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Sparks fly

She survived 20 weeks and 74 million votes to win the biggest U.S.

Sparks fly

She sang with Gladys Knight. He collaborated with Smokey Robinson. And both did so on a live television broadcast watched by millions. So considering the success of American Idol contestants who haven't won, it's hard to call either of this year's finalists, Jordin Sparks or Blake Lewis, losers.

Yet, both fidgeted as they awaited the judgment of millions of viewers in what has become not merely a TV singing competition but a media extravanganza watched regularly by one in 10 Americans. With contestants eliminated through the 20 weeks of Season 6 that began on Jan. 16, only Sparks and Lewis remained by the May 23 finale. The showdown: Male versus female. Hip hop versus soul. Mainstream versus Christian pro-life counterculture.

When the verdict was read, both finalists cheered, but the country's attention was all on 17-year-old Jordin Sparks of Glendale, Ariz., who became American Idol's sixth champion. She covered her face, bear-hugged Lewis, whom she towered over, and tried not to hyperventilate before singing the Idol coronation tune. She should have seen it coming.

Many saw Sparks' victory as a fait accompli. Though only 17, Sparks is a stage veteran. How did she come so far so fast? Much of her experience has been in the service of religious groups and specifically for pro-life groups in Arizona.

Like other child stars, Jordin's story starts with her parents. Phillippi Sparks was a standout football player in 1988 at Glendale Community College outside of Phoenix when he bumped into Jodi Wiedmann, an Arizona State student taking a class at Glendale, at a football scrimmage. He told her she had pretty eyes. When he saw her again on the Glendale campus, he repeated the line. She remembered him and they began dating. On Dec. 22, 1989, Jordin was born. Six months later, Sparks and Wiedmann married.

By that time, Phillippi Sparks was becoming an accomplished defensive back and punt returner at Arizona State, where he transferred after a season of junior college football. In 1992, the New York Giants drafted Sparks in the second round. By his second season he had earned a starting job in the Giants secondary, but an injury forced him to miss 11 games.

When Sparks was on the field, he was a productive cornerback with a knack for interceptions. But off the field and in the locker room, Sparks had a propensity to grate on other players. He talked openly about the importance of religion and his faith to teammates but spent evenings undercutting that message by living the nightlife in bars. In an interview with The New York Times in 1995, Sparks admitted that his failure to walk the talk had alienated teammates and strained his relationship with his wife.

That changed after the 1994 season: Sparks said he rededicated his life as a Christian, and teammates and coaches noticed the difference. "I just have a whole new agenda," Sparks told the Times before the 1995 season. "I just want to take care of business, do what I have to do and my happiness comes from my wife and kids. I'm a whole new me."

Around the same time, the Sparks family became involved with pro-life groups back in Arizona and worked to help their cause, according to Kim Schmidt, executive director of the Phoenix-based pregnancy resource group With Child. By that time, Jordin already was singing-albeit to a small audience. Sparks retired from the NFL after the 2000 season with Dallas, and the family fully settled into life in Arizona.

Daughter Jordin began gaining prominence as a stage talent. In 2002, she earned a spot in a production of "The Wiz" by the Valley Youth Center. She recorded a demo album and auditioned for Star Search in 2003. One year later, Jordin was entering contests-and winning. Though she finished second in the 2004 Music in the Rockies competition for aspiring contemporary Christian artists, she won an episode of NBC's America's Most Talented Kids.

Jordin began attending Calvary Community Church of Phoenix, where pastor Brad Eberly described her as "spiritually aware" and said she joined the church's high-school ministry and sang on its worship team.

She also began to develop a local following in Arizona by singing at Arizona State games. When NFL player turned U.S. Ranger Pat Tillman-an Arizona State alum-was killed in Afghanistan, she sang at his May 2004 memorial service. She was by then, barely 14, singing at a number of Christian events. "My daughter is well on the way to becoming a great singer," Sparks told The Arizona Republic at the time. "She has a gift from the man upstairs."

Jordin's increasingly visible talent brought her into contact with an eclectic range of music stars. She performed for legendary shock-rocker-turned-Christian Alice Cooper at a contest for the singer's Christian charity, Solid Rock Foundation. She sang with CCM legend Michael W. Smith after his manager brought Jordin to Smith's home. "Ironically, they stopped by when George Huff, a former [Idol] contestant, was at the house," Smith wrote on his blog. "The three of us wound up around the piano and I remember thinking that I was playing and singing with two of the greatest voices I had heard in a long time. And Jordin . . . had a smile and personality as big and inviting as her voice." Smith invited Jordin to sing backup on two tours.

Even while the music industry was calling, Jordin maintained contact with pro-life groups. She sang twice at an Arizona Right to Life rally in 2005. Pro-life activist Schmidt says she booked Jordin to sing at With Child's Rally for Life in February 2006. "She's a very kind, young Christian woman," Schmidt said. And about her performance? "She was fantastic."

Jordin is far from the first American Idol contestant with Christian roots. Season Five star Mandisa Huntley may have scuttled her own position when she dedicated a gospel tune "to everybody that wants to be free . . . your addiction, lifestyle, or situation may be big, but God is bigger." Gay and lesbian activists interpreted her statement as support for ex-gay ministries, and her momentum flagged. She was eliminated and was a 10th-place finisher.

One of Sparks' Season 6 peers, Chris Sligh, sang a DC Talk song during one round, though not one with overtly Christian lyrics. In all, four of Season 6's top 11 finalists had Christian backgrounds: Melinda Doolittle, Phil Stacey, Sligh, and Jordin Sparks.

On her Idol biography website, Jordin listed winning the Gospel Music Association's Overall Spotlight Winner award in 2004 as one of her top accomplishments. On the same page, she listed God, Mom, and Dad as those she would like to thank upon winning.

Now that she has won the biggest music competition in America, "Our church's concerted prayer effort for Jordin is that she's not swallowed up by the industry," her Calvary pastor, Brad Eberly, told The Arizona Republic. "That she stays centered, that she can continue to have clarity as to who she is and where she comes from. And that her self-approval and her value go way beyond her ability to sing."

Michael W. Smith noted that the 17-year-old "is grounded in faith and family" and said he believes she can be a role model for young people all over the world: "What a tremendous responsibility, especially at her young age. But I think she's ready."

John  Dawson

John Dawson