JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Links to places of worship are posted on the Web site of the Super Bowl Host Committee (search). Literature reading "Get on the Winning Team with Jesus" is passed out to football fans on the streets. Instead of partying with Playboy bunnies and hitting nightclubs, several NFL players professed their faith at churches.
In a town often called the buckle on the Bible belt, churches are taking unprecedented opportunities to get the gospel out to the 100,000 people in town for Sunday's big game.
Just a year after Janet Jackson's (search) "wardrobe malfunction" at the last Super Bowl, religion has moved into locker rooms, and the NFL is giving its blessing to faith-based celebrations, such as concerts featuring Patti LaBelle and other events organized by ministries.
"You are in town for the Super Bowl, but you are here because of God," Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El (search) told the crowd at Friday night's Super Bowl Gospel Celebration concert.
The marriage of football and faith has created a religious fervor unmatched in the River City since a four-day Billy Graham Crusade (search) brought a quarter of a million people to Alltel Stadium, site of this Super Bowl, in November 2000.
"Football gives me a platform," said Patriots tight end Ben Watson, who played in one game this season before a knee injury ended his rookie campaign. "There are people who would listen to me because I play the game of football. It gives me an incredible platform to influence people good or bad."
Added Oakland Raiders tight end Roland Williams: "Football is just something I do. I am definitely focused on a personal relationship with God."
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy called it the most religiously oriented Super Bowl venue ever and said the Jacksonville Host Committee proposed faith-based activities "to reflect the spirit of the community."
However, the NFL has been strict in deciding which activities to endorse.
"They had to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, and not promote one faith over another, in an environment where everyone would be comfortable," McCarthy said.
The Rev. Tom Bary, pastor of Neptune Baptist Church, said the Super Bowl is a vehicle for his congregation to reach the masses. Members of his church volunteered for duty in the pregame and halftime shows, worked at the airport as greeters, and helped out at the NFL Experience — an interactive theme park.
"It's a great way to build bridges that can have eternal consequences," said Bary, 48, who estimated that about a tenth of the 1,600 members of his congregation were involved in Super Bowl activities.
Cold drizzle and biting wind during the week were not enough to drive Junior Lofton from downtown Jacksonville, where he handed out religious tracts reading "Get on the Winning Team with Jesus" to Super Bowl partiers roaming the streets, many with beers and mixed drinks in hand.
Lofton, 63, evangelism chairman for the Orange Heights Baptist Church, said he was taking the word of God to the masses.
"We've got to go out among the whores and alcoholics. The fields are ripe for harvest," he said.
The NFL's McCarthy said Super Bowl officials are hoping for divine intervention with the weather, which improved Friday after two days of rain and chilly temperatures. Meteorologists said temperatures would be ideal for Sunday evening's kickoff, with a temperature around 60 degrees, and the sky would be mostly clear.
"The biggest faith-based initiative is hoping it won't rain," McCarthy quipped.