Tim Tebow: God's Quarterback
He has led the Denver Broncos to one improbable victory after another—defying his critics and revealing the deep-seated anxieties in American society about the intertwining of religion and sports.
By PATTON DODDOn a brisk Thursday evening in mid-November, I sat high in the stands at a Denver Broncos home game, covering the ears of my 4-year-old son as the fans around us launched f-bombs at Tim Tebow, the Broncos' struggling second-year quarterback. Mr. Tebow was ineffective and off-target for most of the game, and one of his more voluble and obnoxious critics was standing right in front of us.
But the heckler's friend wasn't joining in. "Just wait until the end of the fourth quarter," he said. "That's Tebow time."
Photos: The Tim Tebow Phenomenon
And so it was. In the waning moments against the New York Jets, Mr. Tebow manufactured a 95-yard game-winning drive, punctuated by his own 20-yard touchdown dash. He brought the Broncos back from imminent defeat, just as he had done in previous weeks against the Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs.
And when the shouting was over, Mr. Tebow did what he always does—he pointed skyward and took a knee in prayer. In postgame interviews, the young quarterback often starts by saying, "First, I'd like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" and ends with "God bless." He stresses that football is just a game and that God doesn't care who wins or loses.
This combination of candid piety and improbable success on the field has made Mr. Tebow the most-discussed phenomenon of the National Football League season. Most expert analysts still consider him poor material for a pro quarterback. An inexperienced passer with awkward throwing mechanics and the build of a fullback, he likes to run over defensive players, which is a no-no in the NFL, whose starting quarterbacks are expensive and hard to come by.
But onward he and the Broncos have marched, winning six of their last seven games and now tied for the lead in their division as they face the Chicago Bears this Sunday. Mr. Tebow continues to defy his critics—and to embody the anxieties over religion that are dividing today's sports world and embroiling players and fans alike.
Sports culture is among the most fervently religious sectors of American life. If you turn on ESPN's "SportsCenter" almost any night, you will see baseball players who point to heaven after a clutch hit and basketball players like the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard, who once intimated that a playoff series victory against the Boston Celtics was proof of God's presence with his team.
Earlier(Video originally published on Dec. 5. 2011.)
These claims by athletes—"God helped me do that" or "I thank God that I was able to do that"—are so commonplace that they usually draw little notice. Most sports fans seem to think that such religious talk doesn't really affect how the games are played or credit it with a powerful placebo effect. So what if Adrian Gonzalez of the Boston Red Sox has a Bible verse inscribed on his bat? Fine—whatever helps him to hit the long ball.
But Mr. Tebow has never been content to leave his evangelical faith on the field. Well before he became the starting quarterback for Denver, he was a lightning rod in America's intermittent culture war of believers vs. secularists.
Jan. 8, 2009 vs. Oklahoma Sooners:
Oct. 24, 2009 vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs:
Nov. 21, 2009 vs. Florida International Golden Panthers:
The Gospel According to TebowA selection of the biblical verses that Tim Tebow wrote in his eyeblack during his college football days.
Jan. 8, 2009 vs. Oklahoma Sooners:
- "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Oct. 24, 2009 vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs:
- "And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you."
Nov. 21, 2009 vs. Florida International Golden Panthers:
- "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek."
In 2010, while still at the University of Florida (where he won the Heisman Trophy and helped the Gators to win two national championships), Mr. Tebow filmed a Super Bowl commercial for Focus on the Family, the mega-ministry known for its conservative political advocacy. The ad is about how Mr. Tebow's mother was advised to abort her son following a placental abruption, but she refused and, well, now we have Tim Tebow.
The ad takes the softest possible approach to the subject and never uses the terms "abortion" or "pro-life," but its intent was clear, and it generated controversy. Since then, feelings about Mr. Tebow have been a litmus test of political and social identity. If you think he's destined to be a winner, you must be a naive evangelical. If you question his long-term chances as an NFL quarterback, you must hate people who love Jesus.
The intertwining of religion and sports is nothing new in American culture. Both basketball and volleyball were invented by men involved with chapters of the Young Men's Christian Association in Massachusetts. Or consider the pioneering college coach Amos Alonzo Stagg (1862-1965), who created the batting cage in baseball, five-man teams for basketball and several of the standard aspects of football, from the man in motion, lateral pass and Statue of Liberty play to helmets, tackling dummies and names on uniforms.
The historian Clifford Putney has written that Stagg and his contemporaries combined faith with sports and competition because they believed that God wanted people to live healthy, vigorous lives. They believed that sports could help to make people good and thereby bring them closer to what God intended for them.
As Michael Lewis reports in his 2006 book "The Blind Side," one of the standard problems of today's top athletes—one of the main threats to long careers—is defective character. He offers a depressing list of high-school football standouts who came to ignoble ends because of selfishness and stupidity, including Eric Jefferson, a first-team all-American defensive end who was arrested for armed robbery, and Michael Burden, an NFL-bound defensive back who was charged with rape and then "vanished without a trace."
More recently, we have seen the disrupted careers of star athletes like Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress and Tiger Woods—men whose lives in professional sports have been undermined by character faults. Such stories are more common than we realize. For every Michael Oher (Mr. Lewis's subject in "The Blind Side") who overcomes harsh beginnings and makes it, there are many other promising athletes who are overcome by their own worst impulses. They lose, the game loses and fans lose.
Alternatively, keeping the faith can mean keeping one's best possible life. Josh Hamilton, the All-Star outfielder for the Texas Rangers, lost part of his career to drug and alcohol addiction before finding the support of a religious community. Tony Dungy, the former coach of the Indianapolis Colts, says that his reputation for "quiet strength" (also the title of his best-selling book) developed only after God changed him from an angry, testy man into a model of "Christian maturity."
In the case of Mr. Tebow, what seems to fuel many of his fans—and to drive many of his critics crazy—is not so much his evangelical faith itself but the equanimity and generosity that his faith inspires in him. Can he really mean it when he says that football isn't that important to him, that he cares more about transcendent things?
While at Florida, Mr. Tebow became well known for spending his summers helping the poor and needy in the Philippines. He also spoke in prisons and appeared to accept every opportunity to volunteer. He encouraged his teammates and classmates to follow his lead.
As Mr. Tebow recounts in his book "Through My Eyes" (written with Nathan Whitaker), after he won the Heisman Trophy in 2007, he had the idea to use his fame to raise money for the orphanage that his family runs and for other organizations. Since National Collegiate Athletic Association rules prevented him from raising money for his own causes, he worked with the university to found a student society that could be used for charity.
According to the former Florida coach Urban Meyer, Mr. Tebow's philanthropic efforts reshaped campus culture, and for a time, volunteering became fashionable. In his senior year, the powder-puff football tournament that he launched, with the help of the university's sororities and fraternities, raised $340,000 for charity.
Mr. Tebow's acts of goodwill have often been more intimate. In December 2009, he attended a college-football awards ceremony in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The night before, at another gala at Walt Disney World Resort, he met a 20-year-old college-football fan named Kelly Faughnan, a brain-tumor victim who suffers from hearing loss and visible, continual tremors. She was wearing a button that said "I love Timmy." Someone noticed and made sure that the young woman had a chance to meet the player.
Mr. Tebow spent a long while with Ms. Faughnan and her family, and asked her if she'd like to be his date for the award ceremony the following night. She agreed, and the scene of Mr. Tebow escorting the trembling young woman down the red carpet led much of the reporting about the event.
As Mr. Tebow's acts of goodwill merged with his achievements on the field for the Florida team, Tebow fandom morphed into Tebow piety. Students launched websites dedicated to the young man, and blogs and message boards lit up with tributes. The blogosphere and Twitterverse produced a flood of over-the-top jokes declaring Tebow's greatness: "Tim Tebow has counted to infinity…twice." "When Tim Tebow walks on water, his feet don't get wet."
In recent weeks, as Tebow mania has re-emerged alongside the unexpected success of the Broncos, it has become clear that the fever is not confined to the quarterback's fellow evangelical Christians. Mr. Tebow's habit of taking to one knee in prayer on the field has given rise to an Internet meme called "Tebowing." Fans have posted pictures of themselves praying on one knee while doing everything from surfing and fighting fires to touring China and going into battle.
"Tebowing" is the brainchild of Jared Kleinstein, 24, a real-estate marketer in New York City who was raised in Denver, where he grew into a devoted sports fan. Mr. Kleinstein, who is Jewish, just wanted to pay tribute to the inspirational quarterback of his favorite team. He launched Tebowing.com from Manhattan in October, on the night after Mr. Tebow led the Broncos to victory over the Miami Dolphins.
"We were at a bar watching the game," he says, "and when he came back to win, everybody was cheering like we won the Super Bowl, even though we had just beat the last-place team in the league." Mr. Kleinstein noticed that as the Bronco players were jumping up and down on the sidelines, Mr. Tebow took a knee in prayer. He snapped a picture of himself and his friends doing the same, called it "Tebowing," then created the site and sent it to eight people.
Within 48 hours, Mr. Kleinstein had been interviewed by this paper, CBS, Fox, ABC and other media outlets. The site has received millions of visits and page views in its short life. Mr. Kleinstein receives pictures of people Tebowing all day long, and often posts new pictures every hour.
With his site, Mr. Kleinstein says, "people found hope through a gesture," noting a much-discussed photo that he posted of a young boy with an IV attached to his arm who wrote that he was "Tebowing while chemoing." Mr. Kleinstein adds that a lot of support for the trend has come from rabbis. "It has made prayer in public something to not be ashamed of," he says. "I think that crosses all religious boundaries."
In communities across America, whether religious or secular, fields of play are often seen as workshops of character. Parents and coaches get kids involved with sports because they care about encouraging them to be better people.
At the national level, however, big-time sports is big business, with billions of dollars at stake, and Americans tend to be cynical about the whole show. In this world, Mr. Tebow's frequent professions of faith can come across as a discordant note, equal parts over-earnestness and naïveté. It's hard to resist the thought that, eventually, a darker reality will show through.
Mr. Tebow may indeed turn out to be a hypocrite, like other high-profile Christians in recent memory. Some of us might even want that to happen, because moral failure is something we understand. We know how to deal with disappointed expectations, to turn our songs of praise into condemnation.
What we are far less sure how to do is to take seriously a public figure's seemingly admirable character and professions of higher purpose. We don't know how to trust goodness.
And who can blame us? We don't want to be fooled again.
The one loss in Mr. Tebow's record as Denver's starting quarterback this season came in a 45-10 blowout against the Detroit Lions. Mr. Tebow completed just 46% of his passes. He suffered seven sacks, including one by Stephen Tulloch, after which Mr. Tulloch took a knee, "Tebowing" as Mr. Tebow struggled to rise.
When asked how he felt about Mr. Tulloch's mockery, Mr. Tebow responded, "He was probably just having fun and was excited he made a good play and had a sack. And good for him."
Last week, after the Broncos' victory against Minnesota, Mr. Tebow was asked by a reporter to name something memorable that had been said to him in the wake of the extraordinary win.
"I'll tell you one thing that happened during the week that I remember," he said. Mr. Tebow proceeded to talk about spending time with a young leukemia patient from Florida who had just been transferred to hospice care and about how delighted Mr. Tebow was to say the kid's name on television and to let him know that someone cared.
Mr. Tebow may or may not enjoy long-term success as an NFL quarterback. His current streak will run its course, and the Broncos might well move on to another quarterback, one who is more obviously suited to the pro game.
But win or lose, Tim Tebow will compete hard—and when he's done, he will thank God and remind all of us that it's just a game.
—Mr. Dodd is the managing editor of the website Patheos and a former senior editor at Beliefnet. This article is adapted from his e-book, "The Tebow Mystique: The Faith and Fans of Football's Most Polarizing Player."