In the third quarter of last Sunday's NFL game between the Denver Broncos and Minnesota Vikings, Tim Tebow takes a snap while standing in the shotgun position. He fakes a handoff to the running back, and then looks downfield to pass. But his receivers are all covered. He starts rolling out to his left. Viking tacklers converge at him from every direction. All hope for a productive play seems lost -- his only obvious option is to tuck the ball in, put his head down and try to bull forward for a yard or two. Which is not an altogether unreasonable choice: At 6 foot 3, 240 pounds, Tim Tebow is a load. But this play is still going nowhere.
Cue the Hallelujah choir. At the last possible second, just before he is knocked out of bounds, Tebow spots a receiver hanging around just 10 yards away and dumps the ball to him The play-by-play announcer is suddenly hollering in excitement: TOUCHDOWN BRONCOS! A few minutes later, as the camera catches Tebow on the sideline, his eyes blazing with the righteous intensity of an Old Testament avenging angel, the color analyst, former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, finally surrenders.
"OK," he says. "I'm in."
Meaning: I have seen the light and realized the error of my Tim Tebow-unbelieving ways. The truth can no longer be denied: Tim Tebow's spiral might suck, and his run-first style might constitute pro football anathema. But so what? This soft-voiced son of a preacherman from North Florida is a winner.
To those of us who have been watching him since the fall of 2006, when he scored a touchdown on his first-ever running play as a backup freshman quarterback at the University of Florida, the sight of Tebow performing remarkable feats on the football field is not surprising. But what we couldn't have imagined five years ago is how the entire nation would one day convulse into a crazed debate over the deeper meaning of both his religious faith and his weird throwing motion. This is such a great country: A guy wins a few games in the NFL running an offense that Neanderthals would consider old-fashioned, while engaging in over-the-top public displays of Jesus affection, and the country collapses into a collective hissy-fit of thermonuclear proportions.
Of course, that first game against Southern Mississippi was before the Heisman trophy, the two national championships, the circumcisions of Filipino babies, the kooky (but surprisingly tasteful) anti-abortion ad during the Super Bowl and, most recently, his astonishing, dare we say miraculous, success as the field general of the Denver Broncos -- his five-game winning streak, amazing fourth quarter comebacks, and transformation of a 1-4 team going nowhere into a legitimate playoff contender. Tim Tebow appears to be a genuinely nice guy, but it's no accident that polarization follows in his herky-jerk footsteps. If you mess with both abortion and the pro football passing game, people are going to be upset.
But you know what, that's OK. Because I have my own gospel to preach about Tim Tebow. It's alright to love him and to hate him. We can thrill to his gridiron exploits and at the same time be annoyed by his over-the-top, incessant declarations of faith. In fact it might even be healthy for us, as a society, to embrace the contradictions. Maybe this country be better off if everyone, left or right, evangelical or atheist, pocket passer or option quarterback, occasionally found room in their hearts to cheer for those who are different. The world never makes complete sense, we're all scramblers in an endless busted play. Why not enjoy the mess?
If Tim Tebow had lost the six out of the seven games he'd started this year, the nation would likely have already moved on to other passions. There are only so many times that the naysayers who are convinced Tebow doesn't have the necessary skill set required for modern quarterback success can repeat their I-told-you-sos before we just don't need to hear it any more. But Tebow's uncanny ability to keep winning has kept the pot boiling. Everybody feels compelled to have their say -- the opinion pieces are slamming in from multiple angles, like safeties and linebackers on an-all out blitz. And what makes Tebow such a fascinating character is that the argument about how he plays has gotten inextricably caught up with an argument about how he believes.
Listen, for example, to William Bennett, the conservative pundit, gambling addict and author of "The Book of Virtues." The many "commentators, critics and even fellow athletes" who "mock and deride him and hope that he fails" are doing so, says Bennett, because they are bothered "by his faith, character and conviction." Tebow-haters, in other words hate God, kittens and apple pie. (Another word for such people: "liberals.")
And then there's the take of Chuck Klosterman -- author of "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs" and our culture's leading authority on the history and meaning of MTV's pioneering "Real World" series. Klosterman argues that Tebow is discomfiting because "he makes blind faith a viable option."
His faith in God, his followers' faith in him -- it all defies modernity. This is why people care so much. He is making people wonder if they should try to believe things they don't actually believe.
In other words we don't hate Tebow because he has faith, we hate him because we're afraid his won-loss record might convert us. That's scary! It's not enough that he has setting back the game of football 50 years, according to the purists, but he also can change water into wine?! Hide the children, Tebow's coming, and he's bringing the Lord with him. We can shrug off the Jehovah's Witnesses at the door, but woe betide the man who tries to deny Tebow. Did you see what he did to that safety?
But wait -- why I am using the word "we?" I certainly don't hate Tim Tebow. I love the guy! And I avow this love even as I struggle for dear life to hold on to my credentials as a card-carrying liberal skeptic. Sure, if Tim Tebow was running for political office, I find it very difficult to imagine that I would vote for him. But his relationship with his Savior doesn't prevent me from thrilling to the passion and competitive intensity he brings to the game of football. When Billick exclaimed at the look in Tebow's eyes, he was just seeing something that Gator fans have known since day one -- behind all the pretty talk about God, Tebow is flat-out ferocious. I want him in my foxhole.
At this juncture, it's probably wise to include a disclaimer. If Tim Tebow's college career had been spent at Florida State instead of Florida, it's entirely possible that I might be leading the charge against him, that I'd be ranting and hollering about his holier-than-thou preening and his apparent inability to run a conventional pro-style offense.
But I have deep roots in the city of Gainesville, where the Florida Gators play. I went to high school there, and my mother and stepfather have had season's tickets to Gator games for decades. I'm a big fan. And when you are a fan and someone comes along and helps deliver two national championships while breaking a ton of longstanding records -- well, it's hard not to get attached, and easy to ignore the things you might not like.
And call me a hypocrite, but as a longtime Gator fan, I was schooled in how to let protestations of faith slide off my back while Tebow was still in elementary school. A decade before Tim Tebow started knocking would-be tacklers out of their cleats, a young man named Danny Wuerffel marked each of his many, many touchdowns with a pious clasping of his hands in prayer. I didn't groove on it then and I don't groove on it when Tebow does similar things now. Maybe it's the New England Unitarian in me, but I'd just prefer it if people kept their religious beliefs to themselves.
But I don't care who you worship on bended knee if you can score touchdowns in the Southeastern Conference. I'm tolerant that way. And so, when push comes to shove on the line of scrimmage, is the NFL. Or it will be, if Tebow keeps winning.
Tebow's head-first plunge into the abortion issue makes him fair game for inclusion in the culture wars, but it would be a shame if we allowed our political beliefs to obscure how fun it is to watch Tebow make plays. He might not look pretty, and he might not throw a tight spiral, but you'd be a fool if you didn't want him on your team in a close game when time is running out. You won't ever see fear in Tebow's eyes. You won't ever see him give up. Quite the opposite, when the pressure intensifies, Tebow gets better.
Which is why Brian Billick's on-air pledge of Tebow allegiance was particularly meaningful. Billick's a very smart guy who knows the pro game backwards and forwards and can dissect it with precision. He was one of the broadcasters on the Gators 2009 trip to the Sugar Bowl and during that game he made a convincing case that Tebow's ungainly throwing motion, which looks more like the roundhouse windup of a professional bowler than it does your average pro gunslinger's polished delivery, would be a disaster in the pros.
Billick was not alone in this analysis. Pro scouts and draft watchers and ESPN analysts had been doubting Tebow's suitability for the pro game for years, and their criticism intensified after the quarterback blundered his way through an apparently awful training camp before this season. There was a surprisingly personal level of animosity expressed from some parts -- best captured in the infamous tweet from analyst Merril Hoge: "It's embarrassing to think the broncos could win with tebow."
But it's a mistake to induct Hoge into the culture wars, to claim, as William Bennett does, that all the anti-Tebow mockery is connected to Tebow's faith. There are bigger things at stake here than God -- there's the far more important issue of whether the sanctity of modern professional football will survive Tebow's barbarian assault. The real miracle of Tebow is how multifaceted his polarization powers are. Bennett can see only the political/religious side. But within the game of football, Tebow's protestations of faith in Jesus are beside the point. Far more alarming is the fact that Tebow's just-win-baby ad hoc improvisation is letting the air out of pro football's blimp of self-importance.
In pro basketball or baseball, you rarely hear a coach or manager described as a "genius." But geniuses are a dime a dozen in the NFL. You need to be a genius to be able to figure out the complexity of the modern NFL game, the constantly shifting defenses, the myriad offensive sets. It's a chess game, we keep hearing, only the pieces weigh 300 pounds and are constantly hurtling into each other at high speeds.
They don't call quarterbacks "field generals" for nothing. The modern quarterback is supposed to be able to instantly recognize what defenses are planning and execute a plan of attack that will exploit the inevitable weakness -- and these plans generally are only supposed to be effective if you are capable of rifling a ball 20 yards with a perfect spiral to the spot where only your intended receiver can catch it.
But Tim Tebow has been winning while captaining a run-oriented offense that features only the safest of passes -- one popular putdown is that Tebow's offense would barely qualify for your typical Friday night high school showdown. And yet, somehow, it works. Turns out, it is embarrassing to think that the Broncos could win with Tebow, but the people being humiliated are not Denver's fans. It's the high apostles of the NFL, suddenly revealed to be without any clothes.
Some of his detractors, like Billick, are now recognizing where credit is due and jumping on the bandwagon. Others are falling back into teeth-grinding defensive stances. Merril Hoge now says he never intended to say the Denver Broncos couldn't win at all with Tebow, what he really meant was that they'd never win a Super Bowl with Tim Tebow.
Maybe that's true. It's also entirely possible that Tim Tebow will crash and burn; that NFL defensive coordinators will finally figure out how to stop him. He might never win five games in a row again, and could easily end up just another NFL journeyman, rarely, if ever, smelling the playoffs. Come the AFC championship game, God may decide that he prefers the immaculate spiral of Tom Brady. There are certainly no guarantees.
But sports are most exciting in the moment, and right now, you will have a hard time finding better entertainment for your sports-watching dollar than Tebow with the ball in the last two minutes of a tied game. And the scorn coming down from on high has a way of bringing even unbelievers into the fold. Because, while Americans may not agree on matters of faith and politics, we do tend to like a good David vs. Goliath showdown, and the story of a quarterback who supposedly can't play making the hierarchy of a pro football look like a bunch of nattering fools is a most excellent adventure. It seems crazy to think of someone like Tebow, with all his college accomplishments, as the underdog, but in this context, that's exactly what he is.
He might not have the skills of a Tom Brady or a Drew Brees or an Aaron Rodgers, but he has the one thing no successful underdog ever lacks: the will to overcome. And that's inspiring -- because while the vast majority of us can't throw a pass like Drew Brees, we all, at least theoretically, can conjure up the will to achieve something we feel passionate about.
I don't believe that Jesus saves, but I do believe in Tebow. If that's an irresolvable contradiction, well so be it. The world is full of irresolvable contradictions, and the sooner we accept that, the more content we will be.