First of all, let’s get something straight. Despite what you may have heard, Tim Tebow is not the Messiah.
I may not be qualified to interpret signs from God, but I’m fairly confident that, when the Denver Broncos quarterback (who was known for writing “John 3:16” in his eye black before games) passed for 316 yards in the Broncos’ playoff win over the Steelers, it wasn’t God’s way of affirming Tebow as the “chosen one.”
Another thing Tim Tebow isn’t: the best quarterback in the NFL. Tebow is far from it, actually. As evidenced in the Broncos’ humiliating 45-10 loss to the New England Patriots this past weekend, when the Patriots’ Tom Brady set a playoff record by throwing five touchdowns in the first half, Tebow was not even the most talented quarterback on the field.
But Tebow has proven time and time again there’s more to success than just talent. Ever since Tebow took over as the Broncos’ starting quarterback early in the season (after the team started 1-4 and most believed they had little chance of making the playoffs), sports analysts were quick to share their conviction that Tebow wasn’t talented enough to start in the NFL.
And every week Tebow seemed to prove his doubters right—for three quarters. But once the fourth quarter began, Tebow always seemed capable of doing something, well, miraculous: leading game-winning drives; running over would-be tacklers; doing whatever it took to secure a win.
With Tebow as their starter, the Broncos won seven of their next eight games, including six come-from-behind victories. Eventually, even Tebow’s most outspoken critics were forced to conclude that, in spite of his shortcomings, Tebow knows how to win. And with Tebow under center, the Broncos managed to win just enough to clinch the AFC West and earn a spot in the playoffs.
There are few things sports fans love more than an underdog (think Hoosiers, Rocky or Miracle). So Tebow’s unexpected success explains why some fans have fallen in love with him, but it doesn’t explain why Tebow is so polarizing—why, for every fan who cheers for him, others can be heard rooting just as hard for him to fail.
One online poster may have identified the root of the anti-Tebow sentiment when she said, “The thing that bothers me about Tebow is the undying praise [he receives] even though he’s mediocre at best.”
In other words, the dislike is fueled by the belief that he isn’t good enough to deserve the praise he’s receiving—even though it’s not his fault others are choosing to praise him.
But in Tebow’s case, there’s another element to the story—something much bigger than talent and media attention. That something is Tebow’s Christian faith, which keeps coming up over and over and over again—you know, because someone (cough, Tebow, cough) keeps bringing it up.
Faith and football
It’s not unusual to hear a professional athlete thank God after a win or to point heavenward after a touchdown. But Tebow goes well beyond the perfunctory gestures of faith. Recently, Tebow told ESPN columnist Rick Reilly that the games aren’t what matter most to him.
“I mean, I’ll give 100 percent of my heart to win, but in the end, the thing I most want to do is not win championships or make a lot of money; it’s to invest in people’s lives, to make a difference,” Tebow said.
In a country obsessed with sports, especially professional football, many fans would not let their quarterback get away with comments like that. And sure, the Broncos fans might be tempted to start a riot if it weren’t abundantly clear from watching Tebow play that no one plays with more determination than he does. (It’s that same determination that kept him from coming out of a game in high school even after he’d broken his fibula, later rushing for a 29-yard touchdown with his broken leg.)
So yes, Tebow plays hard. And he seems to say all the right things—praising God and his teammates while attempting to deflect any superlatives aimed at him. But for the American public, it has become a question of whether or not Tebow is really the squeaky clean choirboy they see answering questions in postgame interviews. So far, Tebow hasn’t done anything to suggest that he’s not genuine. And yet, people continue to wonder how he could be so … different.
Tebow’s commitment to serving others prompted the sometimes-cynical Reilly to write, "Who among us is this selfless?” and to conclude, “I’ve come to believe in Tim Tebow for what he does off a football field, which is represent the best parts of us, the parts I want to be and so rarely am.”
The charitable work that so greatly impressed Reilly is part of the Tim Tebow Foundation’s “Wish 15” program, which partners with a Jacksonville organization, Dreams Come True, to give individuals with life-threatening illnesses a chance to attend a Broncos game and spend time with Tebow. For each game, Tebow would fly one recipient and his or her family out to the game, pay for everything (tickets, food, car rental, lodging) and, most importantly, spend time with them before and after the game.
Even though Reilly concluded that “there’s not an ounce of artifice or phoniness or Hollywood in this kid Tebow, and I’ve looked everywhere for it,” others are still finding reasons to criticize. In the wake of the Broncos devastating playoff loss to the New England Patriots, Harvey Araton, a sports reporter for The New York Times, wrote a somewhat scathing article condemning what he calls Tim Tebow’s “sideshow.”
Araton’s article criticizes Tebow’s decision to spend time after the Broncos’ playoff loss praying with Zachary McLeod, a 20-year old who sustained a serious brain injury during a football game four years ago. McLeod was the most recent recipient of Tebow’s “Wish 15” program, and even though Araton acknowledged that it’s a noble endeavor, he questioned Tebow’s timing.
“As he always does, he thanked his teammates for their support and effort immediately after praising God. But one was left to surmise that he, the Broncos’ purported leader, should have been with them late Saturday night instead of in the corridor tending to his personal business, no matter how giving it was.”
Araton also wrote: “There are times when duty to team has to come first. Surely one of them is in the wake of lopsided and season-ending defeat,” concluding that this prayer session was a “hard-to-miss public spectacle, like so much of the Tebowing phenomenon, and it lasted considerably longer than any Denver drive.”
While it might not be completely fair to call a prayer session in the bowels of a stadium a “hard-to-miss public spectacle,” comments like these are indicative of the disdain many feel for Tebow’s commitment to faith.
Araton certainly isn’t the first to criticize Tebow for being outspoken about his beliefs. In November, former Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer was quoted saying: “I wish [Tebow] would just shut up after a game and go hug his teammates. I think that when he accepts the fact that we know that he loves Jesus Christ then I think I’ll like him a little better.”
When asked what he thought about Plummer’s comments on the morning sports talk program ESPN First Take, Tebow remained cool, saying he respected Plummer’s opinion before adding that “every time I get the opportunity to give the Lord some praise, He is due for it because [of] what He did for me and what He did on the cross for all of us. I really appreciate [Plummer’s] opinion and I respect him, but I still will give all the honor and glory to the Lord because He deserves it.”
A Christian we can believe in?
And so it continues. While fans are drawn to Tebow’s unwavering determination on the football field, others have mixed feelings about his unwavering commitment to Christ both on and off the field. And it’s easy to understand why many Americans don’t know what to make of Tebow’s passion for Jesus. After all, the American public isn’t accustomed to seeing a mainstream representation of genuine faith. Think about it: What mainstream figure represents Christianity on a regular basis? And other than Tim Tebow, who is doing it well?
A recent survey by the Barna Group shows that among 18- to 27-year-olds roughly 28 percent hold a favorable view of Billy Graham (the highest-ranking evangelical in the survey). But amazingly, among 18- to 27-year-olds, Paris Hilton scored a higher approval rating—with 30 percent having a favorable view of the semi-infamous hotel heiress.
We can attribute some of this to a distrust of evangelicals/religious leaders, but it’s also true that evangelical leaders just aren’t that prominent in mainstream America. Except for Tim Tebow, who is more prominent than ever. When he led his Broncos to an overtime victory over the Steelers in the first round of the NFL playoffs two weeks ago, the telecast scored a 25.9 overnight Nielsen rating—which amounts to more than 40 million viewers—making it the most-watched TV program since the Super Bowl.
Like many athletes and evangelicals, Tebow can be found on Twitter. But instead of using social media as an outlet for his inflated ego or a thinly veiled attempt to build his “brand,” Tebow routinely tweets Bible verses. Even though he’s immersed in the macho world of professional football, Tebow openly admits he’s a virgin who’s saving himself for marriage. Tebow also reveals that he won’t drink a glass of wine because a kid who looks up to him might see him and decide it’s OK for him to do the same—and that could lead to a bad decision.
Things like this illustrate that there is something different, something almost unfathomable, about Tim Tebow. And even though his detractors will continue to highlight Tebow’s shortcomings, it’s clear that he’s winning some people over.
As one observer posted online: “I’m not very religious, so my opinion of Tebow isn’t based on that at all. I don’t think he is a good QB, but there is no doubt that he is a great human being. I hope he does well as a QB because if there were more people like him in the world it would be a better place, regardless of what religion he or anyone else follows.”
If Tebow can make that type of impression on those who see him on ESPN on Sunday nights, imagine what kind of impact he’s having on the kids he’s visiting in the hospital or the kids who are given an opportunity to attend his games and spend time with him afterward.
Bailey Knaub, a 16-year-old whose rare vascular disorder has forced her to undergo more than 70 operations, was given the chance to attend the Broncos playoff win against the Steelers and spend time chatting with Tebow on game day—and, by all accounts, she loved every minute of it.
Knaub’s mother told USA Today, “It was very emotional—we haven’t seen her that happy in a long time.”
As for Bailey, she told USA Today: “He was so amazing—so sweet and kind and generous. He just made me feel so special. It was the best day of my life.”
What’s next for Tebow Mania?
Some people will continue to criticize Tebow because of what they perceive to be insufficient talent, an unwillingness to tone down his public commitment to his Christian faith and the excessive attention he attracts from the media. But Tebow hasn’t asked for all that attention. And unlike so many celebrities, Tebow is committed to making the most of it.
The Broncos have already announced that Tebow will begin next season as the Broncos’ starting quarterback. But will the miraculous come-from-behind victories continue? Will Tebow be able to improve his passing efficiency enough to keep people from questioning his status as the starter?
We’ll have to wait until next season for the answer to these questions. But if this season is any indication, people will be watching—and rooting hard. Both for and against him. While his fans continue to buy his jersey and make “It’s Tebow Time!” signs, inevitably his detractors will continue to criticize and mock.
And people will certainly be watching to see if Tebow truly is, as many suspect, too good to be true—anxious to see whether Tebow will do something to tarnish his glorious image, something to justify the suspicion that Tebow is phony, a hypocrite. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. But I know I’ll be cheering for him—not necessarily for his team, but definitely for him. I haven’t made a habit of “Tebowing,” but if I do drop down into that often-imitated pose anytime soon, my prayer will be that Tebow continues to exhibit a passion for Christ that seems too good to be true—and ultimately that, after all the hype dissipates, we’ll all realize once and for all that “hypocrite” is one more thing that Tim Tebow isn’t.
Tyler Charles is a freelance writer and a campus minister with the CCO at Ohio Wesleyan University.