When a football game comes down to a final field goal attempt, television producers typically keep their cameras trained on the kicker-that stretching and pacing sapling of a man in a towering forest of football players. Placekicker shots have become iconic in football because when the cameras are focused on the kickers, everything is on the line.
But last Sunday, as the Denver Broncos prepared for a game-winning field goal in overtime against the San Diego Chargers, Broncos kicker Matt Prater had precious little screen time. The cameras couldn’t take their lenses off Tim Tebow, the most controversial athlete in America today. As Prater readied his kick, our views of him were intercut again and again (and again) with shots of the Broncos quarterback, who was kneeling in prayer. Eyes shut, head bowed, lips moving, the sideline his altar, the ball sailing through the uprights to secure yet another Broncos victory with Tebow at the helm.
Tebow is a second-year, much ballyhooed and berated first-round draft pick out of the University of Florida--ballyhooed because of his record-breaking college career, berated because that career revealed little potential as a traditional NFL quarterback. (To sum up the debate: Tebow can run over defenders, but he may not be able to throw the ball past them, or between them, into the tiny, shrinking windows often available to NFL gunslingers.) Most every expert opinion that counts, including those at the top of the Denver Broncos organization, have considered Tebow a work in progress at best, a predestined flop at worst. But in late October, after the Broncos lost 4 of their first 5 games and felt they had nothing left to lose, the Broncos brass gave Tebow a chance.
Ever since, Tebow has been showing them what he thinks of predestination. He’s a radical free-will believer in Jesus and in his own capacity for confounding the wisdom of the wise. So far, he’s been confounding in most every game he’s played. Tebow’s Broncos don’t score many points per game, and they rely on a newly stingy defense and impeccable special teams play to keep games close until “Tebow Time,” where 4th-quarter magic is bound to happen. And so it has.
Tebow’s young career is a fascinating case study of faith. From his college graduation until just a couple weeks ago, the only people who thought Tebow could be a great quarterback were people who were willing to take Tebow on faith. They believed without seeing, and they were ridiculed by skeptics with a rational edge (and a national media platform). Indeed, during football training camps in late summer, with assessments of Tebow’s ability at all-time lows, many media reports presumed that the only ones who supported him were those who shared his religious and political views. But since Tebow started playing and winning, he’s exploded objective analysis. He completes two passes and wins anyway. He can’t hit targets for three quarters, then throws multiple perfect passes to bring the Broncos back. Skeptics are dwindling in number and in noise. If the Broncos keep winning, the only skeptics left will be die-hard anti-Tebow fundamentalists.
As a lifelong Broncos fan and a Colorado boy to my very core, these have been the happiest, football-holiest few weeks I’ve had in ages. Football Sundays are sacred stuff again. Every time the orange-and-blue take the field, I’m filled with hope. And so far, hope does not disappoint. Tebow is the evidence of victories unseen in these parts since John Elway galloped away from Mile High Stadium lo those many years ago. (Twelve-which in football years is eternity.)
So we’re happy to watch Tebow pray, because when he’s praying, the game is on the line. Thankfully for us, the sight of Tebow praying has been the fall’s biggest Internet meme. Tebow’s first start of the year ended in a ridiculous, awe-inspiring come-from-behind victory against the Miami Dolphins, and as the cameras captured the Broncos celebrating on the sidelines, they also captured Tebow kneeling in prayer. At a bar in Manhattan, Jared Kleinstein, a 24-year-old marketer from Denver, embraced the moment Tebow-style. He had his friends take a picture of him “Tebowing,” which he defined as “to get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different.” (Kleinstein is a Jew, and he meant the site as a tribute to Tebow, not to Jesus or to evangelical faith.) He launched Tebowing.com, and the site soon exploded with millions of page views and Tebowing photo submissions from people around the world. Though football players have long prayed along the sidelines, this fall, Tebowing has overshadowed praying and become a gesture with a meaning of its own.
But not for Tim Tebow. People may point and exclaim, “Look, he’s Tebowing!” when they see him kneeling on the field, as I heard people (including, ahem, myself) say when I attended the Broncos-Jets game in Denver in mid-November. But Jared Kleinstein is the original Tebow-er. Tebow is merely praying, just as many religiously devoted athletes have done long before him. The difference is that the cameras are watching, and we’re watching, and with every religious gesture after ever unlikely Broncos victory, the mystique of Tim Tebow grows and grows.
Patton Dodd is Managing Editor of Patheos and the author of The Tim Tebow Mystique: The Faith and Fans of Football’s Most Polarizing Player.
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