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Ex-Gators lineman ascends to new pulpit

His says his youth as a ''big sinner'' and his ministry to farm workers and prisoners prepared him for a senior pastor post.

By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 7, 2003

[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Bill Gunter, who grew up in Bradenton, is the new senior pastor at River Ridge Presbyterian Church in New Port Richey.
NEW PORT RICHEY -- Bill Gunter's direction in life has been pushed one way by drugs and bad behavior and another by offensive linemen around the Southeastern Conference.

In the middle of those two is a fateful meeting with a walk-on football player at the University of Florida who read Scriptures to him during a dinner that changed his life.

Gunter went from delinquent high school kid, to Gators defensive lineman, to ministering to prison inmates and migrant farm workers, back to the Gators, to a church in Dallas, and now to his latest challenge: senior pastor at River Ridge Presbyterian Church of the Presbyterian Church in America.

"That's how things have led in my life," Gunter said Monday in his new office. "It's easy to go to people and talk to them because I've been there."

And, he added with a lighthearted poke at his own past: "It's one of the benefits of being a big sinner."

Gunter, 32, said his life experiences have helped him to talk to people. He's married, and has advice for newlyweds. He has two children, so he can talk to parents. He has seen a range of problems, working with the poor and the rich.

And he's the first to admit he isn't perfect.

Growing up in Bradenton, Gunter said, about the only trouble he didn't end up in was jail. While in high school, he did drugs, stayed out late and fought with his father.

But he could play football. A defensive lineman, he was highly sought after by the University of Miami and the University of Florida.

When he got to Gainesville in 1988, Gunter said, he was "really miserable because of the way I lived." He was still wild and still behaved badly.

That was, until he had dinner with a walk-on player, a Christian, whose family took in Gunter and read him Scriptures.

"That was the night I changed my mind forever," he said. "It just liberated my life."

His first attempts at ministering to fellow students were a little rough. Some of his friends and teammates who had seen his wild side thought he was joking.

All doubt was erased when he left the Gators in 1990 to minister to migrant farm workers in the area.

"You can't imagine how these people live," he told a Times sportswriter at the time. "A million flies around the table. They sleep on the floors. They wash their clothes with a garden hose and a brick. But they react in such a way when you come and show them you care. They see God in your acts."

After a year, Gunter came back to the Gators and back to his scholarship so he could finish school. Some of his teammates would talk to him about God, sometimes at odd places. When Gunter and another player were getting their ankles taped one day, the player asked Gunter how to be saved.

A former Gator -- Gunter wouldn't reveal his name, saying it was a private matter -- took some of his NFL millions and sent Gunter to seminary in Orlando after he graduated from UF in 1994. From there, Gunter went to Dallas.

Now, Gunter has come back to be closer to home.

He was given the opportunity to be senior pastor at River Ridge, he said. "God opened this door."

Gunter and his wife, Heather, his 11-year old son, Joshua, and his 7-year old daughter, Taylor, arrived in west Pasco on Dec. 21. Bill Gunter gave the Christmas services, and has been unpacking and settling in since.

But anyone looking around River Ridge Presbyterian Church for a man who would look like a defensive lineman, stop. Gunter no longer is the hulking 280-pound running back nightmare. Although still looking very much like an athlete, Gunter looks more like a big quarterback, or little linebacker.

And his congregation might hear a story or two about his journey to the ministry.

"It definitely enriches your ability to communicate," Gunter said. "You minister to all.

"It's amazing how things in life prepare you for where you are."

-- Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is .

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