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Super Bowl opens up to people of faith

EDITORS’ NOTE: Art Stricklin, an award-winning Christian journalist and regular contributor to Baptist Press, will be reporting from the site of Super Bowl XXXIX with exclusive coverage on the spiritual side of the Super Bowl.

JACKSONVILLE. Fla. (BP)–After last year’s internationally televised halftime disaster turned the Super Bowl into R-rated fare, National Football League officials have transformed this year’s weeklong event into one of the most family friendly ever.

While there will be plenty of hard hits and testy words exchanged between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX, it will be preceded by a week that includes prayer services, athlete testimonies and outreach in Jacksonville, Fla.

“There is an unprecedented level of faith-based activity involved with the Super Bowl this year,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an interview with Baptist Press.

“What’s going on this year is what’s going on in the community here, and the local host committee was very quick to identify that at an early stage and spotlight it.”

Among the activities that already have taken place: a Super March for Jesus, which drew several thousand people for a prayer walk Saturday to the site of this Sunday’s Super Bowl match-up, Alltel Stadium. Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton officially declared it “Super March for Jesus Day.”

The first official Super Bowl event was held Sunday afternoon when more than 1,000 people turned out for the Bridges of Peace Interfaith Experience, a prayer service and statement of Christian unity in the community, which is the home of numerous congregations, large and small. Host committee head Michael Kelly has spoken at several area churches and was a featured part of Sunday’s Interfaith gathering, publicly asking for prayers for a successful and uplifting week.

Also planned for this week as officially sanctioned NFL events are the sixth annual Super Bowl Gospel Concert at a local Baptist church; a banquet honoring longtime television announcer Pat Summerall, a member of First Baptist Church in Euless, Texas; and the annual Athletes in Action breakfast to honor Christian NFL athletes.

After last year’s halftime show offended millions nationwide and prompted a Federal Communications Commission fine against CBS, a chagrined NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue went before a U.S. congressional committee to declare, “We will change our policies, our people and our processes.”

McCarthy said many of the changes for Jacksonville, including firing MTV as the halftime producer and gaining strict veto power over all entertainment activities, were in line with what the commissioner promised after last year’s raunchy halftime spectacle overshadowed one of the Super Bowl’s better contests.

“We’ve certainly made changes to our halftime and it was set up for what we are doing here at Jacksonville,” McCarthy said.

Newly hired NFL marketing chief Phil Guarascio even went so far as to proclaim to USA Today, “We’re not walking away from entertainment. We’re walking away from gratuitousness.”

Jacksonville Baptist Association director of church and community ministry David Garrett said last year’s halftime debacle in Houston gave impetus to the association’s efforts for this year’s event, because now the focus is on “doing the right thing.”

Jacksonville Host Committee director of volunteers Solona Johnson said it was important for the Super Bowl to spotlight the many faith groups in the area.

“There are a lot of faith-based ministries here in Jacksonville and we wanted to represent that,” she said. “We feel there is a place for every person and every mission at the Super Bowl.”

To that end, the Host Committee included Baptist pastor Fredrick Newbill on its board of directors, the only pastor included; established a special category on its official Super Bowl website for faith-based activities; and included a large number of local houses of worship and their weekly activities.

They hired two Baptist college interns to work on the committee and turned to local Baptist college students and volunteers to run a myriad of activities from stuffing seat cushions for Super Bowl ticket holders to working with entertainer Paul McCartney at halftime.

“When I started doing this nine years ago I dreamed of a day that Baptist kids would be at the 50-yard-line at the Super Bowl and that’s what’s going to happen this year,” said Tim Knopps, a sport ministry consultant and Oklahoma evangelist. “To have a special faith-based site on the official Super Bowl website is incredible.”

Among the events Knopps has helped coordinate was getting 250 Baptist college students to spend 16 hours over a weekend to stuff and place 80,000 seat cushions which will go to ticket holders this Sunday. He was also responsible for organizing Baptist students to work as stage hands to set up and take down the stage and props used during the Super Bowl performance with McCartney and overseeing a massive Convoy of Hope outreach set for Saturday which will feed 20,000 people.

He also helped produce 100,000 Player Witness Cards featuring former Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell and helped recruit sports merchandising executive Jon Brovold who has 14 officially licensed Super Bowl merchandise booths near the stadium and will be passing out 20,000 Gospel tracts with his expected $2 million dollars worth of sales this weekend.

McCarthy said the NFL has no problem with the increased faith-based activity as long it’s open to all, noting, “It should be inclusive and open to a wide variety of people.”

With tens of thousands of visitors expected to swamp the north Florida coastal region this week, a wide variety of people, religious, non-religious and those seeking more truth than what is on the football field Sunday is just what local Super Bowl planners are expecting and hoping to see.

    About the Author

  • Art Stricklin