The Broncos quarterback captured the loyalty of countless Americans with his outspoken religiousness and unconventional playing style.
On my way to New England, somewhere over the Rockies, a woman sitting next to me cracked open her Bible to read the Book of Revelation. "And I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose face earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them." Since I was on my way to Boston to watch Tim Tebow and his Broncos take on the New England Patriots in a divisional playoff game, I wondered if the verse was some sort of omen. Maybe Patriots Coach Bill Belichick was going to stop Timmy T. with New England's 4-3 scheme. I asked her if she believed in the power of Tebow. She was no sports fan but she knew (of course!) about America's most influential religious figure and our new favorite athlete. "He is bold. He scores a touchdown. And prays," she said.
Tebow has come to expose something weirdly profound in our culture. This is America, circa 2012: 43 percent of the people who know about Tebow believe divine intervention is a factor in his success. African Americans (60 percent) and Latinos (81 percent) believe God's hand is reaching down to create more perfect spirals for #15.
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As we landed at Logan, the wind shoved the plane back and forth. Perhaps this was a different type of omen: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, one of the best pure passers in the game, would have difficulty tossing his spirals through 20-mph gusts. Tebow is better known for his tough and clever running style, which has created fits for defensive coordinators. Tebow took over the Broncos in week seven of this year's NFL season, and the world hasn't been the same since. He has been streaky, and often plays poorly in the first three and a half quarters of the game, but continually leads the once-floundering Broncos to dramatic wins, and into the playoffs. In last week's wild card play off game he suddenly started throwing the ball with zip and accuracy (the Pittsburgh Steelers' injuries and single coverage also played a factor) and the leader of Christian Nation, who likes to sing "Awesome God" during games, scored two TDs, and threw for 316 yards.
This being the era of Tebowmania, the number was seen as some sort of divine work at play. You know, the John 3:16 Bible verse? "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." Tebow had worn the numbers in the black under his eyes when he led the Florida Gators to the 2009 collegiate championship game, which made the connection....spine-chilling. But wait. Tebow's 31.6 yards per completion further validated, to millions if not billions, that Tebow is something other-worldly as the "3:16" started trending on the Internet worldwide. Forty-two million television viewers—the most to watch a wild card game in 24 years—saw Tebow win the game with an 80-yard TD pass on the first play of overtime.
The intersection of religion and sports is nothing new, but Tebow has taken it to a level beyond reality. When I went to get my rental car, a man told someone: "It's nice that America finally has someone to cheer for. Good values. Christian. Kids can look up to him." I went to a Patriots-centric sports bar on Friday night, and even half-drunk Patriots fans, clad in blue and white jerseys, conceded that it was impossible not to admire Tim Tebow. Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs-based outfit, got into the game with a 30-second commercial on Saturday night. The spot featured children reciting the Bible verse John 3:16. "There's been a lot of buzz lately about what John 3:16 says," said Focus on the Family president Jim Daly, "and we wanted to help people understand it without having to run to their computer to look it up."
The game, Saturday evening (kickoff at 8 p.m.), would determine who would go to the AFC championship. Both teams were two games away from appearing in the Super Bowl. But the bigger story was Tebow. What miracle would occur this week?
As it turned out, Patriots QB Tom Brady showed why he is among the league's best by throwing for 363 yards and six TDs. (The harsh wind had no impact on his perfect spirals.) The Patriots crushed the Denver Broncos, 45-10. Tebow had difficulty running (he made only 13 yards on the ground) and passing (he was 9 for 26 for 136 yards). Every Bronco I spoke with in the locker room conceded that Belichick had outsmarted Denver with confusing defensive schemes. Tebow told the press that he would work on his game during the off-season, and then said that he had a great day because he was able to "make Zack Mcleod smile," referring to a kid who suffered a brain injury whom Tebow had met before the game. "It's still a positive day and still a good day. I choose to look through those lenses. Whenever you can make a kid's day, that's more important than a football game."
Tebow has become a national obsession because of these sort of spirituality-infused statements, which are both deflective and value-rich. Television networks have kept Tebow on a continuous loop for weeks. People looking for a sports idol "with values" now have their man for years to come. Tebow was born in the Philippines to missionary parents. He was raised in Florida where he won the state high school championship and the collegiate championship with the Florida Gators. He was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the 2010 draft. As a locale in which to create a national legend, it is a perfect fit for such a religiously polarizing QB. Colorado is a deeply divided state politically: ultra conservatives live in Colorado Springs, while some of the most liberal people in the country are co-habitating in Boulder. An influx of new residents and a downward economy has hit the state hard. Tebow has come to represent something pure to these people. This is not a new cultural phenomenon for this country: when national confidence ebbs, a symbol of hope arises who will somehow cure our ills. Listen to the political rhetoric on both sides of the aisle. Tebow helps to crystallize our growing perception of weakness with an easy to understand American formula. If Tebow, with his unconventional playing style, can win with belief, grit, determination, and optimism we can do it too U-S-of-A!
He is the Second Coming of something, of what we are not quite sure. The season is over for Tim Tebow, but he ain't going anywhere America.