If you really want to understand evangelicals in America today, fix your eyes on Mile High Stadium in Denver this Sunday afternoon, when the Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers will meet in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs. The game will feature two star quarterbacks whose contrasting stories — one of zeal, one of redemption — reveal more about the nature, power and persistence of American evangelicalism than a caucus or primary ever could.
One of these stories is familiar by now — that of Tim Tebow, the evangelizing signal-caller for the Broncos. Tebow is a missionary’s kid, and he has a missionary’s zeal. The Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Florida has been preaching since his dad put him on a stage in the Philippines when he was 15 years old. That’s why he can’t stop thanking Jesus in every post-game interview, win or lose, and why he’s happy to pray even when the cameras are trained on him. His name has become a verb, fans wear Broncos jerseys with Tebow’s number and the name “Jesus” on the back, and his string of fourth-quarter comebacks this season seemed, well, miraculous.
But lost amid this season’s Tebow obsession has been an even more compelling tale: the deepening evangelical faith of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The last time Roethlisberger’s off-field actions and attitude came under scrutiny was in early 2010, when sexual assault allegations surfaced in Georgia around the two-time Super Bowl winner. Although no charges were filed, he was suspended for four games under the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
This was a far cry from the player whose first brush with NFL enforcers was over the “PFJ” (“Play for Jesus”) he painted on his cleats in his rookie year, and who in a pre-Super Bowl interview in 2005 said, “You don’t have to listen to what I have to say, but I will always have the opportunity to glorify God in all that I do.”
Instead, at the time of the allegations, many saw Roethlisberger as arrogant, a boor — anything but a man of faith. Pictures from the night he was prowling the bars in Georgia showed him wearing a T-shirt with a demon’s face on it.
Fans around the country — including many in Pittsburgh — demanded that Roethlisberger be canned, understandably so in the wake of those stories. But the Steelers kept him. They did so not only because a franchise quarterback is hard to find, but also in part because they knew the man he was when they drafted him — one who “Tebowed” before games, back when Tebowing was still known as “praying.” They knew that he came from a strong family and that he had lost his way.