Don’t think just because I’m a lifelong Broncos fan I was one of those people chanting “Tebow” at the beginning of the 2011–2012 NFL season. I didn’t (and don’t) want him as our starting quarterback. But I was excited to see the Broncos as a topic of national conversation, even if I would prefer the talk to be about a Superbowl contender or an MVP like John Elway in 1987.
Initially, after he was drafted, the media coverage addressed all the Tebow faithful, those who followed him in college. Eventually, though, the coverage addressed everyone, including people like me who were just fascinated. And the hype has spiraled out-of-control (today ESPN debunked rumors of him dating Katy Perry). In praising a less-than-mediocre quarterback, the media has created a coverage afraid to criticize Tebow, a coverage that seems to say Tebow is, if not the reincarnation of Christ, at least as inspiring. Look at The Denver Post, offering a 2011 commemorative book about the Broncos season (something usually reserved for teams that have won the Super Bowl) titled Will to Win. On the cover is a picture of Tebow “Tebowing.”
I find myself on the outside, wondering what exactly prompted this massive, somewhat unprecedented national popularity and coverage that evolved during the 2011 NFL season. Sure all those fourth-quarter comebacks were exciting, and his can-do attitude and saintly priorities are inspiring in a cloying way. But there are loads of “nice-guy” professional athletes. Most of the men in the NFL are just boring and ordinary enough that they never make headlines. Tebow’s popularity pointed to an American consciousness outside of football.
The extent of Tebow-mania went beyond the magical wins and whether or not you “believe” (in God, in Tebow). The Denver Post ran an article explaining that according to The Fifth Annual Zillow Celebrity Neighbor Survey, Tim Tebow is the most desirable celebrity neighbor, just barely beating out Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Evidently there is something in his personality that makes him the perfect neighbor. Something that catapulted him to stardom even when he did little more than an NFL quarterback is expected to do. Perhaps that something is tied to his religion. Perhaps national politics carried it even further, as people searched for optimism.
Perhaps that something confounds the cynical and jaded. Saturday Night Live and Jimmy Fallon mocked him while at the same time feeding into the phenomenon, and shows like this represent Hollywood (I mean “Hollywood” as a metaphor for liberals in show business). Watching these skits was like watching the xenophobes mock what they can’t understand yet desperately want to be a part of.
I am not one of the down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth, toiling-in-the-earth people for whom Tebow would be happy to stand (and whom he represents). I am not one of those who fueled the non-stop media coverage of him and got Tebow the chance to start over Kyle Orton in the first place. The fans in Denver weren’t initially the most fervent Tebow supporters of all those throughout the country, but they became hooked after the Week 11 win over the Jets.
Look at my parents, who have held season tickets to the Broncos for some thirty years and are not at all religious. They have sat through home games during the last few seasons even though most of them ended in losses. After the Broncos beat the Jets, my mother texted me, “Tebow won. Now definitely a God in Denver.” I responded, “What about Elway?” And she actually texted back, “Elway who?” I was floored. It was talk that I took to be sacrilegious. If you grew up in Denver in the 1980s and ‘90s you would understand my amazement. It was an outrage, coming from one of the people who originally got me into the Broncos in the first place, who first led me to the Elway-governed promise land. If it weren’t coming from her I might have been as offended by the text as Christians were by John Lennon calling the Beatles “bigger than Jesus.”
If they weren’t monotheistic, University of Florida fans (most of whom are residents of the Bible Belt) might consider Tebow a god. They’ve been clamoring on about Tebow’s “will to win” since before he entered the NFL, and the extent of Tebow-mania feels rooted in the Southern and Midwestern populations of the United States. Tebow-mania shows us that Middle America may not only geographically but also psychologically represent the collective consciousness of the country, and those of us in Los Angeles and other liberal areas of the country can’t help buying into that consciousness. His popularity grew so much that I actually heard NPR, that dynamo of liberal radio, have an intellectual conversation just about him—about the thrilling wins and also about the cultural implications of his persona.
So what about him transcended the interest that started in the South with Florida fans? There is Tebow’s flair for winning in the final seconds of the game, but Eli Manning threw for more fourth quarter touchdowns this year, in fact setting a new record. There is Tebow’s football resume, which is extraordinary only when compared to people who are not professional players.
As to his faith, football players from both teams kneel down after games to pray (“Tebowed” before there was Tebow) in the center of the field. Yet suddenly Tebow kneeling after a game became a cultural phenomenon. For some this outward display of religious faith was annoying if not offensive. But the national media ate it up, reveled in the outward display of faith as if Tebow winning a football game and then kneeling among the chaos afterwards was as transcendent an event in U.S. sports folklore since the “miracle on ice.”
When the Broncos beat the odds against Pittsburgh and actually won in the playoffs, when Tim Tebow completed a short pass that Demaryius Thomas took the rest of the eighty yards for a walk-off score on the first play of overtime, the reaction in Sports Authority Field at Mile High must have been incredibly loud and energized. Watching on T.V. the jubilation in the stadium, I realized finally how fun it was to root for Tebow, demonstrated by the breakdown of the reserved, managerial, bureaucratic persona affected by John Elway as Broncos executive.
But others saw in the overtime playoff win over Pittsburgh a superhero named Tebow, with massive biceps, symbolically defeat the recession, international terrorism, and abortion. But while I was excited, I saw the win as the result of an aberrant (as in good) completion percentage on the part of Tebow combined with Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s injured ankle.
Before another game, my mother mentioned an article in The Denver Post (which sadly I cannot find) asking if the United States would be in a recession right now if CEO’s were more like Tim Tebow. This, she said, was part of the pre-game analysis, as if it were a pertinent topic of discussion. She wanted to say that perhaps if people were a little gosh-darn nicer, were more like Tim Tebow, the world would be a better place. This statement transcended my mother’s usual cynicism. Even she was inspired.
So maybe I just don’t get Tebowmania because I’m one of the coastal “elitists” who has forgotten what America really stands for, that Middle America is the real US of A, and that Tebow truly represents the entrepreneurialism that makes America great. Maybe I’m just too cynical, just too uptight and obstinately rational to understand the fascination. Maybe I’m too faithful to John Elway and a football team that wins conventionally. Maybe I’m looking at it all wrong, maybe I’m missing out on a football revolution and Tebow will, by next year, with the help of Denver Coach John Fox, find a way to win the Super Bowl. I doubt it though.
Chris Black lives with his wife in Los Angeles. He is a former associate editor at Black Clock and wrote feature articles on rubber duck races, birds of prey, and other mountain topics for The Vail Trail weekly.