The secret to the polite, positive, peppy Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow—an athlete-evangelist who concludes sideline interviews with “Thank you” and tells print reporters to “Have a good day”—is obvious if you study his alliterative name. With his incessant talk of Jesus and his grovelling humility in the face of success, he is clearly a character who escaped from the dusty pages of some old, didactic magazine for children. Somewhere out there in the fiction universe, a mischievous, unkempt Will Webow is giving hotfoots and skipping church and mopily wondering where his straitlaced doppelgänger can possibly have gone.
Double Heisman Trophy winner Tebow, drafted by Denver in 2009 amid jeers from experts, took over the offence from Kyle Orton at halftime on Oct. 9. The Broncos were 1-3 in the standings and trailing their AFC West rivals San Diego 23-10 on the scoreboard. Tebow completed just four of 10 passes, but kept it close, passing for a touchdown and running for another. The Chargers eked out a 29-24 win, and Denver fans, then still as divided as professional critics were about Tebow’s unorthodox throwing technique, chanted his name appreciatively. The desperate Broncos, figuring they might as well see what they really had in their wild-throwing, fast-scrambling, bull-bodied talent, named him the starter.
And the magic began. Two weeks later, after a Denver bye, Tebow mounted a clumsy, near-disgraceful performance against Miami for 57 minutes, falling behind 15-0. No NFL team had ever come back from such a deficit, but Tebow’s Broncos won, 18-15, in overtime. He trampled the Oakland Raiders 38-24 alongside running back Willis McGahee the next week. Then he beat the Kansas City Chiefs 17-10 at formidable Arrowhead Stadium with another late comeback; his final passing stats were a feeble 2-for-8. Same story four days later against the New York Jets, and then the week after, against Miami.
This was officially starting to get spooky. With Denver needing a two-point conversion to send the Miami game into overtime, everyone in the stadium knew that Tebow would try to run the ball into the end zone himself—but the Dolphins spread their defenders as if they were facing a conventional pocket passer, a merely human QB. Tebow’s unchallenged saunter across the goal line would have launched a thousand Jesus metaphors even if he weren’t particularly religious.
Tebow is now 6-1 this season as a starter, having added another absurd flourish to his legend on Dec. 11 at home against the Chicago Bears. As usual, Tebow’s team was behind late, with a 10-0 score on the board and a little more than two minutes remaining on the clock. As usual, Tebow had collaborated with his frankly stone-handed receivers to compile abominable passing stats. Worse yet, Denver had no timeouts left. Even when they scored to make it 10-7, the cause should have been hopeless.
But the clock stopped for the two-minute warning, and then Bears running back Marion Barber inexplicably headed for the sideline on a rushing play, stopping the clock again by going out of bounds. The ensuing punt gave Tebow the ball back with 56 seconds to go. Who needs timeouts? Tebow drove downfield to put kicker Matt Prater in field-goal range, and Prater sent it to overtime with a 59-yarder. The Bears won the toss, Barber lost a fumble, and it was all over but the chanting.
The whole idea of sport, the only reason it is worth an iota of anybody’s attention, is that it is unscripted but, at its finest, has the suspenseful, climactic, satisfying quality of a scripted narrative. Nobody in sport, or nobody within living memory anyway, has accomplished this the way Tebow has in the past few weeks, with repeated comebacks (often not having much to do with the quality of his own play) from impossibly unfavourable situations. There is irony in a devout Christian athlete playing this role, for Christians think that love and beauty and justice are proof that the world itself is scripted by an unseen author. By that standard, we might conclude that the NFL, like pro wrestling, has writers behind the scenes, scribbling the next outrageous chapter in the Tebow story. It’s special precisely because there is no author . . . probably.