The Denver Broncos trailed the Chicago Bears 10-0 deep into the fourth quarter in their Dec. 11 home game. Not surprisingly, Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow said a prayer on the sideline.
But this time, a microphone picked up his petition.
“Dear Jesus, I need you. Please come through for me. No matter what, win or lose, Lord, give me the strength to honor you,” said Tebow in a 10-minute feature from NFL Films that gave an up-close look of the quarterback that game day.
The successful football trail of Tebow, 24, twinned with his outspoken Christian witness, has captured the attention of the nation this fall, also making an impact with Catholics in a range of areas.
The themes of his sideline prayer were met: a dramatic overtime victory against the Bears (13-10), followed by two losses. Now, to make the playoffs, the Broncos must win on Sunday against Kansas City or hope for an Oakland loss.
Broncos fans and Tebow observers nationwide will be looking to see how he handles the biggest game of his professional career.
“With Tebow, you just feel like every play he’s going to do whatever he can possibly do to try to make it happen,” said Kate Faughnan, a married mother of three in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“It just makes for a very unpredictable and exciting game every time.”
The catchword for Tebow news stories this fall is “polarizing,” as he is frequently described as the most polarizing player in the NFL or in sports.
Tebow generates excitement for his running, physical style of quarterbacking and admiration for his Christian witness. His critics take issue with both areas: questioning whether he should be a quarterback at all and if the football sphere is an appropriate place for religious witness.
However, the proportion of fans to critics and the degree of their opinions is unknown.
“To say he’s the most polarizing influence or individual in the NFL, I think is overstating it by a long shot,” said Curtis Martin, the president and founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus).
But Martin, a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, called attention to other NFL players’ past brushes with the law and other questionable behavior and suggested such actions were “quite a bit more polarizing than a guy who is standing up for his Christian faith.”
While Tebow spent most of his first season in the NFL as a backup, his football jersey has been the No. 1 seller. Then, this week, a USA Today/Gallup poll named Tebow No. 11 on its annual list of Most Admired Men — ranked higher than the Dalai Lama, but below Pope Benedict XVI and Billy Graham.
Tebow begins his interviews by first thanking his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and then usually his teammates. He is not the first athlete to do so, but this practice can seem unfamiliar to Catholic athletes who might be more comfortable with crossing themselves before or after a crucial play.
Martin said that Tebow is living the American dream with his faith outlook and the freedom of speech. He said Tebow is “taking the podium,” and people of deep faith need to use their own podiums to influence those around them with respect, while honoring a difference of opinion.
He called Tebow’s practice of always thanking Christ during interviews one way — but not the only way — to witness.
“But I would much rather have Tim do it every time than for people of real profound faith doing it none of the time because they think their faith is too private. Faith is not private; it’s personal, but it’s not private,” said Martin.
Faughnan called Tebow’s practice “great and that it needs to be said more.”
“Maybe that can be a challenge for us Catholics to be more of a witness to our faith,” she said.
For Catholics, Tebow has not been without controversy, gauged differently than a secular understanding of the word. His endorsement of Jockey underwear could be deemed problematic, made evident in a short marketing video where an interviewer threw Tebow a question seemingly designed to startle him and Tebow’s misguided response.
Probably more attention has been given to Bob Tebow’s Evangelistic Association (BTEA), the missionary work of Tim’s father in the Philippines.
Yoseph Daviyd, a Catholic blogger, had strong words for the ministry in a blog post, calling BTEA one of a group of false ministries that poaches Catholics.
“The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of Bob Tebow’s converts are poorly catechized Filipino Catholics,” wrote Daviyd.
Gray noted that Tim Tebow is a volunteer and financial supporter of BTEA and questioned whether it was possible to separate Tebow on the football field from his off-season evangelization and support of the group.
Martin — who as an undergraduate was heavily involved with the nondenominational Campus Crusade for Christ and then returned to the Catholic Church — responded to the blog and suggested that BTEA’s activities should serve as a “wake-up call” for better formation of Catholics.
“We need to do a better job of reaching them and caring for them, and if we did, they would be impervious to the outreaches of folks who have a portion of the Gospel but not all of the Gospel.”
Martin said he doesn’t condone anti-Catholicism, but also noted that he would rather have poorly catechized Catholics “embrace evangelical Christianity than Islam, which is what’s happening in other areas of Asia.”
He said later he believes if Tim or his father encountered Catholics with a love and trust of Jesus Christ and who could articulate their faith, “some of the prejudice and misunderstandings of Catholicism would evaporate.”
Gateway to a Conversation
Thomas Wurtz is the director of Varsity Catholic, a division of Focus that works with collegiate athletes and is based at the University of Nebraska.
He said that Tebow has served as a model for Catholic and Christian athletes to follow, inspiring them with confidence “to do something similar with their faith.”
“It’s a phenomenal example for men to see an athlete that’s competing and at the same time is telling his opponent, ‘Nice play, good job, nice game,’” said Wurtz, referring to the NFL Films feature where Tebow talks to Bears defenders after taking a pounding.
“He’s doing what heroes are supposed to do, right? Heroes are supposed to inspire and motivate us to a higher level,” said Wurtz, who finds Tebow showing classic virtues.
Longtime Broncos fan Tom Thomason works at Denver East High School with special-education students and is not sold on Tebow as a quarterback just yet, recalling that many of his Broncos wins have been in overtime.
However, he does find Tebow’s witness to be a “stepping stone for a conversation” about Catholicism.
“Somebody can come to me speaking (about) Tebow, and I can filter my belief through that initial content,” said Thomason.
“He very clearly puts his beliefs out there, and it’s an opportunity to expand on that,” he added.
When asked what advice Martin would give Tebow, he said that he would first befriend him and invite him to his house for dinner, winning favor with his kids, who are fans of the QB.
“If I could encourage him in anything, I would want to introduce him to the growing number of vibrantly committed Roman Catholics that I have come to see,” he said.
Kate Faughnan will be watching the upcoming Broncos-Chiefs game with her family — including her 3-year-old son Eli who yells the popular catchphrase “Tebow Time” on Sundays.
“This is a huge, huge game for us, so that maybe after two losses, we can come back and regroup as a defense and get our offense going again,” said Faughnan.
As for Tebow, he made no predictions for victory in his press conference on Christmas Eve, recorded on video after the Broncos’ loss to the Buffalo Bills.
When asked how he was handling the loss — which a reporter thought was the worst game Tebow had at any level — the quarterback recalled his mother once teaching him to give both successes and disappointments to the Lord, and that’s the primary way he could deal with it.
“Because tomorrow, you know what,” Tebow said, “I still get to celebrate my Savior’s birth, and, ultimately, I don’t know what the future holds. But I know who holds my future, and that is something that gives me a lot of peace and a lot of comfort when there might be a lot of turbulence around me.”
Register correspondent Justin Bell writes from Boston.