December 07, 2009
Tebow gazing from the proprietor of Tim Teblog.
Somewhere out there in the multiverse, there is an alternate reality where Tebow leads Florida past Alabama in a hard-fought win, then steamrolls over Texas to complete the undefeated national championship season that has been the expectation of this player and this team since the moment Tebow announced "I'm coming back."
In this reality, there are tears. And failure.
For the biggest college football star of the Google generation, there was no more appropriate symbolism to Tebow's career than Google's own data on Saturday night: For much of the afternoon, "John 16:33" from Tebow's eye-black was the most-searched term -- until nightfall, when it was bumped to the No. 2 slot by "Tim Tebow crying."
And why shouldn't he cry? This was no Adam Morrison-style bawling -- this was choking up in the most disappointing, frustrating and, perhaps, defining moment in the career of the most celebrated college football player of all time.
Ah, yes: About those "all-time" superlatives. Most decorated? Yes. Most competitive? Probably. Most respected? Arguably. Most popular? Clearly.
But greatest? That was on the line this season: Greatest College Football Player of All Time.
However, there was a single condition: Win the national championship. As I said here last week: Anything less than a championship would -- and should -- be considered a failure for Tebow, for Urban Meyer and for the team.
Tebow embraced that. He would agree that you don't earn a "greatest ever" superlative by winning a watered-down SEC East. Whatever his non-football goals might have been, Tebow came back for this season -- the offseason insanity, the in-season roller coaster -- for a national championship. When he accepted that challenge, he accepted the risk of failure -- both institutional and personal -- that came with it.
And it was epic failure. It is easy to simply say, "Alabama's defense was better" -- the best Tebow and Florida had ever seen. And it's easy to say that Florida's defense -- which as recently as a week ago seemed like it was in line for its own superlative treatment -- was more responsible for the loss than the offense.
But I was struck at how Tebow's leadership was neutered. You can imagine the halftime speech, but you didn't see any translation to the field. You saw him gathering the team around him on the sideline at the start of the fourth quarter, imploring them to step up and win the game; they fell further behind and didn't score a point toward a comeback. Another defining symbol of the Tebow Era: Demonstrative cheerleading. Given the reality, the exhortation played out like parody.
But it doesn't matter. Legacies don't come with footnotes.
So what is the cost of failure? Because there has to be a cost. Even Tim Tebow doesn't get to emerge unscathed from a debacle like Saturday -- not when winning this game was a precondition for this ultimate superlative. Fans take their measure. History takes its measure.
On the worst day of Tim Tebow's career -- not just for the performance, but for its consequences -- his legacy was secured for all but the most blindly devoted: Not the greatest. For someone like Tebow, whose entire career has been defined by superlatives, this is an undoubtedly painful but appropriate purgatory.
After Saturday, Tebow's career simply doesn't resonate in the same way, not unlike the way Matt Leinart's stellar career was fundamentally eroded when he lost to Vince Young and Texas in the national title game.
I could try to argue that Tebow's legacy is unique for all of its components having nothing to do with winning or losing the 2009 national title. But "championship or failure" doesn't allow for that. As fans and for players, you accept those high-wire expectations under the condition that failing to meet them has epic consequences.
For the rest of fans around the country, the simple and utter failure on the field -- and the moment and manner of failure -- will matter. And knowing how competitive Tebow is and how starkly he defines the world, I think he would agree it should matter.
Ironically, the loss -- the brutal finality of it, on the biggest stage possible -- makes for much more pathos and complexity as it relates to fans' feelings for Tebow. As our Google-fied fascination with Tebow shows: "Tragic Tebow" gets even more attention than "triumphalist Tebow."
Tebow disciples may recite the litany of accomplishment, but never -- and perhaps this is the appropriate metaphorical cross to bear -- without acknowledging upfront Saturday's loss, a moment at least as defining as the 2008 SEC and national championship wins.
The price of attempting superlative greatness is that one's failure to realize it dooms you to stare at it from the outside looking in. What could have been. What should have been. And, ultimately, what was not. In this case, that's as important as the deflating effort that was.
As someone who has tried all season to mine some humanist meaning in Tebow's weekly eye-black micro-message, Saturday's version read like an epitaph for the game that, through its surprisingly emphatic result, secured Tebow's career as perhaps the most fascinating player -- but, by circumstance, not "greatest" player -- in college football history:
"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."
Maybe it was written to end this way.