Over its 25 years of existence, one thing is clear about Athletes in Action's annual Super Bowl Breakfast: God has divinely orchestrated each event.
The very nature of the breakfast, created in 1988 as an outreach to business executives in the Super Bowl host city, means some logistical challenges for the humans who plan the event from AIA headquarters in Xenia, Ohio. Every year brings a new city, a new venue, a new steering committee, new sponsors and a new award winner…one that isn't known until about four weeks before the event.
Still, the massive undertaking comes together every February for one reason: God still seeks to move among the business community.
"Every year, God puts together the program the audience needs to hear," says Terry Bortz, AIA Global Media Director and the key organizer of the breakfast, which she calls "an awards program with an inspirational message."
The breakfast is a major production: around 2,000 are expected to attend annually, though last year's event in Dallas drew a sell-out crowd of 2,400. This year's event moves to the Midwest as Indianapolis hosts the big game. The breakfast is slated for Feb. 4.
The highlight of the breakfast is the presentation of the Bart Starr Award, given to the National Football League player who best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community. Named for the Hall of Famer and MVP of Super Bowls I and II, the award is presented each year by Starr himself and is a big draw to the event.
"He has been at every one of the breakfasts, and he loves it," Bortz says. "He really loves these guys who win the award and what they stand for."
Each NFL team nominates a player for the award and the top 10 are voted on by all the players. The winner speaks at the event as well, and a keynote speaker is also featured, along with highlights, humor and interviews with current and former NFL players – a big draw for the executive audience.
While the current breakfast may be a little more polished than the first event in 1988, the spirit and format has remained much the same. The first breakfast was actually the brainchild of the AIA basketball team, which had just been relocated from Canada to San Diego. Athletes in Action in Canada had been doing a breakfast for the Grey Cup – similar to the American Super Bowl – and the team coaches wondered if the same type event could be replicated in San Diego, set to host the Super Bowl that next winter.
"We were just these basketball guys, and we didn't know what to do or how it was going to happen at all," recalls Dave Lower, then an assistant coach with the team who now coordinates the AIA's Legends of the Hardwood, All-Star Breakfast and Night of Champions events.
A San Diego businessman encouraged the focus on executives, and the group used connections to secure Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs as the keynote speaker three months in advance. For the audio-visual portion of the breakfast, in which highlights of past games are shown, Lower says the group secured a local junior high minister to piece together video using two VCRs. When Gibbs ended up taking his team to the big game that year, the breakfast drew a sell-out crowd and a ringing endorsement from the coach himself.
"As we were leaving with Coach Gibbs, he said, 'This was a good thing. This is the type of thing I want to be a part of,'" recalls Lower. "Because we pursued it, God was gracious and it all worked out with the speakers and the decisions made that day."
The next year, the event was handed over to the AIA headquarters office to plan and, a few years later, the organization got approval from the NFL to be one of only 10 sanctioned Super Bowl events.
While technology over the last few decades has made the breakfast a more professional, polished production, Bortz says the stories she hears after each event prove that God is ultimately in control.
One of those instances was at the breakfast in Miami in 2010. Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy was slated as keynote and told Bortz he wanted to speak about mentoring and promote his new book on the topic. He mentioned that he had been mentoring Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick and wondered if Vick would join him on the program. He arranged it, and Bortz said the two really connected with the audience.
"Michael was humble and honest, and it was great," she says. Later, a local pastor from her steering committee called to tell her he had brought a table of inmates from the church's prison ministry to the breakfast – all in street clothes – and they had particularly been touched by the message of redemption and forgiveness.
The breakfast's high point comes in the testimony time that includes an invitation to pray and receive Christ. Comment cards placed at every seat provide feedback for guests about the event itself as well as any spiritual decisions they might have made. And it happens often.
"We are always hearing stories about how God is working through this breakfast," Bortz says, noting that she involves local churches in each host city to help follow up with guests who might want more information about a relationship with God or a church home or a decision they made.
Bortz said most of the heavy legwork is done in the summer and fall before the NFL season really gets underway. She leaves a few holes in the program on purpose until the teams are decided for the Super Bowl in an effort to tie in with players or coaches of those teams, even if it means doing so at the last minute.
For the past two years, the Armed Forces Network has broadcast the breakfast to service personnel and families in 175 countries.
This year's Super Bowl Breakfast will be held on Feb. 4, 2012, at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis. For more information, please call 800-416-9472 or visit www.superbowlbreakfast.com.