Tempest in a Tebow


Three years ago, on the eve of winning his second college football championship, I wrote that “the legend of Tim Tebow will grow even larger.”

I had no idea. He has appeared twice this season on the cover of Sports Illustrated and talk about Tebow, and talk about all the talking about Tebow, has dominated the NFL season.

The Denver Broncos quarterback is not, in terms of mechanics and statistics, especially good at his position. Yet in a season rapidly falling apart, Tebow came off the bench in October and won one improbable victory after another until the Broncos dragged themselves into the playoffs. And then on Sunday, Tebow and the Broncos defeated the heavily favoured Pittsburgh Steelers in an overtime thriller. The legend is growing still.

The ubiquitous word about Tebow this season has been "polarizing," as in the most "polarizing" player in the NFL, perhaps the most "polarizing" player ever. The reason? Tebow is a devout evangelical Christian, not shy about his faith, and his supposedly ostentatious Christianity allegedly causes all manner of division. It's a faux controversy, though. Ordinary football fans are more than accustomed to prayers alongside the pigkin, with piety aplenty among both players and coaches. Indeed, Tebow was not even the most pious player on the field Sunday night — star safety Troy Polamalu of the Steelers crosses himself on the field more often than an Orthodox patriarch at the divine liturgy and there is nary a peep of polarizing protest.

NFL players hardly go discreetly about their business on the field. Tebow prays instead of the preening that is rather more common. Tebow takes a knee for a brief prayer after big plays, while the typical NFL touchdown celebration features equal parts harmless vanity and choreographed silliness. As for the league itself, the NFL attaches as many messages to the game as possible, as long as they are commercially lucrative. They would paint crosses in the end zones if there were naming rights to be sold. The only objection the lawyers who run the NFL could have to Tebow's visible faith is that he does not get endorsement money for it.

So why the big tempest in a Tebow? It's more about football than faith. Tebow doesn't fit into the standard NFL system. The game today prides itself on having evolved into a highly scientific operation, with ever more complicated systems. Schemes and coverages are spoken of endlessly before, during and after the game. Television commentators speak about the coaches and co-ordinators as often as they speak about the players.

So when someone comes along who plays old school and wins, he makes the enlightened few who explain the game to the rest of us seem a little less essential. It upsets the order of things. Tebow reminds us that football is not engineering physics or semiotics. It's a game. I object when people say that football or hockey is "only a game" because games are important cultural phenomena. But it is a game.

I cheer for Tebow in part because his success annoys grumpy people who think Christians should require special permission to participate in public life. But I cheer for him mostly because professional football is too often a grumpy place and he brings a double measure of fun. Football is supposed to be fun.

Or perhaps he is just having more fun than others — after the victory on Sunday he circled the stadium to thank the Bronco fans and celebrate with them. Wonderful.

Fun happens on the field. Fun is not solemn men in the pressbox poring over playbooks, relaying schemes down to the field to be executed by the personnel package used on third-and-long-on-artificial-turf-in-the-second-quarter. That may all be necessary, but how much more refreshing to have someone out there who does not fit the scheme, but goes out with fire and determination and the sheer joy of playing football. When he wins, it feels like vindication for everyone who loves a game, not a system, or a method, or a machine.

Tebow is not the only player who brings joy to the game, just the most conspicuous. Perhaps the joy of his faith has something to do with that. Or perhaps he is just having more fun than others — after the victory on Sunday he circled the stadium to thank the Bronco fans and celebrate with them. Wonderful.

He will be vanquished soon enough. This Saturday he plays the New England Patriots, whose coach, Bill Belichick, is the anti-tebow: as successful as can be, and as sour, too. But as long as the Broncos' magical run continues, football will be a little more fun. Thank God for that.




Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Tempest in a Tebow." National Post, (Canada) January 12, 2012.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2012 National Post

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