humbling, going halfway across the world."
HONOLULU – Laura enjoyed similar experiences a week earlier in Hawaii, from an NFL Play 60 cheerleading clinic with her fellow Pro Bowl cheerleaders to a free event at Aloha Stadium the day before the all-star game that packed the stands.
She spent eight days in Honolulu, capped by the game itself, but the time flew by.
"We literally hit the ground running, and we didn't stop. It took us till to the fifth day to get to the beach," Laura said. "It was kind of like my experience with the TopCats - a year-long season in fast-forward. In a week's time, I was introduced to a group of women, and we went through some incredibly challenging practices and a lot of bonding experiences. We had a ton of fun."
Her fellow TopCats were constantly on her mind, especially considering that they granted her the opportunity with their votes.
"I couldn't imagine being more honored to represent a team more than this year's group," Laura said. "I was charged with a great responsibility of letting the rest of the NFL know how great the TopCats are. That's what I tried to do all week."
Extensive travel is nothing new to Laura. For the second time in her four years with the TopCats, the high school biology teacher traveled more than four hours round-trip from Durham, N.C., to her native Charlotte for games, practices and appearances.
Laura, however, is willing to go any length to represent the TopCats.
"I've never thought twice about it," she said. "I would drive as far as need be. It's a non-negotiable part of my schedule. It's worth it."