By all accounts Tim Tebow is a good man. A selfless man. A man whose life is filled with stories of a goodness so rare and pure in an athlete it is hard to imagine that he could be for real. And therefore a sense lingers that something sinister must lurk behind the frayed football mechanics. That his purity and his professions of virginity and the care with which he greets each fan is actually a ruse. That football is merely a means to spread his gospel. The word of Jesus.
And this is where the lines get drawn. Backs arch. Muscles tighten.
Nothing will divide quite like religion. And while football often embraces Christianity and legions of the NFL's top players have carried the cross with various levels of openness, there has never been a player like Tebow who so boldly, so proudly and so gracefully expressed devotion that the player known for his goodness has actually drawn a more visceral reaction than those players who are at their core, truly bad.
"I don't want any part of him or the circus," one AFC front office executive told Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver recently. "At some point as a team, don't you have to be concerned with what comes with him? The guy has never met a microphone he didn't like and he's obviously got a message. I think he needs to go away and hide for awhile."
The first round of the NFL draft comes Thursday evening and the most compelling prospect might not be selected until the second night. Still a debate rages about Tebow never for any player before: about his game, about his life and about his religion. Last month a SI.com writer authored a personal blog post entitled "I Want Tim Tebow to Fail" and none of the story was about Tebow's sidearm delivery or his still-developing footwork but rather his evangelical Christianity and the mission of his father Bob Tebow's evangelistic ministry in the Philippines which boasts fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.
It is hardly the only such opinion floating around about the quarterback. In fact, most thoughts on him tend to the extreme.
"The way his fans talk about him is almost idolatry," says Tom Krattenmaker, the author of Onward Christian Athletes, a study of players' self expressions of religion. "I've never seen so much intensity, pro and con, of any Christian athlete ever. There is a tendency for those who admire players who are devoted to their faith to place them on a pedestal but this [adulation] is on steroids. It's been super-hyped to a higher degree."
Religion is a tricky thing in sports. And Tebow's views are hardly out of the mainstream in the NFL where a significant number of players consider themselves to be strong Christians. Just none of them are as audacious about it, scrawling scripture on eye black patches and speaking as loudly and eloquently about their faith. Very few of them have made national television commercials the way Tebow did for Focus on the Family during the Super Bowl. And while the ad itself was tame and intentionally steered away from anything controversial, it is his association with a group that takes strong political stands despite its mission to avoid doing so, that can trouble NFL teams.
Because while owners generally love their players to support local charities and dedicate hours to youth and social programs with religious affiliations, they tend to bristle when the religion slides into politics. This is when the words get divisive, things are said and people are offended. And by doing a television commercial – no matter how innocent its intent (explaining his mother's decision not to abort him) – Tebow has stepped into both the best and worst elements of Christianity. Living on one hand what appears to be an exemplary life in which he has undoubtedly improved the welfare of many people in the Philippines, yet wading into the shouting, finger-pointing world of political TV.
It is this kind of precarious high-profile balance that led Eric Brown, the minister of the Campus Church of Christ in Tebow's college town of Gainesville, Fla.. to tell the Miami Herald last fall: "I'm going to pray that [Tebow] stays true to his faith because if he fails and gets caught up in some kind of scandal it would be bad for Christianity."
And yet, on the eve of the draft, should any of this matter?
Shouldn't this be about football? About whether Tebow has the arm strength to throw a crisp 30-yard spiral while running to his left?
In many cases it seems that it is. Several executives, coaches and league analysts say Tebow's religion has not been a primary topic in meetings about him. If anything, it has been seen as a positive that he is probably not a player who will find himself arrested in a drunken bar brawl at 4 a.m. or dodging sexual assault charges. Which, given what the Pittsburgh Steelers are facing with Ben Roethlisberger(notes), is never trivial enough to overlook when drafting a quarterback.
They scoff at any notion that Tebow somehow only wants to use football as a means to spread a Christian message as many outside the game have suggested. He is too competitive for that.
"I think Tim Tebow is going to be all-in on football wherever he is going to be able to play," said one offensive coach, himself a Christian, who did not want to be identified speaking about a player who has yet to be drafted. "He is going to be committed. … I don't think, on the football field, between plays he is going to be saying 'Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior?' "
For nearly a decade former NFL player personnel director Ken Herock has run clinics designed to help draft prospects prepare for the intense grilling they will face from coaches and general managers at the NFL combine. The sessions can be intense, with Herock taking each player into a private room and running through every troubling thing from their past – whether it be drugs, or conflicts with coaches – and schooling them in the proper way to discuss it when they meet team officials. He can almost predict the players who will have problems in the NFL based on those five hours he spends with them.
This winter, he met with Tebow at one of his workouts in Nashville, Tenn. and was charmed by the quarterback in a way that he had never been before, calling Tebow "dynamic" and saying he "has the wisdom of a 40- or 50-year-old in a 20-year-old-kid."
Herock said he had "heard about" Tebow's strong religious views and went into his meeting with the quarterback with a line of questioning on the subject.
"But when I'm with him he doesn't push it," Herock says. "He's not going to push religion or God on you."
Tebow himself has been less vocal about his religion in the weeks leading up to the draft, to the point where his public comments about it are almost nonexistent. And a call to Bob Tebow's ministry this week went unreturned.
Still even as Tebow's draft stock rises to that of a potential first-round pick, he is in all likelihood a project, a player who will have to sit for two or three years and learn the position as it is played in the NFL before he gets his chance. Can a team afford to have its seldom-used backup quarterback be its most polarizing player?
This week, a couple of current and former team executives, speaking on background, wondered about that point. For all the good that Tebow offers and all the good he has done, the television commercial bothers them. "Exclusive," is the word one used. As in divisive.
The NFL does not like exclusive or divisive.
Both words scare advertisers.
"If you push [religion] far enough you get into some of these hot-button issues," Krattenmaker says. "It starts getting into political matters and you have a problem. If I'm management I'm more willing to go with this if he is going to have a transformative effect on a franchise. Tebow is either being enormously principled or gutsy given the fact of his standing in the draft."
In the end someone will take him and take him high – higher perhaps than his ability dictates. And it won't be because of religion but because a team will fear that someday he's going to be good enough to make them look bad for not taking him.
Funny how that often happens in the draft.
Fear, and not faith, makes the ultimate decision.
- Tim Tebow