My cab driver in Minneapolis last week—a recent immigrant from Kenya—wanted to talk about the way Tim Tebow throws a football. My South Dakota barber needed me to understand why Tebow's Broncos will collapse this weekend against the New England Patriots. My cousin from California called to say that the young player is being unfairly trashed by the media. A slightly sloshed philosopher from Notre Dame trapped me at a party, jabbing his finger in my chest to insist that Tim Tebow is a fraud whose entire career was invented by fawning sportswriters.
They are hardly alone. A quick Google search comes up with 25,000,000 internet pages and 11,000,000 videos that talk—and talk and talk—about the 24-year-old quarterback who has led the Denver Broncos to six straight wins in the National Football League.
Meanwhile, last Sunday, the fans of Tebow's Broncos waited on the cold pews of their outdoor Denver stadium like parishioners in church. More holy-rolling Pentecostals, shouting their faith and weaving in ecstasy, than well-mannered Anglicans who assume their Lord prefers decorum, but, still, that Mile High field in Denver had the aura of a church. These were not spectators. They were congregants, and Tim Tebow was showing them signs and wonders with one astonishingly unlikely fourth-quarter comeback after another.
And why not? Tebow is, by every account, the nicest, most sincere young evangelical ever to come out of Florida and suddenly—weirdly, improbably—establish himself as the poster boy for anti-irony in an age in which public life contains little except irony. A homeschooled boy, he addresses everyone he meets as "sir" and "ma'am." He kneels in prayer whenever the spirit moves him, which is often. Asked a direct question at a news conference while in college—when, exactly, did questioners' manners get so bad?—he blushed charmingly and agreed that, yes, he was trying to save his virginity for marriage. He starts his interviews by saying, "First and foremost, I'd like to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ." He ascribes all his success to his teammates and coaches. He smiles constantly, except when he tears up, which is often, if he feels he has let the team down.
Or if he thinks of the less fortunate. Born in the Philippines to American missionary parents, his charitable donations are massive and constant. He has built a hospital in the Philippines, and he has recorded a quietly pro-life television advertisement that aired during the Super Bowl. His senior year at the University of Florida—after winning the Heisman Trophy and two national championships—he took as his date to an awards ceremony a young woman who was suffering nerve degeneration from a brain tumor, just so she could have something exciting in her life. And while she twitched and stumbled her way up the red carpet on his arm, with the cameras rolling and the fans screaming, he did nothing but smile proudly at the woman whom, he explained to interviewers, he was lucky enough to have accept his invitation.
Perhaps the most distinguished football writer in the country, Sports Illustrated's Peter King, recently got Tebow on the phone to ask what the quarterback remembered about the preparation for his comeback victory against the Vikings—and Tebow replied, "I'll tell you one thing that happened during the week that I remember. I had an opportunity to talk with a kid named Blake Appleton, from Florida, on Thursday. He's a leukemia patient who's just been moved to hospice. And after the game, when I was being interviewed on TV, I got to say his name. That's what I'm proud of today. I let him know people cared about him. I let him know God has a plan for him." And that was the end of the interview—except, of course, for Tebow to add, "Have a good day, Mr. King. And God bless you."
Be warned. All this must inevitably lead to "burning mosques, bashing gays and indiscriminately banishing immigrants." Or so Rabbi Joshua Hammerman explained in Jewish Week, concluding "While America has become more inclusive since Jerry Falwell's first political forays, a Tebow triumph could set those efforts back considerably."
The amazingly bigoted op-ed, titled "My Tim Tebow Problem," now seems to have been pulled off the Jewish Week website. But Rabbi Hammerman's real error was only to say in a gross way what should have been phrased more delicately. As, for instance: "I don't like to see [Tebow's Christianity] so visible and overwhelming, because then it becomes an act for the act's sake, rather than for the underlying faith and belief," Grand Rabbi Y.A. Korff recently told the Boston Herald. "And that, then, becomes a concern, particularly for those that have faiths that are in the minority in this country."
There is something in the tone of such things that makes me think the topic is not actually religion or even religious bigotry. When open displays of an individual Christian faith are taken, on their face, to be signs of impending oppression, we have left behind religion and embarked instead on a discussion tinged with political paranoia: Tim Tebow is an evangelical, evangelicals are not like us, those who are not like us are dangerous, therefore Tim Tebow is dangerous.
If the success of Tim Tebow does pose a genuine danger for those who fear evangelical politics, it lies a good way down the road—for the kid has springs in his heels and may well bound into elected office once his playing career is over. Peter King calls him "the most polite interview in NFL history while at the same time spilling zero beans," a remark that captures something worth noting in Tebow's public presence.
I have watched hours of his interviews, and the verbal discipline he displays as a young man may be the greatest the world has seen since William Pitt the Younger, who became prime minister of Great Britain at Tebow's age of 24. Tebow lacks the classic signs of good rhetoric. His voice is not professional, he stumbles over his rapid words, and he uses "you know" as a constant filler, sometimes two or three times in a sentence. Yet he makes no mistakes in the content.
In the roaring circus that surrounds him, every sportswriter in America is straining to get Tebow to make a mistake—to say something even slightly bad about a teammate, to complain about his coaches, or, most of all, to boast about how great he is. He never does. He never falls. He has the attributes of a great speaker, without all the skills of a good speaker.
This curious combination may be the best analogy for understanding his play in the NFL this season. A good quarterback in professional football can throw the ball crisply and cleanly. He can focus downfield, read the defense, and manage the game clock. A great quarterback adds to all that a sense of urgency, an ability to inspire his team, and, especially, a good bit of luck. Tim Tebow has a throwing motion that makes real quarterbacks wince, the ball swung behind his back and then slung down the field like a baseball. He has a shaky understanding of pass defenses and an over-willingness to run his way out of trouble rather than stay in the pocket to find his receivers.
Nonetheless, he is winning ballgames with improbable fourth-quarter drives because—well, because he has a sense of urgency, an ability to inspire his team, and a good bit of luck. He possesses, in other words, the attributes of a great quarterback without all the skills of a good quarterback.
No wonder half the nation is spending its days talking about Tim Tebow. There on a football field in Denver, he is playing out the most fascinating story in America. More to the point, it is a good story, a happy story, at a time we could use one.