The road to Kitten Bowl III paved with unspeakable cuteness

Kittens play on a mini football field during the taping of "Kitten Bowl III," on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015, in New York. The program will be broadcast on The Hallmark Channel on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Leanne Italie)

NEW YORK (AP) — How do you wrangle a bunch of furry paw-thletes on a kitten-scale football field? With a tiny little ball on a string dangling from a great big TV camera.

The Hallmark Channel, with help from host Beth Stern and Feline Football League Commissioner Boomer Esiason, taped Kitten Bowl III on Wednesday, ahead of broadcast on Su-purr Bowl Sunday, otherwise known as Feb. 7.

And the best part: The nearly 100 feisty, four-legged players, all rescues, will find homes well before game day thanks to North Shore Animal League America.

These goal posts were scratch-worthy, and invited guests got to lob cat toys onto the field to keep the action moving. No Gatorade on the sidelines, just a couple of well-frequented water bowls and litter boxes — and plenty of human spotters to redirect escapees trying to jump off the elevated set.

Stern, an animal welfare advocate, North Shore Animal League spokeswoman and wife of Howard Stern, is a cat mama herself with Howard’s enthusiastic assistance. He gets to name new cat pets (they’ve got six) and the many rescues the two foster, including a handful of adorable furballs his wife planned to bring home from Wednesday’s taping.

“He helps me socialize the kittens. He plays with them. They crawl in his hair,” Stern said. “I mean, what’s a better cat toy than Howard’s hair?”

Esiason, on the other hand, an NFL most valuable player and four-time Pro Bowl quarterback, is a dog person in real life. He’s got two, but his heart is gold for the felines. This is his second Kitten Bowl, with a twist this year: He fielded a team of his own — Boomer’s Bobcats — in addition to performing his duties as commissioner.

“I sat with my team and I said, ‘Look guys, I need you to go out there, play with cuteness and cuddliness. I want you to be as furry as you possibly can. I want to hear a lot of meows. I want to see a lot of touchdowns. I want to see a lot of climbing on the uprights,'” Esiason said.

So what are the Vegas odds on the Bobcats?

“Right now we’re a 2-to-1 favorite,” Esiason joked, denying any influence peddling. “I’m above all of that.”

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