SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Man of faith or religious zealot? Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos’ quarterback who continues to defy his critics, has become the most polarizing, and talked about, figure in professional sports today.
There he is, leading his team to believe in another improbable victory. There he is, kneeling in that now-familiar “Tebowing” pose, praying on the sideline. There he is, singing hymns as he marches onto the field, thanking God for another divine win.
In the world of football, Denver fans worship him as their team has climbed atop the AFC West. In the world of religion and sport, others question how much religious expression and devotion are right for the field of play.
“I’ve heard people say he’s the second coming,” said Joe Fergerson, who lives in El Dorado Hills, Calif., and attends Rolling Hills Christian Church. “Now, I’m not a biblical scholar, but I don’t think he’s going to come back as a football player.”
Fergerson is a Tebow fan but is uncomfortable with the religious terms used to describe the quarterback. Some Christians said the attention on Tebow’s faith, with nicknames such as the “Mile-High Messiah,” put too much pressure on him.
“Tebowmania” has continued to mount. His team, which plays the New England Patriots today, is on a six-game winning streak. “Tebowing” – that drop-and-pray pose – is now recognized as a word and has its own website, tebowing.com, with pictures of fans praying at the U.S. Capitol, the Vatican and in a small village in Haiti.
It’s so ubiquitous, four students in New York were warned not to Tebow in a school hall and then were suspended – not for religious reasons but because other students couldn’t blitz by them.
You can buy Tebow Christmas cards. Jockey announced Thursday that it will give away $1 million in prizes if Tebow wins the Super Bowl. And Tebow graces the cover of the current Sports Illustrated with the headline “Tebow! Amazing, Incredible, Phenomenal, Incomprehensible, Mind-Blowing, Unbelievable …”
“I’ve learned with Tim you can’t sell him short, but I would never have anticipated this,” said Nathan Whitaker, co-author of Tebow’s memoir, “Through My Eyes.”
“He loves the ‘Rocky’ movies and that’s what his life is becoming; he never stops getting off the mat. People find that, and his faith, appealing.”
Still, some Christians wonder if this hoopla surrounding Tebow is good for the football player or for the faith. They cringe at the jerseys with Tebow’s number and “Jesus” printed on the back, and the fan who has Tebow’s name tattooed on his back.
“You cannot put people on a pedestal anywhere near God, nobody can live up to that,” said Brent High, associate athletic director for spiritual formation at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. “What certain people who hold him up as a hero have done, I don’t think is good for Christianity.”
Other athletes have chimed in. Former quarterback Kurt Warner, also a Christian, said Tebow should tone down the religious talk. Warner told the Arizona Republic that believers should let actions speak louder than words.
Former Denver quarterback Jake Plummer recently criticized Tebow on a radio show, saying he should keep his faith off the field.
“I think he’s a winner, and I respect that about him,” Plummer said. “I think that when he accepts the fact that we know that he loves Jesus Christ, then I think I’ll like him even better.”
Tebow, the son of missionaries, appears to be handling the attention well, said those who know him. “It’s not new for him,” Whitaker said.
As quarterback for University of Florida, Tebow had scripture written on his eye black. The next day, those scriptures became the most Googled bible verses. College officials, however, weren’t pleased and the NCAA has since banned the practice.
Last year, Tebow was in the spotlight after appearing in an anti-abortion ad that aired during the Super Bowl. “I know some people won’t agree with it,” Tebow said about the ad. “But I think they can at least respect that I stand up for what I believe.”
He’s comfortable combining praying and playing: “Have a good night everyone! God bless + Go Broncos GB2,” he recently tweeted.
He is not the first athlete to thank God or pray – Sandy Koufax, Muhammad Ali, the late Reggie White, A.C. Green, Joe Gibbs and Curt Schilling were all open about their faith. But Tebow is the most public about his faith today.
Jimmer Fredette, a rookie with the Sacramento Kings, is also religious. But he most likely will not be demonstrative about his faith on the court, said his father, Al Fredette.
“They have a lot of similarities; they are both athletes trying to make their way in professional sports and both have a strong belief in Christ,” Fredette said. “But Jimmer expresses it in a different way. I don’t expect to see him do anything on the court.”
Hope Merritt of Rancho Cordova is a Georgia fan who said Tebow broke his heart when he played for Florida. He’s a Tebow fan now.
“I like that he’s finding a way to win without having all the tools,” said Merritt, who attends St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in the Oak Park area of Sacramento.
As for the displays of faith?
“Personally, I’m surprised it’s so divisive because he’s toned it down since college,” he said.
“He’s not the first athlete to pray.”