He’s a Quarterback, He’s a Winner, He’s a TV Draw, He’s a Verb
By DAN BARRY
Published: January 13, 2012
On Saturday night in Massachusetts, a Jim Thorpe-Fabio hybrid in a New England Patriots uniform will emerge from the Foxborough shadows with all the confidence granted by good looks, athletic gifts and the home-field advantage: Tom Brady, the quarterback ideal. A three-time Super Bowl champion. Married to a world-famous model. So laserlike in his throws that he could hit the 11 bus in Boston, 30 miles away — in the numbers.
No question. Brady, 34, is living an American male fantasy, a Faustian swirl of physical prowess, sexual aura, weekly heroics and fame. He’s so cool that he can wear Uggs and get away with it.
But when the Patriots meet the Denver Broncos in a divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium, Brady will not be the most riveting athlete on the field; he won’t even be the most riveting quarterback. That honor will belong to a young Bronco named Tim Tebow. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.
Tebow, 24, is the quarterback question mark; he’d rather run than throw another wobbly pass that wouldn’t make a Pop Warner football highlight reel. He is an unmarried, self-declared virgin with no supermodel on his arm. He is a devout Christian who thanks his Lord and Savior so often that a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit had Jesus telling him: enough already.
Yet, somehow, this N.F.L. sophomore — who has been Denver’s starting quarterback for all of 12 games — has upended cynical assumptions about professional athletics to become more than an unlikely playoff contender and the country’s favorite active athlete, as declared by a recent poll by ESPN. Tim Tebow is now a cultural touchstone.
ESPN’s “SportsCenter” dedicated an hourlong program to Tebow on Thursday, triggering a case of nationwide Twitter hyperventilation. Some fans are wearing Broncos jerseys with Tebow’s number and Jesus’ name. Around the world, people are “tebowing” — kneeling in prayer, with head resting on one hand, oblivious to surroundings, just as Tebow does after victories.
Still, when a wedding party tebows in Las Vegas, or a couple tebows on Abbey Road in London, or two scuba divers tebow underwater in Belize, it can be hard to tell whether they are celebrating or mocking him for his virtuous ways.
What, exactly, is it about Tim Tebow that so fascinates and provokes us? Why do some people project onto him the best of this country (humility, tenacity, plain old decency) — and the worst (sanctimoniousness, overexposure, political intolerance)?
Part of the answer may lie in the way he seems oblivious to the throaty roars that envelop him on and off the field, as though Tebow is always tebowing, whether kneeling or standing up. It seems a stretch to interpret his calm indifference as a particularly arrogant strain of piety. More likely, it is his way of saying that none of this — the rah-rah football Sunday, followed by the weeklong football Kremlinology — is what truly matters.
Tebow may not think that Tebow is what matters, but much of the country apparently does. Why?
Legions of pundits, writers and insomniac callers to late-night radio have analyzed the subject. But maybe no investigation or deep sociological inquiry is required. Maybe the key to the Tebow phenomenon is just this: He wins games.
What’s more, Tebow tends to win in the closing minutes, against considerable odds and amid the persistent doubts about his ability by the football establishment. He often can seem like a regular guy suddenly thrust into the middle of a professional football game, only to win by summoning a superhuman will that we all wish we had.
Finally, and it cannot be denied, Tebow’s very public conviction about his faith resonates (Isn’t he a model for how to live?), intrigues (How can he be so certain?) or annoys (Can’t he keep it in the church pew?). If he were not in the playoffs, perhaps we would not care as much. But since he is, his extraordinary athleticism and proven heroics — including two college championships and a Heisman Trophy — are routinely forgotten in favor of a more mystical possibility.
To date, there’s no hard evidence of any divine intervention. Instead, the Tebow effect conforms to a more familiar narrative: that of fans seeing what they want to see — hero or villain, the genuine article or another fraud — in a person who plays sports for a living.
Tebow’s background reads like a movie script rejected for being too improbable. The son of Christian Baptist missionaries. Born in the Philippines after his mother rejected recommendations to end the life-threatening pregnancy with an abortion. Home-schooled in Florida. On to a public high school to play football. On to the University of Florida, where he placed Biblical citations — John 3:16 or Philippians 4:13 — on black bands beneath his eyes.
In 2009, a reporter at a news conference asked Tebow whether he was “saving” himself for marriage. When the virile young college hero answered yes, many in the room were so dumbstruck that he jokingly wondered whether he had just stunned the reporters into silence. (Of course, a Playboy playmate and others were soon volunteering to free him of his virginity.)
By the time Tebow was selected in the first round of the N.F.L. draft in 2010, older fans could be forgiven for recalling a story from 1985 about Sidd Finch, a rookie pitcher who supposedly showed up at a Mets training camp throwing 168-mile-an-hour fastballs. He had grown up in an English orphanage, studied yoga in Tibet, played the French horn, and was entirely fictional — part of an April Fool’s Day hoax perpetrated by George Plimpton and Sports Illustrated.
But the Tebow story was true — almost too good to be true. While some athletes swan around at “gentlemen’s clubs,” he plays flashlight tag with his family. While some athletes dedicate themselves to video games in their free time, he visits hospitals and prisons, and goes to the Philippines in the off-season as part of a ministry to help orphans.
Those who distrust this kind of faith-based outreach, perhaps because they detect a conservative political agenda behind it all, found an aha moment during the 2010 Super Bowl. In a 30-second commercial paid for by Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian nonprofit organization, Tebow and his mother told the story of his birth — a “miracle baby” — and her choice not to have an abortion. There was no tebowing that week in the halls of Planned Parenthood.
Last season, in his rookie year with the Broncos, Tebow mostly played a backup role. One can only imagine how his imperfect throwing motion and preference for bulling through the defensive line ached the teeth of John Elway, the legendary Broncos quarterback — the pass-perfect Tom Brady of his day — who this year became the team’s executive vice president for football operations.
Tebow began this season on the bench as well. But when the Broncos fell to 1-3, and were in the midst of losing a fourth game against the San Diego Chargers, the much-maligned backup stepped in to start a gripping comeback. The Broncos lost the game, but Tebow won the right to start at quarterback.
This epithet-averse quarterback led the Broncos to victories in seven of their next eight games, often in last-minute, unorthodox ways. Against the Kansas City Chiefs, for example, he threw the ball only eight times and connected only twice — although one was for a 56-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. And against the Chicago Bears, he somehow led his team to a 13-10 victory in overtime — after the Broncos had trailed, 10-0, with less than three minutes to play in regulation.
Decent people who are proud of their faith, do good things and succeed in life tend to irritate some of us; they remind us of our private failures, so, naturally, we hope they stumble. Spectacularly. Face-first into the mud. And those who dislike Tebow were rewarded when the Broncos lost the final three games of the regular season. In living rooms around the country, some people were gleefully channeling Billy Crystal’s parody of Edward G. Robinson in “The Ten Commandments”:
“Where’s your Messiah now, Moses?”
But the Broncos backed into the playoffs.
Then, on Sunday, in the first seconds of overtime against the favored Pittsburgh Steelers, Tebow threw a pinpoint, Brady-like pass for a winning touchdown to extend his team’s improbable season. In a game that was the highest-rated television show since last year’s Super Bowl, Tebow threw for 316 yards. Add John and a colon, and it becomes one of the Biblical citations he used to paint on his face.
Holy Vince Lombardi!
The Broncos’ season may very well end in Foxborough on Saturday night, at the hands of an ideal quarterback who throws rockets from the pocket. But at least Tim Tebow has made more than a few people think about life beyond the gridiron.
And New England fans might take note of this. The other day, Luke Ravenstahl, the mayor of losing Pittsburgh, made good on a friendly bet. He put on a Broncos jersey, knelt down in his city’s Roberto Clemente Memorial Park — and tebowed.