TAMPA — Wesley Tyler stepped atop a plastic stool Friday at the corner of Channelside and Beneficial drives and began to preach at jersey-clad Steelers fans and other passers-by.
"Be very careful crossing the street," warned Tyler, a 32-year-old social worker. "If you get hit by a car, make sure you know where you're going to spend eternity."
Most people barely looked his way. Undeterred, Tyler picked up his stool and moved to a busier spot.
His mission: to share the Gospel with Super Bowl fans.
More than 120 Christians from around the country, Tyler among them, are here this weekend as street evangelists, approaching complete strangers hoping they'll embrace Jesus Christ.
Their hometowns range from Detroit to Mesa, Ariz. They're mainly from Protestant denominations, Baptists to Presbyterians. A group of Messianic Jews is among them.
They include seasoned street preachers and Daniel Armentrout, a first-time street witness and drafter from Clearwater.
The oldest witness is Ted Shelling, 79, from Atlanta, who recently returned from Austria and hopes to reach Super Bowl attendees from other countries.
The youngest: Hamilton Hale, 6, also from Atlanta.
He took his post Friday beside his father at Raymond James Stadium and handed out tracts. He knew well what he would tell people who accepted his offering.
"That I know a lot about Jesus," Hamilton said. "That Jesus died on the cross, and I love him."
Joe Hale, 66, began taking his son to witness at college football games last year.
"So many people that I'll offer a tract, they'll just turn their head," Hale said. "But with him out there, they say 'How can I reject a little boy?' He hits a high percentage."
Occasionally, revelers at Channelside jeered at the street evangelists. Others looked away when approached.
The witnesses pressed on.
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The four-day evangelism effort is the brainchild of Bill Adams, a full-time missionary from Atlanta. Adams, 46, has been witnessing at Super Bowls since 2001. He targets major sporting events including the Olympic Games in Torino, Italy, and the Masters in Augusta, Ga., because of the large crowds at each event.
But the Super Bowl, he said, is special.
"There's this hype, this intensity that comes when you're in a (Super Bowl) city," Adams said. "It's this power to capture people's attention who don't even like football. … It's just a total thrill."
This year, Adams launched a larger evangelism effort under the name Super Bowl Outreach. He organized a conference at the Tampa Bay Baptist Center that mixes evangelism instruction with up to nine hours of street witnessing at locations around the Tampa Bay area.
Adams bought ads on Facebook and Yahoo to promote the event. But he said most participants heard about the outreach effort through word of mouth.
The conference is not a vacation. Each attendee paid $225 to sleep on bunk beds at the Baptist Center or lodge at the Franciscan Center.
They began their day Friday at 7 a.m. with prayer and attended three hours of lectures. They were urged to persevere, support each other and obey the law.
Then they fanned out in witnessing teams, with nine to 15 members each.
Outside the Tampa Convention Center, Donnie Legg walked up to a throng of young men and offered them faux $1 million bills. They featured a picture of Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president of the United States, on the front and the Christian plan of salvation on the back.
Bait taken, Legg focused on Torrey Matlock.
Have you ever told a lie? Have you ever stolen anything? Have you ever lusted? Have you ever taken the Lord's name in vain?
Matlock, a 36-year-old mail clerk from Trenton, N.J., said he had done each of those things.
"Then by your admission, you're a lying, thieving, blasphemous adulterer at heart," Legg, 52, responded.
Displeased with the approach, Matlock's friend Ronald Clark whipped out his iTouch and began to look up Scripture. He then engaged Legg in polite debate, presenting God as compassionate.
Legg, who embraced Matlock before he walked way, said God would judge the unrepentant.
Afterward, Clark noted that Legg "never asked the brother if he was saved, and we are saved."
"That should have been the first question he asked,'' said Clark, 42, a corrections officer from Trenton. " 'Do you know Jesus Christ?' "
Legg and his team moved on. They'll be back on the street today.
Sherri Day can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3405.