Tim Tebow sells a lot of NFL jerseys. But only the most genius prognosticators could have foreseen the day when America would be able to pair the words "Tim Tebow" and "underwear model" in the same sentence. And yet here we are. The world is wobbling on its axis. Church ladies are fanning themselves.
I'm guessing more people had VCU and Butler in their Final Four brackets this weekend than ever dreamed Tebow would someday become only the second pro athlete to endorse Jockey underwear, joining Jim Palmer, the former Baltimore Orioles pitching hunk who posed back in the early '80s wearing only a pair of briefs and sitting atop a stool like a hairy-chested life model for a night-school sculpture class.
Palmer's ads caused quite a sensation at the time, and not just because people couldn't stop remarking that Palmer had a really nice, um haircut. This was long before baseball's steroid-fueled beefcake era, and before total body waxing really caught on among hirsute male athletes. (Take a bow, Andre Agassi.) Sports Illustrated later said the Jockey ads established Palmer as "a man whose midriff is nearly as famous as Madonna's" -- which could be taken as a compliment, I suppose. Or a damn fine reason for some male pro athletes to never leave the house again.
"I've got kids, man, and the last thing I want is my kids to see me on a billboard without any pants on," Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason told Baltimore radio station 105.7 The Fan the other day when asked what he thought of Tebow endorsing underwear as Palmer once did.
Does this mean Tebow is finally taking a walk on the wild side? Is he hanging up his halo and defecting to the secular world?
Off the top of my head, I can remember at least four or five instances in which Tebow has surprised people by amiably discussing premarital sex (he says he hasn't had any), his conservative politics and evangelical christian faith (he's against abortion), or how he used to perform circumcisions on babies as part of his overseas missionary work with his parents. (Careful, nobody sneeze!)
But now, what should we expect from the memoir Tebow has coming out next month? It promises a "never before told" account of his life, and he's only just finished his rookie season with the Denver Broncos.
Considering Tebow wrote the book with Nathan Whitaker, the co-author of Tony Dungy's faith-inflected best-sellers, it's unlikely to remind anyone of "Ball Four," let alone be racier than Tebow's first underwear commercial, which rolled out this week. The ad shows Tebow doing nothing more than quickly slipping on a V-neck T-shirt over his bare chest and walking out the door. In a sneak-peek Internet video about the campaign, Tebow also reveals with a straight face that his favorite pregame music is Sinatra's version of "Send in the Clowns" -- then admits that might not work for everyone.
Tebow had this amused comeback for anyone who thinks doing underwear ads is déclassé.
"Everybody wears underwear," he said. "It's not like I'm doing anything risqué."
No. Not unless you consider CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell's recent tweet that Tebow, when asked if he wears boxers or briefs, said, "I go with briefs because they are more comfortable and better fitting."
So now you know.
(Is it just me, or do you agree that someone -- it's hard to tell if it's Tebow or the people asking him these questions -- has sex on the brain? It's as if pondering Tebow's chasteness has a paradoxical side effect of making people around him think nothing but "Sex! Sex! Sex!" It moved a GQ photographer to ask, "Can you take off your shirt?")
Taken all together, Tebow has given us a far more candid peek at himself than we've ever gotten from the likes of, say, Derek Jeter, who seemed to date nearly every starlet in the world for a while before settling in with Minka Kelly, and yet never revealed diddly about that, or much of anything else in his long career beyond how to keep his hands inside the inside fastball. Of course, what we find out once Tebow lets us behind the curtain is that his Twitter account features stuff like this:
"Fortunate to have not one but two hot Valentine's dates tonight" --
Now we're talking!
" -- my little nieces, Abby and Riley."
A bigger departure was Tebow's support of Brandon Davies after the BYU star was suspended for the rest of the college basketball season for violating the BYU honor code rule against premarital sex. (Everyone deserves a second chance, Tebow said.) I wouldn't have expected that after interviewing Tebow a year ago this month when he was in New York before the NFL draft.
Tebow was in town on one of those celebrity press junkets that are more like speed dating. Reporters line up to talk to someone for 10 minutes. The event was held at a Manhattan nightclub. As Tebow sat in a booth, receiving visitors, a writer waiting behind me joked that he only came to see if he could hide behind a pillar and catch Tebow ordering a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser. When I told Tebow that after asking him a few obligatory football questions, he laughed and slapped the table.
"So what's the worst thing you do?" I asked him. "Something that people still don't know about you that would really surprise them?"
Tebow thought it over and said: "You know what? I crack my knuckles. All the time!"
That's not exactly bad, Tebow was told.
"Oh, but it is!" he insisted. "It's not good for you."
I said I was thinking more like, I don't know, maybe you don't recycle?
"Wait -- I also have this really, really bad habit of leaving my cereal bowl on the table when I'm done, too," Tebow said.
Book him, Dan-O.
Most people kid Tebow because they like him. Even some folks who disagree with his Focus-on-the-Family politics have to admit the guy is beyond earnest. He's indefatigably earnest. He's incorrigibly, arrestingly upbeat. He seems completely secure and totally unselfconscious about what he stands for, even when it's getting paid to hawk underwear. (Which, in case you don't know, happens to be an estimated $4.9 billion-a-year business. So who's silly now?)
Jockey is unlikely to ask Tebow to reprise the hideous Friar Tuck haircut that teammates gave him during training camp. But Tebow saw the fun in his rookie hazing better than Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant, who archly refused to carry a veteran teammate's shoulder pads last summer. It's safe to say Tebow would probably laugh, too, if shown some of the things fans wrote about him recently when a website named BroncoTalk ran a create-a-caption contest around a Madden 11 video game image of Tebow standing under center and pointing a finger at someone out of the frame. The funniest suggestions included:
"Phillipians 4:13, Phillipians 4:13, hut, hut!"
"I brought a man back to life with THIS finger!"
"It's a little trick I learned in Sunday School: Point this way and say 'Look, Jesus!' and then run this way and say, 'Look, Touchdown!'"
There's something undeniably appealing about a guy who tries to be a moral paradigm but can still laugh at himself like Tebow does. That's probably what best explains why we now find Tebow not just following, but uniquely expanding upon, an endorsement path travelled by other athletes from Palmer to Michael Jordan, Brandi Chastain to David Beckham.
Tebow is sports' unlikeliest underwear model ever because he's that rarest of creatures: Virgin Star Quarterback. The sex symbol who has never had sex.
See what I mean?
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.