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Fundraiser sees game as Gospel platform

TAMPA (BP)–While fans gear up for Sunday’s Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Ken Elder is already planning for Super Bowl XLIV in Miami for next year.

Although the economy is in the ditch, Elder told Baptist Press he was able to raise the $7 million towards Tampa’s hosting of the big game — with God’s help, that is. He is corporate marketing director of this year’s Super Bowl and will serve as the vice president of the 2010 South Florida Super Bowl Host Committee.

“The good news is that we have achieved what we have needed to even in a tough economic time, so the Lord has always been very generous with that and this has been probably the toughest,” Elder said in an interview at Raymond James Stadium, site of the 2009 Super Bowl.

Baptized at Carrollwood Baptist Church in Tampa when he and his wife and two sons moved to Tampa for him to prepare for the 2001 Super Bowl, Elder also served the Super Bowl host committee as corporate marketing director in 2001 and 2007.

Straddling Super Bowls and major cities, Elder has offices in stadiums in Tampa and Miami. “I just have to remember which one I’m in,” he joked.

The Super Bowl is no joking matter to Elder, however. He takes his job seriously, and when people question whether or not God cares who wins the Super Bowl, the avid sports fan and committed Christian says it’s just one more way to reach people with the Gospel.

“I truly believe that it is a platform for those who play the game to show, ‘Hey, there’s a lot more to me than this; there’s a lot more to life than this,’ Elder said. “That’s the great thing about it and it just gives them the platform to do it.”

Elder said it’s common for people to assume ballplayers who earn millions are happy just as they are.

“We have got to realize the Bible is very clear about that; there’s a God-shaped hole and we’ve got to be there to share the message of what can fill that,” Elder said.

Citing the widespread publicity University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow has received for his Christian message as an example of an increased interest in faith in sports, Elder said he has but one thing to say, “Thank you, Lord.”

A graduate of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton who grew up just an hour from Pittsburgh, Pa., Elder went on to get his graduate degree in sports management in the late 1980s from St. Thomas University in Miami. At 27 and at Georgia State, his then-girlfriend, Trisha, made a comment during an argument that started him thinking.

“‘Sometimes I don’t think you’re right,'” Elder recalled his future wife telling him, “And I said, ‘What do you mean, I’m not right, of course I’m right,’ and she says, ‘No, right with God,’ and for some reason, just those words at that period of time, the Lord used them to affect me in a way they never had before.”

Elder was introduced to someone in the Baptist Student Union on campus who shared the Gospel with him and he turned his life over to Christ.

“I accepted the Lord and then my life has certainly changed since then,” Elder said.

About the same time, Elder, whose parents were divorced but remained friends, said he was both challenged and blessed by a blossoming relationship with the father he saw only two to three times a year.

“My dad wasn’t a believer even though my grandmother was,” Elder recalled quietly, eyes filling with tears. “For years I’d shared with him and shared with him. He’d had some struggles and things that kind of made it a little tough for him.”

The two men spent time together in Florida soon after the family relocated there to work on Super Bowl 2001, Elder said, and for the first time in 20 years, he remembers having some “great times.”

In 2006, despite the fact his father’s health began to deteriorate, Elder said he was able to take him to Super Bowl XL to see his hometown team, “his beloved Steelers,” become the world champions. It was a time Elder will never forget, and he treasures a photo of him, his father and his brother, in the stands.

Months later, as he prepared his family for what he knew would probably be a final visit, Elder received a phone call from his father. “‘He said, I got a job for you when you come here,’ Elder said from memory. “I said, ‘What dad?’ He said, ‘I want you to baptize me.'”

As his father’s health had continued to deteriorate, Elder said he had struggled with the idea of standing at his funeral and knowing there was “no hope” of ever seeing him again if he was not a believer. Feeling sorry for himself, he asked for a miracle.

“Sure enough God took care of that in the last month of his life,” Elder said, and even though his father shared his regret that he hadn’t made a decision earlier in his life, the younger man said the older man, at 69, still leaves behind a legacy that involves grace, forgiveness and redemption — the Gospel story.

He remembers telling his father, the guy his sons will always remember as “Pap,” “You’ve always been a big sports fan, so you definitely waited until overtime.”

The lesson? Don’t give up, Elder said. “There’s hope. As believers when we share our faith, we want the results to be in our hand, and they’re not. You don’t know what’s happening inside of somebody.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper (www.floridabaptistwitness.com) and is in Tampa, Fla., covering activities leading up to Sunday’s Super Bowl.

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