HONOLULU -- Less than 48 hours after losing Super Bowl XXXVIII to the Patriots 32-29 in one of the most dramatic finishes in the game's history, Panthers players Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Todd Sauerbrun found themselves on the Hawaiian island of Oahu taking part in the NFC's first Pro Bowl practice at Aloha Stadium.
The turnaround was so quick that the three players arrived at the stadium without their equipment, forcing Jenkins and Rucker to participate in drills without helmets on.
The fourth Panther in the Pro Bowl -- running back Stephen Davis -- didn't make it on time and wasn't at practice, but was scheduled to arrive Tuesday afternoon.
"It's exhausting man, it really is," Sauerbrun said in the locker room after a light 45-minute practice. "I'm sure the rest of the Panthers will tell you that much. The flight alone was exhausting. Normally you don't sleep after the game and then you get right on the plane for this nine-hour flight."
But despite the loss and the long flight from Houston to Honolulu, Sauerbrun wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to play in his third Pro Bowl.
"There's no way you can put something like this down, being with all the best talent in the world and you being part of it," Sauerbrun said. "It's an honor to be here and it was just such an extreme honor to play in the Super Bowl. It's just an incredible experience."
Rucker, playing in his first Pro Bowl after finishing fourth in the NFC with 12 sacks, echoed Sauerbrun's sentiments.
"It's awesome being here," Rucker said after signing autographs for some of the fans that came out to watch the practice. "This has been a great year for me. For us as a team and what we've done football-wise and then to be able to come out here, it's just been real enjoyable."
For Rucker, who said the one thing he doesn't want to miss while in Hawaii is a trip to Pearl Harbor to see the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, the sting of losing to the Patriots is still there. While it is somewhat numbed by knowing how well the Panthers played, it is something that Rucker will take with him into the offseason.
"It was a good season until the final outcome," Rucker said. "That's the only thing that you would like to see a little different. It's just something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth and you know next time that you don't want to be the team walking off with your head down. The next step is to win the game. We have one thing left and we'll just keep going after it."
For his part, Sauerbrun had nothing but positives to take away from a campaign that saw the Panthers come up just short of the Lombardi Trophy two seasons removed from finishing 1-15.
"It was a dream season," Sauerbrun said. "We couldn't have asked for any more out of how our players played, even though we lost.
"Our coaches told us after the Super Bowl, 'You guys have nothing to be ashamed of and should hold your heads high. Every one of you should be as proud as you've ever been and that's the way you should carry yourself.'"
In today's parity-driven NFL, a trip to the Super Bowl means next to nothing the following season. In fact, the previous four Super Bowl participants (Patriots, Rams, Buccaneers and Raiders) all failed to make the playoffs the following season.
But with a relatively young roster that should continue to improve, the Panthers can follow the advice of their coaches and carry their heads high into the offseason knowing that the Super Bowl will be their ultimate goal next season.
"All our key players are locked up -- we're not going to lose anybody. We're only going to get better," said Sauerbrun.
Any better than this season means that Sauerbrun, Rucker and Jenkins will be in a parade in Charlotte the Tuesday after the Super Bowl and not in Hawaii. And as happy as they are to be here, that's a trade they'd make.
Peter Lawrence-Riddell is the NFL editor for ESPN.com