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Petty Officer 1st Class Jose Esquilin, left, and Petty Officer 1st Class Kathleen Ayotte, both from the USS Essex crew, take a few swipes at each other with padded pugil sticks Friday at Sasebo Naval Base’s Nimitz Park.
Petty Officer 1st Class Jose Esquilin, left, and Petty Officer 1st Class Kathleen Ayotte, both from the USS Essex crew, take a few swipes at each other with padded pugil sticks Friday at Sasebo Naval Base’s Nimitz Park. (Greg Tyler / S&S)
Petty Officer 1st Class Jose Esquilin, left, and Petty Officer 1st Class Kathleen Ayotte, both from the USS Essex crew, take a few swipes at each other with padded pugil sticks Friday at Sasebo Naval Base’s Nimitz Park.
Petty Officer 1st Class Jose Esquilin, left, and Petty Officer 1st Class Kathleen Ayotte, both from the USS Essex crew, take a few swipes at each other with padded pugil sticks Friday at Sasebo Naval Base’s Nimitz Park. (Greg Tyler / S&S)
A sailor from the USS Essex, happy with a plate of freshly-grilled ribs and chicken, thanks the cooks and shipmates behind the grill at Sasebo's Nimitz Park Friday afternoon.
A sailor from the USS Essex, happy with a plate of freshly-grilled ribs and chicken, thanks the cooks and shipmates behind the grill at Sasebo's Nimitz Park Friday afternoon. (Greg Tyler / S&S)
Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Apresto kept a close watch on the searing meat Friday afternoon at the USS Essex picnic.
Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Apresto kept a close watch on the searing meat Friday afternoon at the USS Essex picnic. (Greg Tyler / S&S)
Chief Petty Officer Vince Junor, right, fills a 30-gallon plastic container with crushed ice, bottled water and soft drinks at Friday's USS Essex picnic.
Chief Petty Officer Vince Junor, right, fills a 30-gallon plastic container with crushed ice, bottled water and soft drinks at Friday's USS Essex picnic. (Greg Tyler / S&S)
About 900 people attended the USS Essex picnic.
About 900 people attended the USS Essex picnic. (Greg Tyler / S&S)

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — When Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Mahan joined about 900 shipmates in Nimitz Park for the USS Essex picnic Friday afternoon, he wasn’t expecting to leave with one of seven prize packages to the NFL’s American Bowl.

“I’ve never even been to an NFL game,” he said. “There just aren’t any NFL teams around Bellevue, Neb.; when I watch on television, I usually pull for Kansas City or Denver.”

Now Mahan, 24, must choose to cheer for the Atlanta Falcons or Indianapolis Colts at the Aug. 6 matchup at the Tokyo Dome. The prize package includes a ticket to the game, transportation and hotel costs for a stay in Tokyo Aug. 3-7.

On top of that, the NFL agreed to create opportunities for servicemembers to visit with players during their stay, said Dennis Lebling with Sasebo’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation department.

“My goal is to get them on the practice field with the players the Thursday before the game and at the pre-game party at the Tokyo Dome,” he said.

The six other winners from the Essex drawing, most not at the picnic, could not be identified by press time, organizers said, because they were not sure of the winners’ complete names.

The American Bowl preseason game traditionally has a Super Bowl-like atmosphere, with a week of events and player appearances leading up to the game, said Lt. Cmdr. Ed Lucas, aircraft maintenance officer and collateral-duty MWR representative for the Essex.

“These guys really deserve something like this,” he said. “These sailors spent eight months deployed to protect the interests of Iraq, then responded to the humanitarian disaster created by tsunamis in Southeast Asia.”

U.S. Forces Japan obtained tickets to the game from the NFL, said USFJ spokeswoman Capt. Richelle Dowdell. A specific number of tickets — she was unsure how many — were allocated to each service branch in Japan. The branches were making separate plans on how to distribute their tickets.

“As a tribute to our military servicemembers throughout Japan, not only will many receive the tickets, but they’ll also participate in halftime activities,” she said.

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