For Jessica R., the NFL Pro Bowl was everything she heard it would be, everything she thought it would be, everything she hoped it would be – and more.
"Such a great experience," she said. "It's hard for me to even try to put into words what it did for me personally and as a cheerleader. It was such an amazing week."
A two-year veteran of the Colts Cheerleaders and a lifelong lover of dance, Jessica was selected by her teammates to represent the Colts during Pro Bowl week in Orlando.
"I get chills just thinking about it because for me, I've always just done what I loved and I never really wanted or thought that I would get that type of recognition or honor for doing what I love," she said. "The fact that my team, when they thought about Pro Bowl cheerleader thought to put my name down, but thought that I could also go and represent them well – it says a lot."
She had a relationship with the other cheerleaders via text message before she arrived. But meeting them in person, putting a name with a face, and spending time together brought those relationships to life.
"It's just amazing how you can take 26 completely different women, stick them in the same place for an entire week, and watch those relationships grow," she said. "We joked that we were all best friends before we got there, but those relationships grew even stronger that week and they're still continuing to grow. We still stay in contact. We talk every day. I just see these relationships staying forever."
They bonded over a jam-packed week of appearances. And though she enjoyed them all – for Jessica, one in particular stood out.
"There was a cheerleading squad that we got to hang out with and they were so incredible. They all had Down syndrome, which is very close to home because the Colts, we work a lot with Down Syndrome Indiana. They were just so amazing and the light and joy that they got from doing what they do and getting to share that experience with them was awesome."
It's what being an NFL cheerleader is all about.
"They were at Wide World of Sports in Florida on a beautiful day doing what they love with their best friends and loving every moment of it," she said. "They say that we leave an impact on people being cheerleaders – we have our superhero capes on – but they really left an impact on me."
It was an inspiring week – and it all led up to Sunday, when the best of the best met on the field for the NFL Pro Bowl. And the best of the best cheered them on from the sideline.
2018 NFL Pro Bowl - Game Day - CHEERLEADERS
Even the weather couldn't dampen their spirits.
"All the girls that have outdoor stadiums were like, 'Rain games are the greatest. You're going to have so much fun.' And I kept thinking, 'Oh, I don't know. I'm used to staying dry.' It was so much fun. I could have done without the torrential downpour that we had at one point, but we had a ball."
It also gave her a new appreciation for Lucas Oil Stadium.
"I will keep my indoor stadium every day," she laughed.
Upon returning, Jessica couldn't wait to share her experience with her teammates – but only to a point.
"Ron, our director for Pro Bowl week said, 'What I try to tell each incoming PBC class before they leave or at some point during the week is when you go back and share your stories with your teammates or the next PBC that's selected, try not to share too much. Let it be something that they create on their own because each year is different.'"
It's often said that cheering at the Pro Bowl is the highest honor bestowed on an NFL cheerleader. And after experiencing it herself, Jessica wholeheartedly agreed.
To be considered one of those amazing women is a true honor," she said. "It is something that every NFL cheerleader, if they're not aspiring to be a Pro Bowl cheerleader, it should be a goal. Even if it's not the designation of Pro Bowl cheerleader, to see the attributes and characteristics of those amazing women is a really cool thing to try to do for yourself – personally and professionally as a cheerleader."
It wasn't just a football experience or even a cheerleading experience – for Jessica, it was a life experience – and one that will continue to shape her for years to come.