This story appears in the Oct. 31 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
WHAT SHALL WE say about the kingdom of Timothy Richard Tebow? And what parable should we choose to describe it?
Consider the day this past summer when Tebow attended the Junior Denver Broncos Cheerleaders brunch. It began with an adult requesting a photograph with the Broncos quarterback. Security stepped in and forbade it, for photographs with Tebow were deemed an opportunity for children only, so the adults were waved off.
But Tebow calmly said to the men in the yellow windbreakers, "It's okay. As long as everyone stays cool, I will take photographs." And so Tebow posed for photos with all who wanted them. And the picture-taking lasted for quite some time.
When all seekers had been satisfied, Tebow picked up a football and began tossing it around with a few of the junior cheerleaders. Soon an adult wanted Tebow to throw the ball to him, and the security men stepped in a second time, shaking their heads and declaring the receiving and throwing of passes off-limits to adults.
Again Tebow addressed the men, raising his hand and firmly -- but without anger -- telling them that this too was all right. As long as everyone continued to be cool, he would toss the football to all who wanted to catch it, regardless of age. And so it went that Tebow engaged in much throwing and catching, and it lasted quite some time, with men and women and members of the JDBC alike frolicking across Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium as in a scene from Roger Goodell's vision of eternal life.
And thus when the frolickers had had their fill and the brunch concluded, Jessica Serna, mother to a Junior Denver Broncos Cheerleader, was moved to buy matching Tebow jerseys for herself and her husband. Which is how they came to be wearing said jerseys while making their way into Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium for the Broncos' Week 5 game against the Chargers.
It's also why, when it came time for Serna to describe her attraction to Tebow, she thought of that experience and said, "He's an amazing person. I'm more into what he stands for than what he is as a football player. But he deserves a chance to play."
THE BACKUP QUARTERBACK is the perfect vessel. Followers are not allowed to witness what the coaches see during practices and film sessions, hence they are free to endow their hero with whatever qualities they desire. And so the backup quarterback sprouts up whole and flawless on the sideline every Sunday, brimming with potential glory. He is free of sin. He is the embodiment of hope. He is the quintessential sports messiah.
Even secular No. 2's are worshipped. Backups who'd rather spend time in jail than attend a brunch for junior cheerleaders and their families can still be paragons of the sports-talk set. Backups who go out of their way to thank security guards for protecting them from the unwashed can sometimes find their names being chanted when a starter's passes are underthrown and intercepted.
But when the man in waiting is one of the most famous and revered athletes of our time, the result is nothing short of a cultural earthquake. In his time as the Broncos' backup, the young man who appeared with his mother in a "Miracle Baby" Super Bowl commercial, who did missionary work assisting infant circumcisions in the Philippines, has become a messiah within a messiah. Tebow was the immortal college quarterback at Florida -- a winning, raging, crying, hard-charging, promise-making, speech-giving and Bible-verse-wearing force of nature who forever changed the image of the homeschooled.
Which is why it came to pass that earlier this fall a Broncos official and an assistant coach found themselves having a discussion about the Tebow phenomenon. They covered the usual topics -- the cultlike following, the astounding amount of media attention and the wild backlash to any criticism -- before the assistant just shook his head. "I've never seen anything like it," he said. "That's because there's never been anything like it," the official replied.
There is the football angle: Can Tebow's unique talents translate to NFL success despite his deficiencies? There is the religious angle: Does his outspoken Christianity explain the vitriol of some of his detractors and, on the other side, the holy hell aimed at his coaches for not playing him? And then there is the parochial but most fascinating angle: What in the world will the Broncos do with him?
Let's make one thing clear up front: John Fox does not appear to be a tool of Satan. He is a gray-haired, intermittently successful NFL coach in his first year as boss of a bad team with a 42-year sellout streak. But the second he declared Kyle Orton his starting quarterback after this summer's abbreviated training camp, Fox unwittingly walked into a battleground in the culture war.
Like any man whose job depends on his ability to put the best players on the field to win the most games, Fox doesn't appear to be a big believer in intangibles. It's great that Tebow has an unquenchable will to win, but when faced with deciding between that and the ability to run the offense, Fox seems willing to take his chances with the latter.
And everything would have proceeded according to plan had Orton not shown an incredible propensity for systematic regression over the first 4 games of this season. He went from bad to worse to unplayable, even for a conventional, change-averse coach like Fox.
That is when the book of Tebow took a remarkable turn. It happened after the first half of the fifth game, against the Chargers at Mile High, following two final, offensively stagnant quarters under the direction of the heavy-lidded and outwardly dispassionate Orton. The sellout crowd took note, loudly and with much passion. Fox took note as well, and as Tebow ran toward the locker room before the half, an assistant told him, "You're in." Twenty minutes later, when he entered the huddle, Tebow looked at his teammates and said, "Believe in me, guys." Of course he did.
The people rejoiced, and their faith was rewarded. In the fourth quarter, down 26-10, Tebow led two touchdown drives in 3 minutes and 38 seconds. He ran for one, he threw for the other. He was typically unconventional, underthrowing and scrambling and occasionally having trouble with snaps from center. In the game's final 24 seconds, Tebow drove the Broncos to the San Diego 29, where his final pass, coming after a 12-second scramble, fell incomplete in the end zone. He was unconventional, yes, but unconventionally effective. It was one of the
coolest losses ever.
"You can look at a lot of guys and say they look unorthodox," says Broncos tight end Dante Rosario. "Some guys it just doesn't matter how it looks. They just know how to get it done. That's him."
Typically, coaches and organizations hate quarterback controversies even more than they hate poor quarterbacking. Maybe it's because such debates engender a certain amount of self-perpetuating dread. In the detritus of the postgame locker room, Broncos executive vice president and legend John Elway strode through the Gatorade bottles and athletic tape, apparently believing the place had cleared out. When he saw a couple of local reporters standing in an otherwise empty room, Elway waved them off and said, "I can't wait to talk to you guys."
If the backup quarterback is the ultimate vessel of hope, then Tebow must become the Broncos' ultimate nightmare. What happens when the most important decision on your football team is hijacked, taken out of your control by the force of one man's personality? What happens when the wake left behind Tebow's cyclonic swirl reduces your list of choices to precisely one?
You can look at a lot of guys and say they look unorthodox. Some guys it just doesn't matter how it looks. They just know how to get it done. That's him.
”-- Broncos tight end Dante Rosario
After two touchdowns in just over three minutes and a near-miracle at the end, how could Fox not name Tebow the starter? Could the coach have declared that Tebow needs experience, or that he's too unorthodox and can't throw the deep out? Could he have claimed that Orton,
12-21 as the Broncos starter, won the quarterback competition fair and square? Could Fox have said that the people who see persecution at every turn and those who buy jerseys based on kindness shown at JDBC brunches don't see what he sees in practice and at film sessions?
No, he couldn't. Two days after the San Diego game, Fox and Elway made the inevitable official: Tebow would replace Orton as the Broncos quarterback. Still, Fox dismissed the uniqueness of the situation. "There are a lot of outside forces at work in every NFL city," he said, with all the verve and conviction of a guy making a doctor's appointment.
But Fox knows this isn't about a city or a fan base or even about a guy who won a Heisman Trophy and two national championships. This is about a cultural force -- a man whose following in the evangelical Christian community has made him the strong, handsome face of a burgeoning brand of "muscular Christianity," which preaches that there is room inside a man to both provide witness and run over a linebacker for the first down. This is about a guy who garners so much excitement that fans in Green Bay joined visiting Broncos fans in chanting his name in the second half of the Packers' Week 4 blowout win.
It's about turning a 26-year-old devout Muslim named Mohammad Suleiman into a devout fan of an evangelical QB. Suleiman's company, Multiline International Imports, normally uses a billboard near downtown Denver to advertise weekly specials, but after the Broncos' 17-14 Week 3 loss to the Titans, he felt so strongly about Tebow that he changed it to: "Broncos Fans to John Fox: Play Tebow!" Explains Suleiman, "We didn't have any specials that week, so we figured why not. We want to see what he's got. I like Tebow. It takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there like he has."
As is always the case when religion and sports mix, there's wild stuff residing in the margins. There, every criticism of Tebow's playing style -- his release, his inexperience under center, his decision-making -- is viewed through the prism of his evangelicalism. Among a certain subset of fundamentalists, the question has been asked: Is Tebow a victim of religious persecution?
In response to a critique of the quarterback by Boomer Esiason, influential evangelical blogger Howell Scott wrote, "In this life, we face ridicule and scorn for following Christ, whether on the football field, in the boardroom or, yes, even in the church house. For Tim Tebow and for the rest of us, when we are ridiculed and made fun of because of the name of Jesus, might we hear the master say to us yet again: 'BLESSED, MAKARIOS, WOOHOOH!!!'"
Such measured assessment leads naturally to the words of former Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski, who went on a national radio show and said, "There's something about this guy being a Christian and a virgin. Whatever it is, he's got it."
Closer to the center, there are those who see Tebow as an inspirational cultural touchstone, not a character whose arrival was foreshadowed in Revelations. "He had to make a decision when he went into the locker room: Do I live two lives?" says conservative Christian blogger and fan
Everette Hatcher. "He decided to take his faith with him into the locker room. He has lived one life, and I strongly respect that."
And of course, there is the secular cult of Tebow, filled with fans who watched him at Florida, where he didn't so much win football games as charge up hills and occupy them. So why, these equally devout believers ask, shouldn't he get a chance to do the same in the NFL?
Besides, it was the Broncos themselves, under the housefly tenure of Josh McDaniels, who traded up to draft Tebow in the first round in 2010, thereby making it possible for any and all lofty expectations to be bestowed upon him. As Brandon Hamilton from Cañon City, Colo., said as he leaned on the hood of his car in a parking lot near the stadium, "I like Tebow's views, but he could not have 'em and I'd still want to see him play. Orton just curls up in the fetal position; no way Tebow does that. At least he'd give me a reason to drive up here every Sunday and justify spending all this money." Some of that cash was spent on a Tebow jersey, which Hamilton was wearing as he spoke.
In the locker room following the near-miracle at Mile High, as Orton and third-teamer Brady Quinn dressed no more than 10 feet away, Tebow held court with the media. He said all the right things, which means he said very little that would either inspire or ignite. Orton and Quinn talked quietly, and one Bronco heading for the showers yelled, "Tebow Nation, baby!" Not one of the three -- Orton, Quinn or Tebow -- reacted.
Tebow Nation, indeed. Moments earlier, when his final pass against the Chargers fell incomplete in the end zone and the cheers turned to moans, the collective sag lasted a count of two, maybe three, before something nearly magical happened. A roar rose, 70,000 strong: "Te-bow! Te-bow!"
The chant, equal parts appreciation and plea, rained down onto the emptying field. Tebow's performance, the aftermath, his new starting position -- all of it is enough to make you believe there's something larger at work here, something otherworldly and ethereal, something you can't name but still know. Yes, it must be said: Tim Tebow is enough to make anyone, even John Fox, believe in intangibles.
Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
Follow ESPN The Magazine on Twitter: @ESPNmag.