Tebow draws fans like no other in NFL

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – They arrived like pilgrims this summer, each looking for something different and yet ultimately searching for the same thing: a hero, an inspiration, somebody to believe. It was, as the woman, a nurse and mother of six said, they were tired of "the garbage" of "the gunfights and murders and dogfights." She wanted someone her children could admire.

So it would be Tim Tebow(notes).

As the summer wore on and the Denver Broncos training camp stretched through August, the lines of cars inched along Arapahoe Road, winding around the office park and delivering fans to a hill beside the Broncos' practice fields. And they came devoted, wearing his jersey, No. 15, despite the fact he was the team's third-string quarterback.

They shouted his name. They screamed for handshakes and hugs, autographs, anything to get close, to touch him, until no one around the team had seen anything like this before. Not for a player who had yet to do a thing in professional football.

Arguably, the biggest story in the NFL this summer was not in Minnesota and had nothing to do with the New York Jets. It wasn't a holdout or the recalcitrant Albert Haynesworth(notes). It was here where the team's store at training camp – a trailer in the parking lot – sold any number of different Tebow shirts in various sizes and nothing for Kyle Orton(notes), the starting quarterback and perhaps the Broncos' most important player this season.

"It's been an interesting summer," several Denver players said shaking their heads.

[Photos: Latest images of Mr. Popular Tim Tebow]

And the story only continues this Sunday in Jacksonville, Fla., Tebow's hometown, where serendipity has the Broncos playing the season's first game just 1 ½ hours from Gainesville, where Tebow won a Heisman Trophy and the Florida Gators were the 2006 and 2008 national champions. Tebow might not even play. If he does it will be for only a few moments. And yet the game is all but sold out in a stadium that was sold out just once for an NFL game last season. Sports radio is filled with callers who wonder why the Jacksonville Jaguars didn't draft the quarterback who they are certain would have become the franchise's savior in Northeast Florida.

There has really never been a player like this in the NFL. One whose every move appears to be so pure and without pretense that he is beloved by millions, many of whom wouldn't call themselves sports fans. Yes, much of it is based on his Christian faith and his proud admission that as a star athlete he is still a virgin and also about the television commercial he filmed with his mother explaining why she did not abort him when it appeared that complications were life-threatening.

It was this devotion of his fans that led Tom Krattenmaker, the author of "Onward Christian Athletes," a book about player's expressions of religion, to say: "the way fans talk about him is almost idolatry."

But Tebow's fan base goes beyond those who share his faith. "I'm Catholic and he's [evangelical] Christian. We couldn't be farther apart," said Don Tehan of Denver. "A lot of people believe he's going to win. We think he's going to take us to the Super Bowl."

Tebow prays with teammates and Steelers in the preseason.
(Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Just days after the draft in late April, when he was taken in the first round by Denver, his Broncos jersey had become the No. 1 seller in the NFL. And this summer when Nike put a training shoe in his name on sale, it sold out in 15 minutes. Such things do not happen in sports. Not to players this young, with seemingly no redeeming talent to play professionally.

Yet every day, hundreds of No. 15s stared down at the Broncos practices.

Where has this happened before, especially for a player who is still deemed a project, about whom many NFL people still sit on the fence unsure if he has a chance at an average career and only a small few – including Broncos coach Josh McDaniels – believe to be a superstar in the making? It is unprecedented.

"I don't know if I can put it into words," said Debbie Hightower, the nurse, who is at Broncos practice wearing his jersey. She is originally from Orlando, Fla., and considers herself a Florida Gator fan but has lived in Denver for two years. "He's a good player and a great person. I find myself drawn to those players."

About 20 feet away stood Jon Cannon. A pleasant man, he smiled easily as he held a sign with the Bible verse 2 Timothy 1:7: "For God did not give us a spirit of timidity but spirit of power, of love and of self discipline."

Cannon is from Charleston, S.C., he always admired Tebow's devotion to his Christian faith, especially at a time when bad things were happening in his own life to make him question the strength of his belief. It was on those Saturday afternoons when Cannon watched college football on television and saw Tebow as "such a good witness of his faith." This past summer he was hiking the Appalachian Trail in Virginia when he kept bumping into people from Colorado. He took this as a sign and stopped and prayed as to why he was meeting Coloradoans.

God, Cannon said, told him he is supposed to come to Denver to work for Tebow's charitable foundation. So Cannon flew out. He wrote a letter explaining this to Tebow and handed it to safety David Bruton(notes), who happened to be the first player he could find and asked Bruton to hand it to Tebow. Two days later he wasn't sure if Tebow had seen his letter. So he held his sign and hoped Tebow would notice.

Such is the lure of Tebow.

"People may not agree with his beliefs but they admire his conviction," Cannon said. "People are looking for that hero. He's living what he believes and he's genuine."

Tebow, who professes to have locked himself into studying the NFL, nonetheless notices the mania that surrounds him.

"I think it would be hard to miss," said rookie wide receiver Eric Decker(notes), who was Tebow's training camp roommate. It was Decker who watched the mail pile up, watched the fans clamor for attention, examined the player's personal hyperbaric chamber in which everyone now knows Tebow sleeps, and he wondered how anyone could deal with such a mania.

"Yet at the same time, he has surrounded himself with the right people," Decker said.

Tebow's Friar Tuck haircut, a result of rookie hazing, was embraced by some Broncos fans.
(Ron Chenoy/US Presswire)

Maybe his new teammates would resent it, wondering why a quarterback whose NFL potential is still very much in question. But he has been charming, so unfailingly polite they couldn't hate him. And like everyone else, they have melted.

"You can tell this is a kid who didn't ask for any of this," said Broncos wide receiver Brandon Lloyd(notes).

And yet now that it has only grown, Tebow says he is unfazed.

"This is part of the platform you are on when you are the quarterback at the University of Florida and you are on a pedestal and then you do the things we have done, the attention comes," he said pleasantly but flatly.

Then he brightened.

"It's not all negative," he said. "I do have the opportunity to go to hospitals."

He said this with seriousness, not the phoniness of some athletes who use public events like hospital visits to buff their public image, but rather with joy as if it genuinely pleases him to see sick children. And it will probably be seen by thousands more who will find it as a sincere gesture in a sports world where athletes are so hard to trust.

The mania will continue to burgeon as it moves into the season, back to Florida, to his hometown and propel the Broncos toward a year like none a team has ever seen.