INDIANAPOLIS – Joe Montana sat on a director's chair conducting an interview right in the heart of Radio Row here at Super Bowl XLVI.
He was, somehow, all but ignored.
Five feet away sat the center of attention, the quarterback who caused crowds to push up against barriers and crane their necks and hold their camera phones high and disregard Montana and the rest of the celebrities in this third-floor hotel ballroom.
Tim Tebow brought Tebowmania to the Super Bowl on Thursday, and this was Justin Beiber walking through a shopping mall, minus the squeals of teenage girls.
"Obviously he's got something everyone gets excited about," Montana said. "If you win, that's going to happen."
Montana has four Super Bowl titles and a legacy that puts him in the debate for greatest quarterback in NFL history. Tebow has nine regular-season victories as a starter.
It doesn't matter. Tebow needed two cops, an entourage of handlers and press agents and the focus that lets him barrel through a secondary just to get from one interview to the next. Everyone wanted a picture, an autograph a quick moment of his time.
The cult of personality surrounding the man who became the story of the season as he led the Denver Broncos to repeated late-game victories shows no sign of slowing down.
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Dressed in ripped jeans and a brown, button-down sweater, Tebow didn't appear completely comfortable with it. He was here to promote EA Sports, just as Montana was pushing a Volkswagon Rolling Stone tailgate party contest where someone will wind up attending the Super Bowl with him.
If he wasn't getting paid, Tebow probably would've avoided the scene. As for upstaging Joe Montana, maybe that wasn't so great either.
"Actually got to talk to him for awhile and got a picture with him," Tebow said. "One of the best of all time. So that was pretty cool for me."
There are different levels of fame and Tebow, who experienced some measure of it as a Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Florida, shot into the stratosphere over the last few months. There's nothing quaint about this now. Nothing easy.
Perhaps most remarkable about the reaction is the crowd he was dealing with. Radio Row is filled with credentialed media and public relations agents. Stars are constantly walking around – Madonna was supposed to make an appearance later.
While this isn't a completely blasé group, it isn't star-struck either. As Tebow made the rounds, so too did everyone from Rodney Harrison to Curt Schilling to Papa John. It's always a wild time.
And yet there was nothing like the reaction to Tebow.
"He's got the juice right now," said former running back Priest Holmes as he took in the circus.
Whatever measure of normalcy Tebow once experienced is severely challenge after the 2011 season. The comebacks. The Tebowing. The arguments over his potential.
"Actually, I'm a pretty relaxed person and don't love too much attention," Tebow said. "Sometimes I'd love just go to dinner and relax with my friends and family and just be a normal kid, but it's hard to do.
"The pros definitely outweigh the cons because I can go into a hospital and share [time] with kids. I can build a hospital like we're doing in the Philippines."
He's become aware that any interaction can lead to speculation. Who is he hanging out with? Where is he being seen? And, especially, whom is he dating? (According to the National Enquirer, he's been pursued by Kim Kardashian.) Tebow had the entertainment show reporters shouting questions at him, asking about his personal life and his decision to do a Jockey ad.
He just kept smiling and laughing and moving.
"It's funny," he said about the dating gossip. "More than anything we laugh about it because so many things that get reported now are so far from the truth. And it's just funny. So really me and my friends and my family, we just laugh about it because you never know what is going to pop up in five or 10 minutes."
[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Tim Tebow on his meeting with Joe Montana]
Even more than football, Tebow has become a touchstone in America's endless culture debates – a hero for Christian conservatives who cheered not just his play, but his public displays of faith. He's never shied away from this – he scribbled biblical verses on his eye black in college – but perhaps even he is bit overwhelmed by all the attention he's getting now.
"I'm pretty sure I'm not the first Christian athlete to get on a knee and pray," he said.
True, but he's become the most high profile to do it. Maybe ever.
"So many times people think I'm doing stuff as an outward expression," Tebow said. "[It's] more I'm just doing that as an inward thing for me, just to humble myself. When I get on a knee and pray before a game, that's me humbling myself, not necessarily for anybody else. It's for me first."
He isn't complaining. He is as relentlessly positive as ever. His voice soars with boyish enthusiasm for everything.
He talked about his excitement at getting back to Denver for an offseason of work and development. The team has a new strength and conditioning coach. He's eager for a full year of mini camps and organized team activities and time to work with coaches on everything he needs to improve.
"I got to play against Tom Brady twice this year and came up short both times," he said, meaning he's got a long way to go before he is playing at a Super Bowl and not just serving as a spokesman.
Until then he's a sensation, larger than life and growing by the day. This is America and fame is its own currency, its own force of nature. Tebow, at least in his public utterances, appears to still be a simple guy, a bit in awe of the big world circling around him.
He's never hidden from it. He probably never expected this though, the cops and handlers having to usher him out a back elevator of the hotel because walking into a crowded lobby is no longer an option for Tim Tebow.
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- Joe Montana
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