TARPON SPRINGS — For Metropolitan Nikitas Lulias, it's something he has understood for as long as he can remember.
Things happen because of God's will and it's that will that governs and directs lives.
And that's how the 54-year-old metropolitan in the Greek Orthodox church explains why he was the one to emerge from the soul-chilling waters of Spring Bayou in 1974 clutching the coveted cross.
"There are moments in our lives that leave long-lasting impressions and this is one of them," His Eminence Lulias said. "You have to search in your heart for the deeper meaning.
"It's not just a by-chance experience. It's something that helps mold your life. It helps you on your path for meaning and understanding. You mold your character through that."
On Wednesday, nearly 70 Greek Orthodox Christian boys ages 16 to 18 will take that plunge and search the murky waters of Spring Bayou for the symbol that brings additional blessings from the Lord.
The ritual, which represents Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan, is the culmination of a religious service that begins at 8 a.m. at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
As a prelude to Wednesday's festivities, the St. Petersburg Times is taking a look back at divers who grabbed the elusive cross from each of the last five decades.
Lulias was born and raised in Tarpon Springs. The year he dived, the first white cross thrown was not initially found so a second gold one was tossed into the water. Lulias snatched the gold one. Manuel Karvounis, a distant cousin, then found the first one, so they were both declared the cross receivers.
"Through the will of God, he (the archbishop) threw it and it fell right into my hand," said Lulias, the director of the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute, Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. "He (Karvounis) is a relative. It's a double blessing and through the grace of God, it has poured out on many people in many ways."
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The year 1967 was Manuel Pondakos' final dive. He was 18, the oldest a boy can be and take the plunge.
There wasn't a magical moment for Pondakos. All he knows is that he took the traditional ride that the year's cross receiver takes while being hoisted on the shoulders of the other divers.
"It was a blessing, but it's a special part of your life that you keep," said Pondakos, 64. "It always stays in your mind and how you engage in your faith, making important decisions, it always stays in the back of your mind. And it's not just a one-year blessing, it's a life blessing. It has nothing do with luck."
After 25 years in law enforcement, Pondakos retired from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in 1997 as director of the Orlando region. He now lives in the Tarpon area, is active at St. Nicholas and serves as this year's chairman of the dive committee.
This year, for the first time, a curriculum was created that divers had to work through before being allowed to participate.
"We try to teach these young men that the waters have been blessed for everyone," Pondakos said. "It's not a competition. You are engaging in part of the religious service that ends at the bayou with the blessing of the cross.
"We tell them that they are part of that service and they all are blessed for being a part of the ceremony whether they catch the cross or not."
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Steve Stavrakis made a movie about the experience. Dubbed The Cross, the Epiphany is a central theme in the 2002 movie that showcases Tarpon Springs' celebration. In 1980, Stavrakis, now a Tarpon Springs attorney, was a part of that celebration. The receiver of that year's cross, he said that he has been very fortunate.
"Being blessed is a state of mind," said Stavrakis, 48. "You can have a little bit and feel blessed and I think that's where I am."
Stavrakis was raised down the street from the bayou and would walk to the water's edge every year to watch the cross-diving ceremony. But when it was his time to dive, he said it was a humbling experience to be in the water with all the boys that he grew up with.
"It was such a spiritual thing," Stavrakis said.
There is no certain method to being the first one to grasp the cross, he said.
"It doesn't matter what boat you are in; if you are a good swimmer, it's the fate of it," Stavrakis said. "Wherever the cross goes, it goes. It hit the water, I dove and it went right in my hand. It was meant to be."
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Thomas Dellis Sr.'s faith remains strong despite the tragedy.
In 1995, his son was the one to grasp the white cross. Two years later, Thomas Dellis Jr. and two of his friends were hit by a car along a dark Georgia road. They were walking to get help for a flat tire. Dellis and Matthew Theodosis, 21, also of Tarpon Springs, were killed. Nicholas Mantzanas was injured.
Dellis was 20 and had been married a year. He was expecting his first child two weeks before his death.
"They say they (cross receivers) have good luck, but I guess it wasn't good luck for my son," said Thomas Dellis Sr. the owner of Limnos Sponge Co. Inc., who said it's still tough to deal with his son's death. "But the cross had nothing to with it. It just happened. My faith is okay."
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The attention was a bit intense for Lucas Louis Pappas. Heralded on that January 2001 day that he received the cross, everyone wanted to be near him.
"People were even asking me to kiss their babies," recalled Pappas, 27.
Once he hit the water, all he could hear was his father's deep voice. He followed it. Then Pappas, who has just started his own bridge painting company with a cousin, said he saw a glow. He reached for it. It was the cross.
"I've always been blessed," said Pappas, who received a master's of business administration in finance from the University of Miami. "God has always had his hand on me."
It's the fact that Epiphany ceremonies are happening around the world that encourages Pappas.
"On that specific day, literally millions of Greek Orthodox Christians are doing the exact same thing," Pappas said. "That's an interesting feeling. Not only are we diving for the cross here, but other Greeks, even in the islands, are doing the same thing."
News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Demorris A. Lee can be reached at daleesptimes.com or (727) 445-4174.