The country’s athlete of the moment isn’t Aaron Rodgers, who has the Green Bay Packers chasing an undefeated season as he crafts one of the greatest years ever by an NFL quarterback. Nor is it Albert Pujols, whose skills at hitting a baseball are so rare that the Los Angeles Angels agreed Thursday to pay him $254 million over the next 10 years.
No, this is about much more. It’s about someone whose football exploits and displays of faith inspire fans to wear replica Denver Broncos jerseys with his number 15 and “Jesus” where his name should be. A two-time national champion and Heisman Trophy winner in college, he hasn’t mastered the most basic skill of his position — throwing a football accurately to another player — to the satisfaction of many NFL experts.
He is a 24-year-old with a best-selling autobiography, an unabashed defender of his own virginity as recently as his college days, an evangelist in cleats who kneels in prayer on the field so intently that he sparks social media debates about whether his behavior is appropriate.
And yet the words most often used to describe Tim Tebow, quarterback for the Broncos, are “modest,” “genuine,” “leader” and, of course, “winner.” The anti-Kardashian, he nevertheless sits at the pinnacle of pop culture, sports and religion right now, and there may never have been anything quite like him before.
“I think a subset of the population loves him because of his religious conviction,” said Brooks Holtom, a professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough school of business. “But I’m thinking of my college buddies who are in Denver, they just want the team to win. Now, he probably won’t be involved in a bar-room brawl and as a dad, I appreciate that. . . . It’s low risk to allow your kids to follow him.”
Tebow makes the eighth start of his second NFL season Sunday for the Broncos, the team he has resurrected after a calamitous start with skills so unorthodox that his head coach, John Fox, has scrapped the traditional pro-football approach to the game and installed a modified, college-style offense that better suits Tebow’s skills.
In the NFL’s most passing-friendly era, when other quarterbacks regularly top 300 yards throwing in a game and occasionally surpass 400 yards, Tebow didn’t reach the 200-yard mark in a game this season until last weekend. Yet the Broncos, a team with a 1-4 record when Tebow took over as starter, have gone 6-1 since and have climbed into a first-place tie in the AFC West division.
Still, Broncos legend John Elway, the team’s two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback who now is a top club executive, sparked an angry response from Tebow supporters when he suggested last month that he wasn’t convinced Tebow had solved the team’s quarterback issues.
“People like it when experts are wrong. . . . The guy has presented an attitude, a persona that people want to see: the genuineness, the love of the game,” said Stewart McHie, director of the Masters of Science in Business Analysis program at Catholic University. “And he’s tough. He has compassion and empathy, but he’ll run over that strong safety in a heartbeat. He seems to be doing it for all the right reasons, and you have to respect that.”
Tebow generally has avoided taking on his football detractors publicly, sticking most often to non-controversial generalities when talking about on-field matters. His teammates have expressed their support, even those wide receivers who might improve their pass-catching numbers with a more traditional quarterback in the lineup.
Tebow’s popularity is immense. His autobiography, “Through My Eyes,” debuted in June at sixth on the New York Times’ hardcover non-fiction best-sellers list. At the time, Tebow was 23 (he turned 24 in August) and had made three NFL starts, all last season as a rookie.
According to the NFL, Tebow had the league’s best-selling replica jersey last year between the NFL draft and Dec. 3. This year his jersey ranks sixth in sales, behind those of three of the sport’s most celebrated quarterbacks (Rodgers is first, New England’s Tom Brady is fourth and Drew Brees of New Orleans is fifth) and two of its most established defensive stars (the Packers’ Clay Matthews is second and Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu is third).
McHie, who spent 34 years with Exxon and ExxonMobil, including a stint as global brand manager, said Tebow unintentionally has established a highly successful brand. Even the criticism directed his way helps.
“They’re still talking about it,” McHie said. “A brand has to be talked about.”
The main reason to talk about Tebow, aside from the breathtaking comeback victories he orchestrates, is his extraordinary displays of religious faith on and off the field. Tebow stands out even in a league where it is not uncommon for players to point to the sky after a success and members of both teams routinely gather at midfield to pray together after a game.
Tebow’s on-field displays of faith garner far more attention. His propensity to kneel and pray on the playing field or sideline quickly became known as “Tebowing.”
“As someone who has researched this issue, I’m pretty sure there’s never been so much religious intensity about an athlete, and there’s never been such a religious superstar athlete,” said Tom Krattenmaker, a Portland-based author who wrote a 2009 book, “Onward Christian Athletes,” about Christianity in pro sports. “In my estimation, Tebow is the apex of it or the low point of it, depending on your perspective.”
Tebow is unafraid to express his convictions publicly. As a college player, he spoke of his virginity when asked about the subject in 2009 at a Southeastern Conference media day, igniting a controversy about whether the question should have been asked or answered. He appeared with his mother in a 2010 Super Bowl television ad opposing abortion.
When he was asked during an October news conference about his popularity transcending football, Tebow said: “We’re trying to win a game and yes, a lot of people care about it and all of you [reporters] are here because of it. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. But if you can take your popularity from football and make a difference with it and help people, then ultimately you’re doing something worthwhile and then your life has some significance, because just playing football, there’s not that much significance behind it.”
Krattenmaker, a contributor to USA Today and The Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, said the degree to which Tebow’s faith and football exploits are celebrated by the evangelical Christian community “rubs more secularly inclined people the wrong way. This polarization isn’t just about Tebow. It fits into this larger cultural issue. He becomes the flashpoint for this ongoing argument in our country about the role of evangelical Christianity.”
Krattenmaker said the tension began when Tebow was the highly successful quarterback for the University of Florida. “It wasn’t so much what he did,” Krattenmaker said. “It was the effusive praise of some announcers. It was so over the top. The Tebow worship got to be too much.”
Other athletes, past and present, have been outspoken about their Christianity. But Krattenmaker said “they just don’t match the Tebow level.”
Tebow’s charisma transcends religion. His leadership qualities are immediately obvious, even on television, but more difficult to quantify.
“He’s leading in the trenches,” said Holtom, the Georgetown management professor. “He’s not back in some office giving orders. . . . You sort of forget somehow that he won national titles [in college] because of this public flogging he’s taken. He’s become an underdog.
“I think we’re a nation that wants to see hard work rewarded. You get the feeling he gets up early, does his work and gets the job done. It resonates in America to see someone who works hard have success.”
Tebow’s story also is a breath of fresh air after the NFL lockout and amid the misdeeds of athletes that often dominate the headlines.
“How can you not respect the guy for who he is and what he’s done?” McHie said. “He’s genuine. I don’t think you could find a disingenuous bone in his body. He just makes you feel good. And the country needs something to feel good about, with all else that is going on. It’s a distraction. And it’s a nice distraction, I think.”