David Garrett is trying to tie the words “Hail Mary” to football in a whole new way.

With next Sunday’s Super Bowl taking place in his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., Garrett has seemingly decided to devote this week to needlessly intertwining sports and religion. Head of the Jacksonville Baptist Association’s Super Bowl Ministry, Garrett orchestrated this weekend’s Super March for Jesus – a mile-long prayer walk from the Jacksonville courthouse to Alltel Stadium. Frankly, I’d be surprised if it ended without the whole crowd walking around the stadium seven times blowing trumpets, waiting for the walls to fall.

Garrett says he just wants his hometown to make a good impression. The city has repainted its Main Street Bridge for the first time since lead-based paint seemed like a good idea. Some pretty new neon lights adorn the top of the bridge’s support structure, changing colors at night. Even the Confederate memorial statue outside city hall received a good cleaning.

But all that wasn’t enough for Garrett.

“When they look at Jacksonville, I want them to see loving people who care about their city,” he said. “I want them to see Jesus.”

Granted, local culture often flavors pre-Super Bowl festivities. It’s like Mardi Gras comes one month early every time New Orleans hosts one of its record nine Super Bowls.

Granted, the otherwise bland flavor of Jacksonville is heavily seasoned by its religious identity. Jacksonville is home base for the Florida Baptist Convention. The Episcopalian mayor just opened an office of faith-based initiatives. Radio and television news personalities are known for letting their religious convictions slip out and the local daily paper prints Bible quotations on its editorial page.

Still, some things just don’t mix.

Or shouldn’t be forced to.

David Burton, director for evangelism for the Florida Baptist Convention, calls Jacksonville “blessed.” He also added that when “you go to some other cities in the nation where maybe the Super Bowl is being played, it seems like darkness, like the evidence of Satan is heavy there.”

I’m pretty sure it’s just the commentary of Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long that makes it seem that way.

But seriously, the place of religion in modern sporting events should be kept as small as possible. Sure, it worked out all right for the ancient Greeks that their games should honor their gods. But the Super Bowl isn’t Athens versus Sparta. It’s the two best teams in the League battling it out for bragging rights – and nothing more.

To mitigate the ire of the Christian right, let me clarify. With certain exceptions, I don’t have a problem with individual players – or even whole teams – expressing their religious beliefs on or off the field.

Hoya sports define Georgetown University as much as its Catholic heritage does. Likewise, the Jesuit ideal of the education of the entire person places a strong emphasis on athletics. But we don’t play Boston College or Notre Dame with the intent of proving we’re the better Catholic school; nor would we play Brigham Young or Brandeis to prove Catholicism is a better religion.

This isn’t the Crusades.

If Sandy Koufax preferred to strictly observe Yom Kippur rather than pitch in the 1965 World Series, that’s his decision; If Vince Lombardi’s teams don’t mind joining him for Catholic mass every Sunday, then I don’t mind either.

Even the late, great “Minister of Defense,” Reggie White – who was often criticized for evangelizing – performed a great amount of charity work. Whether he wants to do it in the name of God, Allah, Zeus or just because he’s a nice guy, the effect is the same.

In the wake of the recent tsunami, many sports teams and individual athletes have donated money to aid the crisis victims in Southeast Asia.

Still, Garrett – and others, it seems, like the thousands who took part in Saturday’s Super March for Jesus – can’t see that the good inherent in sports doesn’t need to have a name or a sect or a creed attached to it.

The NFL has sanctioned some religious events this week, including the Convoy of Hope, Athletes in Action breakfast and the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration, but these events are supposed to be interdenominational and inclusive. Still, thanks largely to the efforts of Garrett, “Pray Hard” and “Fired Up for Jesus” T-shirts hung on a bulletin board, from which they could be bought for $10.

On their way in to Sunday’s game, I want fans to see Eagles and Patriots T-shirts, jerseys and hats. If they choose to see Jesus – or Muhammad, or Gandhi – in a Tom Brady jersey, that’s their business. “Pray Hard” may well become the motto of Eagles fans over the next few days, but I don’t think that’s what David Garrett had in mind selling those shirts.

The Super Bowl is not inherently a religious event. Why make it one?

If Mama McNabb wants to stuff chicken noodle soup down the throats of her team before the Super Bowl, that’s fine with me. As long as nobody’s trying to stuff religion down mine.

Can I get an Amen?

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