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Faith and Sports

Melanie Few is celebrating 20 years of her Super Bowl Gospel Celebration

Atlanta marketing exec is the force behind the Super Bowl’s only official faith-based event

A look at the intersection of sports, faith and religion

Melanie Few is a marketing executive with a huge vision — for 20 years, she has merged faith and football by producing the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration, which brings together some of the biggest names in football, church, hip-hop, rhythm and blues, and film.

“Faith and football are a natural combination,” Few said. “When you look at other sports, football players are much more vocal about their faith. I have learned that the culture of football is that of family and it is values-driven. Even when they are in Pop Warner, players are brought up doing team prayer and chanting words of affirmation before games. They are brought up that way, and it may be why football is so faith-oriented.”

The sold-out 20th anniversary event will be held at Atlanta Symphony Hall on Jan. 31. It will air on BET on Feb. 2, the day before the game. Few is an Atlanta native, so it is extra special that the 2019 Super Bowl will be in her hometown. She is a member of New Hope African Methodist Episcopal Church in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood.

“For Super Bowl 2019, we are going to celebrate the 20 years and go down memory lane with clips and reflections from artists and players,” Few said. “We are going to do some never-seen-before collaborations. We are going to do it in a way that celebrates the 20 years of bringing faith and football together.”

Before starting the gospel event, Few had attended a number of Super Bowls as a fan with friends and professional acquaintances. It dawned on her that of the many events held leading up to the big game, not one of them was faith-based. This was something that she believed needed to change.

She pitched the idea of a nonprofit Super Bowl week gospel concert for seven years before she received support.

“Gene Upshaw, former NFL player and former head of the NFL Players Association, was interested. But he issued a challenge,” Few said. “He said if I could get Gladys Knight to perform, then he would underwrite it. He underestimated me. … He didn’t know that, if necessary, Gladys and I would ride in on the midnight train together to make this show happen.”

That was in 1998.

The first Super Bowl Gospel Celebration was held the next year, featuring Knight, powerhouse gospel music group Fred Hammond & Radical for Christ, and the duo Dawkins & Dawkins. In 2001, the event was sanctioned by the NFL and became the organization’s only official faith-based event.

“I do the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration because it is a call on my life,” she said. “I love creating an opportunity to bring together powerful gospel music with amazing testimonies from football players, and that is the reason I do it and that is the reason that I keep it as a not-for-profit production.”

BET began broadcasting the event in 2015. According to Nielsen, it was the highest gospel/religious program on broadcast television for the 2017-18 period.

From left to right: Tye Tribbett; Erica Campbell; Snoop Dogg; Connie Orlando, EVP/head of programming at BET; and Melanie Few, founder of the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration, at BET Presents 19th Annual Super Bowl Gospel Celebration at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Feb. 1.

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for BET

At the 2018 event, Snoop Dogg delivered the first televised performance of music from his gospel album Snoop Dogg Presents Bible of Love. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was honored with the Faith in Action Award, which is given to players who show their faith through their actions year-round. Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald received the Lifetime Achievement Award for service to football and the NFL. Over the past two decades, the Lifetime Achievement Award has been handed out five times. The other recipients were Troy Vincent, Ray Lewis, Tony Dungy and Tim Brown.

Super Bowl Gospel Celebration hosts have included pastor John Gray, talk show host Wendy Williams, television personality A.J. Calloway and actors Boris Kodjoe, Tichina Arnold and Yvonne Orji. Past musical performers have included Erica Campbell, Fantasia, Faith Evans, Kirk Franklin, Tye Tribbett, Jekalyn Carr, Donnie McClurkin, Natalie Grant, CeCe Winans, The Clark Sisters and Patti LaBelle.

LaBelle inspired the formation of what has become an event favorite, the NFL Players Choir, comprising current and former NFL players. “The choir started in 2008,” Few said. “The year prior, when Patti LaBelle was onstage, she said, ‘Y’all got all of these good-looking men. I wonder if any of them can sing.’ ”

The members of the NFL Players Choir all come to it by referral. The guys in the choir refer teammates who they know are good singers. Currently, there are about 40 men who perform at the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration. The group has been invited to do other events, which typically involve a scaled-down version with 10 to 15 men.

Aside from her role as founder and executive producer of the Super Bowl event, Few is the president of Results Marketing & Media, an “urban faith” and marketing entertainment agency based in Atlanta. Few and Results Marketing & Media worked with BET’s Black Girls Rock! awards show and the Women of Faith tour.

“For me, my faith has supported me altogether as an entrepreneur, and especially with this endeavor. If I were not a woman of faith, I could not and would not have made it this far.”

She believes there is no way she would have been able to maintain producing the event year after year without “a rock-steady and rock-solid relationship with God.” That and the values and support of her parents sustain her.

“In my mind, I had the best parents in the universe,” Few said. “They weren’t rich people, but they sacrificed everything for my sister and me. My mother was alive when I first started producing the event. She was there the first few years, and when I was stressing over something she would always tell me to get some sleep. She would say that God will give me the resources and the people that I needed. ‘If you are saying that God gave this to you, you can do it!’ I still feel my mother’s spirit and hear her voice telling me that.”

Few is the caretaker for her 91-year-old father, Moses Few, who is an avid football fan.

“He is a fan on every level: high school, college and professional. He is a huge Atlanta Falcons fan. I don’t know if it is the culture of Atlanta, but we just rock out with the Falcons whether they win or lose.”

Her father “was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. They went to Morehouse together, and they are both Alphas,” she said. “He comes from a history of honorable men and respects men in the NFL who model that. … He likes smart football players who are well-rounded in their faith.”

Kymberlee Norsworthy is an award-winning publicist and founder of This Gospel Life (www.thisgospellife.com). Her two obsessions are Cuban coffee and her Russian blue, ASPCA adopted cat, Corduroy