Players & coaches gather for football & the Gospel
But the University of Tennessee's signature song is how the evening began at Red Bank Baptist Church in Chattanooga where an energetic crowd -- including a large number of football players and coaches from the local area -- came together for "A Night of Orange and White."
The July 27 event, which featured former Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer, was among a number of football-themed evangelism programs that have taken place across Tennessee and parts of Alabama.
Craig Whitt, associate pastor of discipleship at Second Baptist Church in Clinton, Tenn., and Sam McElroy, a minister to adults at Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., have served as leaders of this "faith and football" ministry for the past several years.
The idea is to bring together football players, coaches and fans for a night of fellowship and to hear the plan of salvation.
"One of the things that Sam and I enjoy most is that we get to see these young guys come [to church]," Whitt said, "because a lot of them don't go to church anywhere.
"With this, they're going to have a great time on a church campus, they're going to hear the Gospel and they're going to have a great team-building opportunity," he said. "That's really the vision behind it."
In addition to Chattanooga, other programs have been held this summer at Second Baptist Church in Union City, Second Baptist in Clinton and First Baptist in Cookeville.
In many cases, local football players were able to attend the gatherings for free, thanks to sponsorships provided by local churches, the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board or other organizations.
Each event typically begins with the special guest addressing the crowd and concludes with a presentation of the Gospel and an invitation normally given by the host church's pastor.
"It's a great outreach," Whitt said. "It's a chance for the church to work together as a body and to get these [players] into the church and make a difference in their lives."
Numerous well-known coaches and athletes have been the featured guests, including Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, who spoke at Second Baptist in Union City in July.
Other featured guests in the past have included coaching legends Bobby and Tommy Bowden, former UT star Inky Johnson and, from the baseball realm, John Smoltz.
"The [attendees] are coming to hear a player or a coach -- that's the draw," said Steve Pearson, the Tennessee mission board's evangelism specialist, "but at each of these events, every one of these coaches/players will talk about their story and give their testimony."
As McElroy puts it, "It's more than football. It's about seeing and hearing the personal side of it."
During an interview prior to the Chattanooga gathering, Fulmer said he uses these opportunities as a platform to talk about the importance of living by Christian principles.
"We are going to have a bunch of kids in here tonight that are at an age where they can be easily influenced," said Fulmer, who now serves as the special adviser to the president at the University of Tennessee, "and if they can get the right kind of guidance, then when they have a decision to make, they can make the right one."
The ministry is having an impact. Pearson estimated there were more than 1,000 attendees at the Union City event, including roughly 700 football players, and said he "counted 45 football players who stood up [during the invitation] to say, 'I am going to follow Christ.'"
At the program in Clinton, an estimated 800 attended, including 500 football players and coaches, and roughly 40 first-time professions of faith were recorded.
The event at Red Bank Baptist began with Fulmer answering a series of questions from McElroy and concluded with a message from the church's senior pastor Sam Greer. There were 32 first-time professions of faith during the night.
"We use this as an opportunity to not only reach out to our community, but specifically, targeting middle school and high school athletes," said Josh Lancaster, senior associate pastor at Red Bank., said on July 27.
"Tonight, we have well over 300 players and coaches from 10 different area schools that we're investing in. And they're coming in [for] free. Our event sponsors and our church paid for them to be a part of this for free because we wanted them to have the opportunity to hear the Gospel."
While the program at Red Bank carried a Tennessee football theme, the event at Second Baptist in Clinton was oriented toward Alabama fans. It featured former Alabama and NFL quarterback Brodie Croyle and his dad, John Croyle, who played for the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant.
Whitt said he has been impressed with the coaches and athletes who have spoken out about their relationships with Christ through this ministry.
"For them to be willing to come and share their faith, and share what Christ is currently doing in their lives -- and has done in the past -- that takes a lot," he said. "These guys are in the spotlight, and for them to take a stand, it's an awesome thing."