The year of living Tebow

Tim Tebow was at the top of his game, throwing an 80-yard TD pass in overtime to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL playoffs, on Jan. 8, 2012. Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Hello, I'm the "Tebow nut."

For 30 years I wrote for newspapers and magazines, wrote books on the Dallas Cowboys' dynasties of the '70s and '90s, wrote about Michael Jordan in Chicago and Barry Bonds in the Bay Area, even wrote columns for ESPN.com from 2004 to 2006. And now, inconceivably, I'm best known as the "psycho" Tim Tebow supporter.

Stephen A. Smith, my debate partner on ESPN's "First Take," has told interviewers I'm "crazy" when it comes to the quarterback whose name Stephen A. basically has changed to Tim Can'tThrow. If you read enough of my Twitter responses -- caution: 100 or more have been known to cause brain damage in lab rats -- you might even imagine me worshiping nightly at a Tebow shrine in my bedroom, gazing zombie-eyed upon a wall of Tebow pictures, lighting 15 candles for No. 15, then Tebowing as I ask God to please make Rex Ryan bench Mark Sanchez and start Timothy Richard Tebow at quarterback.

All of which is about 15 ways of WRONG.

The God's truth: I never much cared for Tebow when he played at Florida. I met him at last year's Super Bowl, and interviewed him, only because he requested the session. I do not stay in touch with him. I've criticized him on air several times for the several shirtless pictures for which he has posed, criticized his post-loss comments about how football isn't nearly as important as his missionary work and criticized him for spending too much time on self-promotion after signing with two of the biggest talent agencies in Hollywood -- Creative Artists Agency and William Morris.

The astonishingly missed point:


And that's my problem: I'm one of the very few commentators who have been objective about Tebow's ability to win football games. I merely dared to say Tebow could be a successful starting quarterback in the National Football League -- not a Pro Bowler, mind you, just a guy who could win games his way. Which prompted relentless attacks from anti-Tebow analysts and journalists. Which prompted me to defend my position. I wasn't "loving" Tebow as much as I was defending him. The more I was ridiculed, the harder I fought back -- always in the spirit of "give this kid a break."

Live television is the hottest medium. My passion for sports debate runs hot enough without a camera transporting it into your living room with 10 times more impact. Before I knew it, I was the wild-eyed president of the Tim Tebow Fanatic Club.

So how did I suddenly go from rolling my eyes at Tebow to defending him?

Through his first three seasons at Florida, I was skeptical of the winning-for-God-and-Gators hype generated by the collegiate myth-making machine. Then on Monday night, Jan. 8, 2009, it happened: I got Tebowed.

My life changed.

Understand, though I'm a proud Vanderbilt graduate, I was born into a family in Oklahoma City that bled crimson for our OU Sooners. That Monday night they played Tebow's Gators for the national championship. I was so confident I did something I rarely do: I shrugged off any potential jinx and picked OU on that morning's "First Take." Starting with my quarterback, Heisman winner Sam Bradford, my team had four players who eventually would go in the first 21 picks in the NFL draft.

That night I experienced what I eventually would call "a competitive force of nature." It was 7-7 at halftime when (I later discovered via YouTube) Tebow gave his team a speech that was scary great: A shy-smiling boy next door suddenly transformed into the Hulk. A psycho-eyed Tebow screamed at his teammates that they WERE GOING TO GO BACK OUT THERE AND DO THIS AND DO THAT. And that's exactly what they did. I sat numbly watching Tim Tebow take over the fourth quarter -- take over the game, the crowd, the very psyches of my Sooners. Florida 24, me 14. Tebow: 231 yards passing, 109 rushing, 12-of-17 on third downs.

That night I said to myself I would never again bet against this guy.

Tebow opted to return to Florida for his senior season, suffered a concussion, lost to Alabama in the SEC title game and, as the NFL draft neared, you could hear one long, loud national scoff building among analysts: At best Tebow's a tight end or an H-back. Consensus: Maybe take a mid- to late-round flyer on pass-and-pray Tebow.

Yet I'd carefully watched Tebow's Sugar Bowl, which coach Urban Meyer turned into Tebow's nationally televised pro day. As defenseless as Cincinnati's defense was -- Tebow might as well have been throwing against air -- his velocity and accuracy sure looked NFL-worthy to me. Tebow went 31-35 for 482 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

I was sold. I said on air I'd take Tebow at the bottom of the first round. "Ha-ha-has" echoed. Denver coach Josh McDaniels took him 25th overall.

Unfortunately, McDaniels didn't last long enough the next season to witness his against-the-world pick start the final three games after the Broncos fell to 3-10.

Tebow played pretty well at Oakland, but nobody seemed to notice. Against Houston, his fourth-quarter touchdown pass and 6-yard TD run brought the Broncos from 23-10 down to a rather miraculous 24-23 home win -- Tebow: 308 yards passing! -- yet I could get no more than shrugs from my show producers. Tebow played OK against the Chargers; yawns all around.

But as John Elway and John Fox took over, a training-camp report indicated Tebow had been demoted to fourth string. Now THAT our producers wanted us to address on air. NOW would I admit I was wrong about Tebow? NO! I couldn't forget what he did to my Sooners. I believed.

What happened on Sunday, Oct. 9 of last year did not shock me. The Broncos had fallen to 1-3, making QB Kyle Orton 4-13 in his previous 17 starts. At home the Broncos trailed San Diego 23-10 at half when John "Sly Like A" Fox probably decided to give the Tebow nuts what they wanted: let Tebow stink it up the way he had in camp sessions, then send him back to the end of the bench the rest of the season.

Fox was about to learn this about Tebow: He can often look misleadingly awful in practice and can seem a little thick-headed when trying to grasp a new game plan. But when the lights are brightest and the odds against him are greatest, Tebow transforms into a force of competitive nature. His throwing motion gets tighter, his accuracy goes from spotty to deadly. "He does get more accurate in fourth quarters," says "First Take" analyst Eric Mangini, the former Jets and Browns head coach. Let Tebow run his college shotgun attack, the spread option, and let him run it uptempo, building momentum play after play, lifting the entire team and stadium into his psycho-eyed state, and the miraculous ensues.

That Sunday against the Chargers, the "fourth-stringer" did nothing in the third quarter as San Diego increased its lead to 26-10. Then Tebow happened.

If his 2-point conversion pass hadn't spun right through the best pair of hands in the league -- Brandon Lloyd's -- Tebow would've tied the game at 26-all. After a Chargers field goal made it 29-24, Tebow, starting at his 20, completed passes of 20 and 31 yards, moving the ball to San Diego's 29 before the clock ran out on him. Unreal.

Fox/Elway had no choice but to start Tebow the following Sunday in Miami, no doubt thinking (hoping? even praying?) he'd turn back into Tim Can'tThrow and they could be done with the P.R. nightmare being created by the Tebow zealots in the evangelical Christian stronghold that is Colorado.

And, as you know all too well, miracles ensued of Biblical proportion. Tebow didn't just pull off a couple of fourth-quarter/overtime comebacks. He pulled off six of 'em. He didn't just win a couple of starts. He won seven of his first eight. His Broncos, featuring the NFL's 18th-ranked defense, rose from the 1-4 dead with a 1.8 percent chance of making the playoffs and won the AFC West. Thanks in large part to Tebow's ride-and-decide option attack featuring reinvented Willis McGahee, Denver led the NFL in rushing. Yet week after week, GM Elway, the classic drop-back passer of a top-five all-time great quarterback, damned Tebow with faint praise.

Imagine the literal and psychological odds Tebow kept beating: His GM and coach, who inherited him, obviously never believed in him as a long-term answer. Too often they forced him to line up the last place he belongs, under center, pretty much eliminating the defense-haunting option of letting McGahee keep it or pulling the ball back and running with it or stepping back and thowing it, often to receivers left open by safeties cheating up to stop the run. It almost felt as if Elway/Fox were sabotaging Tebow, who after games kept turning back into Bruce Banner, the Hulk turned humble human, smiling and saying, heck, he just runs the plays called. Elway perhaps was hoping to lose his way into the No. 1 pick so he could draft fellow Stanford man Andrew Luck. Instead, Tebow's Broncos wound up playing a home playoff game.

And with reports swirling that defenders resented Tebow getting all the credit for the turnaround (this Tebow defender got the blame for that) and game-day reports that the coaching staff was prepared to bench Tebow on any given series against Pittsburgh's No.-1 ranked defense, you know what happened: 316 yards passing happened. An 80-yard catch-and-run overtime TD happened. And a nuclear war of sports debate kept happening on "First Take."

What did shock me was that, the more Tebow won, the harder a gauntlet of ESPN opponents came at me, sometimes two or three at a time dismissing Tebow's 8-5 run as a nice little fluke. Twice during Tebow's starts I was pressed on air to predict Denver's final record. My cumulative prediction was 7-4, which prompted on-air guffaws. Tebow's regular-season record wound up 7-4. Yet no one would give me an inch of credit for the greatest prediction of my career. I was dismissed as lucky or crazy or both.

Day after day they lined up to bash Tebow by bashing his mouthpiece -- me.

Stephen A. Smith, Rob Parker, Jemele Hill, Cris Carter, Merril Hoge, Mark Schlereth, Eric Mangini, Kordell Stewart, Jon Ritchie -- hour upon hour they ripped and ridiculed me. I'm proud and stubborn to a fault, insanely competitive, a fighter by nature. I fought back with both verbal fists.

Our golden rule of barbershop debate -- no punches pulled, none thrown -- was sometimes pushed to its limit. Yet in the heat of those on-air battles, I began to see deep inside my opponents. I hit subliminal hot buttons that were making Tim Tebow the biggest lightning rod in sports, more loved and hated than even LeBron James was at that point. (And wasn't it curious that LeBron, then infamous for his fourth-quarter failures, reached out to Tebow on Twitter, befriended him, even visited Tebow and stayed at his house in Denver, perhaps hoping some of Tebow's late-game intangibles would rub off.)

So much about Tim Tebow moves people toward extreme love or extreme dislike or disgust. It's rarely what he says, just the mold-shattering, emotion-mixing way he wins and the Christianity he wears on both sleeves. He can be so impossibly bad/great. He can be so insufferably innocent.

He's the best role model in sports! No, he's too Christian!

My on-air opponents had all dug in before Tebow's draft and said he can't play quarterback in the NFL. They were all being proven wrong, yet they were the very vocal majority. And most of them despised Tebow for something deeper than football. Debate raged.

My opponents kept pounding me with "he just can't throw." I counter-punched with, "He threw for 191 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime against the Bears' defense!"

My opponents condemned Tebow for two poor late-season games, at Buffalo and against Kansas City. I swung back with, "You critique him like he's a perennial Pro Bowler. Those were just his 13th and 14th NFL starts."

They: He's all intangibles without enough tangibles. Me: Steve Young says he has natural throwing talent that could make him good, even great.

My opponents said they resented Tebow because he was given an opportunity no black quarterback with his skill set would've been given. Former Steelers QB Kordell Stewart told me this on air. So did Rob Parker, who owns a barbershop in Detroit. Yet, I argued, Josh McDaniels didn't pick Tebow to win popularity contests, just games. I said Tebow got demoted to fourth string and his career might have ended if he hadn't pulled off that first fourth-quarter miracle in his first start at Miami. I said Tebow had to overcome all the same knocks I heard through the '70s and '80s about black quarterbacks: low football IQ, unfixable mechanics, more runner than passer. "Kordell," I said, "I thought you'd be SYMPATHETIC to Tebow's plight. He's a YOU."

My opponents began to make jokes about Tebow's Christianity, which outraged me on air. I'm a Christian, though (maybe to a fault) not as in-your-face as Tebow. I prefer actions to words. Yet I defended Tebow by saying, "He's simply doing what Jesus instructed his disciples to do in the New Testament -- be fishers of men."

My opponents accused me of loving Tebow merely because I share his faith. From my heart, that is not the case. I'm no religious zealot. I've been an on-air, in-print fan of many players who were far more Saturday night than Sunday school. But I do find it offensive that some media members ridicule Christianity in ways they would never take public shots at of other faiths. I took offense to all the mock-Tebowing. Yet Tebow, seeing the bigger picture, embraced the fact that so many nonbelievers were at least pretending to pray.

My opponents began to question whether Tebow is truly saving himself for marriage. I said I believe what Tebow has publicly vowed and believe his faith is 100 percent legit -- no hypocritical hiding behind the Bible, from all I've heard. Some opponents grew so frustrated with Tebow's winning that they finally gave up and attributed it to divine intervention. Yet I've never believed God decided football games and Tebow told me he doesn't believe it either. He also denied telling a teammate during the fourth quarter of the Bears' game that God told him the Broncos were going to win.

During our 20-minute on-camera interview, I probably went overboard to show I would ask Tebow tough questions. It ended with Tebow mopping his brow and saying, "Man, that was intense." I told Tebow I didn't like it when he said after the playoff loss at New England that the most important thing that happened was getting to visit with sick kids before that game in Foxboro. I told him his teammates probably didn't love hearing that after Tebow played poorly and the Broncos got blown out 45-10. I told him to maximize the platform the NFL can provide him, then go full-tilt into his missionary work when his football career ends.

Again, I felt I was one of the few trying to remain objective about Tebow. Yet I stood out like a sore thumb pointing upward Monday after Monday for Tebow. What indelibly stained me as The Tebow Nut was the genius of DJ Steve Porter, who created a catchy mashup featuring my most passionate Tebow defense: "He's a gamer, he's a baller …" That "All He Does Is Win" video won a Webby Award.

We took our show to Denver for the Friday before the New England game at Mile High in early December. The night before, when I checked into the hotel, the woman at the front desk looked up and said, "Oh my God, you're the 'All He Does Is Win' guy," and ran into the back to get her fellow employees. The Tebow Nut had arrived.

At this point in the season a year ago, Tebow at home was thrown into a hopeless situation in the second half for a reeling team against a favored opponent, the Chargers.

Now, eerily, the reeling New York Jets are at home on "Monday Night Football" against the heavily favored Houston Texans. Mark Sanchez will start but now the Jets are prime candidates to get Tebowed. What this young man was born to do is take an undermanned team that's losing hope and make it believe it has a chance. He ignites. He inspires. He turns Hulk in huddles and after converting game-saving third downs.

Tebow can turn Shonn Greene into McGahee, Stephen Hill into DeMaryius Thomas, an offensive line still featuring three Pro Bowlers from last year into proud road graders paving the way for the NFL's No. 1 rushing attack. Tebow can help rescue a defense stranded on Revis Island without Darrelle Revis and turn it back into a bunch of tough, experienced, well-coached playmakers.

But Rex Ryan and Tony Sparano must have the desperate guts to let Tebow do what he does best. So far they've embarrassed themselves and embarrassed Tebow by using him as a decoy, a punt protector, a blocking back, a slot receiver and the initiator of a Wildcat offense featuring backs or receivers flying in from the flanks for handoffs. Tebow is none of that. Tebow, ever yes-sir/no-sir to a fault, even agreed to gain 10 or 15 "fullback" pounds that could hinder him when he gets his chance to actually play quarterback.

Tebow is a momentum playmaker who can be extremely difficult to defend if unleashed in an up-tempo shotgun spread with Greene lined up just to his right. He must be allowed to play fast on instinct and emotion. He's an underrated athlete and deep thrower. Even without Revis and Santonio Holmes, he can save the Jets' season.

Tebow's mere intangible presence has turned a starter with shaky intangibles, Mark Sanchez, into a brain-locked basket case. If Tebow history does repeat itself and Sanchez does turn into Kyle Orton and Rex finally does give up and give in to Tebow and No. 15 does get his first start next Sunday against Indianapolis, I'll predict Tebow goes 7-4 the rest of the way and the Jets squeeze into the playoffs.

Take it from the Lone Objective Tebow Defender: Never bet against him.