I went to church with Tim Tebow when he was a high school senior and I was a sports columnist in Orlando. I remember thinking then that once he got to the University of Florida, it was only a matter of time before he'd be studying from the Book of Happy Hour rather than the Book of Eli.
It's not that I thought Tebow wasn't being sincere when he stood before his Jacksonville church congregation and spoke passionately about what it was like to minister to orphans during his Christian missions overseas, or how he put his service to God above a high-profile football career.
I just thought: "He's young. He'll grow out of it."
Thankfully, he hasn't.
As most sports fans know, Tebow used his time at Florida not only to prove he's one of the greatest college football players ever, but also to promote his Christian values.
And as he transitions into professional football, Tebow is showing his values remain important to him, even with millions of dollars at stake now. But anytime you believe in something as strongly as Tebow does, it's bound to cause problems.
On Super Bowl Sunday, Tebow reportedly will appear in a commercial with his mother, Pam. But it won't be one of those deals where he and mom imitate the Manning brothers and challenge each other to an Oreo-licking contest.
The 30-second ad, which is being bankrolled by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, reportedly will feature Tim and Pam telling their story of his birth. While pregnant with Tim, her fifth child, Pam fell seriously ill during a mission in the Philippines. Her condition was so severe, doctors told Pam to have an abortion. She refused, obviously, and along came Tim, one of the most decorated players in college football history.
The ad has created enormous controversy, to the point that one of the most popular college athletes ever all of a sudden has a brand new list of enemies that includes more than just his former SEC opponents. Special interest groups, including several noted feminists, and the media have criticized the Tebows for ruining their de facto national holiday; and CBS has been called hypocritical because, in the past, the network has declined to air such advocacy commercials during Super Bowl Sunday.
The critics say the Tebows and CBS will be airing a strong anti-abortion message that, in addition, suggests to women they won't put their lives at risk if they ignore medical professionals and follow the path that Tebow's parents took.
Feminists suggesting women can't think for themselves? Talk about irony.
It's a serious reach; but let's put our religious and political beliefs aside for a moment and put Tebow's participation in this ad in its proper context.
It's his first major national ad since leaving the Gators, and he isn't hawking Nikes, energy drinks or candy bars. Instead, he's putting himself in the middle of one of the most divisive issues in this country -- and on the biggest sporting day of the year.
Just think about that.
If you thought Tebow's jump pass, or that fire-and-brimstone speech he gave following Florida's loss to Ole Miss in 2008 was unbelievable, this should be considered downright extraordinary.
In today's sports climate, expressing an opinion often results in serious backlash. In some cases, an athlete's choosing to do what Tebow is doing might be professional suicide.
Tebow's decision to appear in this ad should be considered just as courageous as Muhammad Ali's decision to not enter the draft, or Tommie Smith's and John Carlos' black power salute at the 1968 summer Olympics.
No, I'm not kidding.
And yes, I'd say that if Tebow were appearing in an ad that advocated a pro-choice position.
Ali, Smith and Carlos championed their views at a time when not everyone supported the idea of equality, and when refusing to serve your country was considered blasphemous. Their views, to put it mildly, were thought to be inappropriate, militant and, in Ali's case, completely anti-patriotic.
And while abortion has been legal in America since 1973, it remains a toxic issue in our society. A large percentage of women will tell you they don't like anyone telling them what to do with their bodies. People have lost their lives fighting for and against abortion, and now here comes a college football player and his mother joining the emotional debate.
Obviously, the Tebows aren't likely in danger of facing the grim repercussions that Ali, Smith and Carlos suffered -- Ali risked prison, while Smith and Carlos were outcasts for decades -- but the detractors are lining up to malign the Tebows, and I'll bet some companies with endorsement opportunities will avoid him going forward.
In a letter sent to Les Moonves, head of the CBS Corporation, and then made public, Gloria Allred, the famous feminist lawyer, threatened to file a formal complaint about misleading advertising if the network does not disclose that abortions have been illegal in the Philippines since 1930. Allred's letter suggests the Tebows' account of the decision not to abort isn't the full version.
"This is not just another ad," Allred wrote. "Women's lives are at stake. No woman should have to live in a country where abortion is illegal as it once was in the U.S."
Terry O' Neill, the president of the National Organization of Women, also released a statement, saying the "goal of Focus on the Family ad is not to empower women."
The specific contents of the ad have yet to be confirmed, but in the minds of some special-interest groups and media critics, it immediately takes Tebow from college football hero to a misogynist worthy of the presidency of Spanky's He-Man Woman Haters Club in the old TV show "The Little Rascals."
I don't care if you're pro-choice or pro-life, conservative or liberal, God-fearing or atheist, you've got to admire Tebow for standing with conviction, even as he's opening himself and his family up to criticism.
We often commend athletes for taking a stand -- as long as it's a stand with which most of us agree. The minute they start pushing a social agenda that conflicts with our own, we tell them to shut up.
We acted like Tiger Woods and LeBron James were the second coming of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi because Woods voiced his support for President Barack Obama and James condemned the war in Darfur. I don't mean to belittle their opinions, but supporting Obama and condemning genocide isn't exactly joining the Black Panther party.
It's far more impressive when a person in Tebow's position chooses a lonelier path. I'm not trying to turn Tebow into a martyr -- plenty have already tried that -- but I can't imagine the difficulty of putting yourself in front of millions of people and telling them something that at least half of them vehemently oppose. It seems like a certain way to be labeled as some kind of zealous, religious nut job.
I understand the concerns that the Tebows might be crossing a culture line by intersecting politics, sports and religion on the biggest day of the year for Americans to come together to celebrate a treasured event in sports.
But I'd rather see an athlete behave with conviction than degrade himself to make money. I'd rather hear Tebow talk about what God has done for him than read another story about an athlete who beats up his wife or girlfriend.
Tebow could use his platform strictly for financial benefit. Instead, he's chosen to use it to speak openly about his Christian beliefs -- even if it means admitting to the world that the big man on campus is a virgin, as he did at the SEC's media day last summer.
Some people prefer that their athletes just make tackles, hit home runs and drain 3-pointers, and keep quiet about what they believe is right and wrong. And while I'll concede that not every athlete is suited to push a social agenda, I'd like to think we live in a society where the right to speak your mind is still valued -- regardless of whether you throw a perfect 30-yard rope or can run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds. We're not always going to agree with each other, but we shouldn't feel comfortable promoting the idea that athletes shouldn't bother us with their silly opinions.
I'm a big fan of people who live the way they talk. You may not believe Tebow will become an NFL quarterback. You may think the media fawns over him way too much. And you may think he's overrated.
But the one thing you can never say about Tim Tebow is that he's a fake.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.