Tim Tebow’s faith makes for controversial NFL stardom but wins keep mystique alive

December 2, 2011

Tim Tebow’s run of wins after being elevated to starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos has made him one of the memorable storylines of the NFL season. His outspoken faith and un­or­tho­dox offensive production has made him a national media phenomenon. As Sally Jenkins wrote, others should be learning from Tebow’s leadership :

In the past few weeks, area coaches have given clinics in failed leadership. The Washington Capitals staged a virtual work stoppage on the ice under Boudreau. The Maryland football team quit so badly on Edsall, they lost seven consecutive games by double digits. And the Washington Redskins lost six in a row thanks in part to Mike Shanahan’s misjudgment that the happy-talk of quarterback John Beck was leadership, only it turns out they trust Beck’s fellow signal-caller Rex Grossman more, even when he throws interceptions.

Meantime, Tebow has given us a starkly powerful display of the real thing, and so has the underrated leader who had the guts to hand the team over to him, Broncos Coach John Fox.The Broncos are 5-1 over their last six games, and Fox was smart enough last Sunday to ask Tebow to give the pregame talk that led to a crucial overtime victory over the San Diego Chargers and put them in the playoff hunt.

“I’ve never seen a human who can will himself to win like that,” Broncos linebacker Von Miller told the Denver Post afterward. “He gave us a great speech. We came out fired up. And that was a wrap.”

So what exactly is that mysterious quality called leadership? It’s not exactly charisma; it doesn’t hurt that Tebow gleams like a superhero, but the worst despots are charismatic too. It’s not exactly talent, either. According to experts, one reason we struggle to define it is because we look at it from the wrong side up.

“The academic study of leadership has failed, and the reason is that it focuses on the leader, when the appropriate focus is on the followers,” suggests research psychologist Robert Hogan, who profiles executives for Fortune 500 companies. When we flip the examination of leadership on its head and look at what followers will follow, we get a better idea of what quality we’re talking about.

“What is it the followers are looking for?” he asks. “The focus should be on the work force or the team, and what they perceive. Because if they don’t perceive the right thing in a leader, you’re through.”

As the final kick of the Broncos’ win over the San Diego Chargers was sailing through the uprights, viewers around the country were watching Tim Tebow kneeling in prayer, eyes closed, a sight that has become its own phenomenon. As Matt Brooks explained :

First there was planking. Then came owling. Then batting. Now “Tebowing” is the latest bizarre photo pose sweeping the nation.

And why not? Tim Tebow is all the rage!

He’s inspiring epic comebacks (after playing terribly for nearly 55 minutes). He’s inspiring epic pop song covers (Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga and Wiz Khalifa might disagree). He’s partnering with charities that help provide medical care for impoverished children in developing countries (no drawbacks to this one).

Who doesn’t love this guy?

Well, ex-teammate Brandon Lloyd for starters.

The former Broncos wide receiver who was dealt to the Rams just as Tebow was winning the starting job in Denver questioned the un­or­tho­dox passer’s ability to be an effective NFL quarterback.

Tebow has heard the doubters debate his throwing motion before, but even though his spirals at times resemble wounded birds, his supporters will always point to one fact: the guy wins games.

For many, the media attention on Tebow’s religiosity is a breath of fresh air in a league sometimes dominated by news of athletes’ legal transgressions. As Patton Dodd explained :

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.

Related Content:

On Leadership:Putting faith in Tim Tebow

Early Lead: Kurt Warner says Tebow should tone down religious rhetoric

The League: John Fox, the man behind Tim Tebow

Q&A: Why does Tebow grab so much attention? How far can he go?

Early Lead: John Fox says Tebow would “be screwed” running regular offense

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