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 about that game from NFL Films.
The successful football trail of Tebow, 24, along with his outspoken Christian witness, has captured the attention of the nation, 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), a string of three losses, a breathtaking overtime finish against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC wildcard game, and then a pounding loss to the New England Patriots the following week.
Tebow kept things in perspective following the Jan. 14 loss in a recorded postgame press conference. “Overall, it still wasn’t a bad day; it still was a good day because before the game I got to spend time with Zack McLeod and make him smile,” said Tebow, referring to a young man who had experienced a traumatic brain injury three years ago while playing football.
Before the Broncos/Patriots game, national attention on Tebow reached a new level. Consider this: At the time the Broncos/Steelers game was the highest-rated television program — not only sports-related — since last year’s Super Bowl. In a new ESPN poll, Tebow is now the country’s most favorite active athlete. Twitter announced that Tebow-related tweets broke a record at 9,420 per second after the Jan. 8 game.
In that game Tebow threw for 316 passing yards in 10 completions with two touchdowns, plus another one running. In overtime, Tebow hit receiver Demaryius Thomas on the first play, an 80-yard catch-and-run play that took only 11 seconds. Tebow’s passing numbers and their numerical similarity to John 3:16 — the Scripture verse that connects eternal life through Jesus Christ — have also garnered significant attention.
The quarterback frequently wore Bible verses on his eye black while playing in college, including John 3:16 during the 2009 BCS Championship. Millions of people have searched for the verse on Google as a result. The practice of eye-paint messaging was banned in 2010 for the next season by the NCAA, though the organization denied that it was directly because of Tebow or any one player or team.
Chalk up Father Matt Williams, director of the Office for the New Evangelization of Youth and Young Adults for the Archdiocese of Boston, as one who thinks that God does not care who wins at football.
“Does the grace of God make him a better quarterback, give him miraculous skills? I’m not going to go down that road. Is God guiding the football? I don’t believe that,” he said.
Grace Building on Nature
Father Williams instead gave a primer on the teaching of grace building on nature and the effect that Tebow has on his teammates. He said if Tebow is “living a life united with Christ, that is going to affect him in everything he does.”
“He’s bearing witness to his teammates of what it means to be selfless, what it means to be generous, what it means to be positive — to build up other people. That catches on; that grace flows out of him and touches all of these other men to want to do the same,” he said.
“Do you think a guy after hanging out with Tim Tebow wants to turn around and be a selfish guy?” Father Williams added.
Father Williams — in a hypothetical meeting with Tebow — would want to engage him with aspects of Catholicism.
“If he loves Jesus that much, how could he not want to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, and how could he not want to experience the sacrament of reconciliation, where Christ forgives us of our sins?” said Father Williams.
He would also advise him to stay rooted in prayer.
“Every day you’ve got to get on your knees; you have to cling to Jesus. I think he’s doing this,” he said.
A Unique Cross
The practical effects of fame could suggest a very unique cross for Tebow.
In the press conference after the Broncos/Patriots game, he was asked about the attention and responded that sometimes he doesn’t want it at all. Yet he said he wouldn’t change it, as it has given him the opportunity to help others.
Along with taking a knee in prayer, now known as “tebowing,” and thanking Christ in interviews, Tebow has consistently shown his perspective and priority about football compared to other things. He made waves with a pro-life ad he was featured in with his mother during the 2010 Super Bowl and has also acknowledged his virginity.
“Football is amazing. We love it; we’re so passionate about it, as you can see right there,” said Tebow in a press conference after the Jan. 8 game.
“But the real win, at least I would say today, is being able to comfort a girl who’s gone through 73 surgeries before the game.”
Tebow was referring to teenager Bailey Knaub, whom he had met before kickoff. With his program Wish 15, the quarterback hosts Knaub, McLeod and others who have suffered traumatic illnesses and injuries — along with their families — at games and hangs out with them afterward, regardless of the score.
Take also his comments following a Christmas Eve loss to the Buffalo Bills. When asked how he was handling the loss, the quarterback recalled his mother teaching him to give both successes and disappointments to the Lord. “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.”
While Tebow spent most of his first season in the NFL as a backup, his football jersey has been the No. 1 seller. Then, in December, 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.
Kate Faughnan, a married mother of three in Colorado Springs, Colo., watches the Broncos with her family — including her 3-year-old son Eli, who yells the popular catchphrase “Tebow Time” on Sundays.
“Maybe that can be a challenge for us Catholics to be more of a witness to our faith,” she said of his expressions of faith.
The catchword for Tebow news stories is “polarizing,” as he is frequently described as the most polarizing player in the NFL or in sports.
Curtis Martin, the president and founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus) and 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.”
Martin said that 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.
For Catholics, Tebow has not been without controversy. His endorsement of Jockey underwear could be deemed problematic. 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.
“The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of Bob Tebow’s converts are poorly catechized Filipino Catholics,” he wrote.
Daviyd 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 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.”
“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 and finds Tebow’s witness to be a “stepping stone for a conversation” about Catholicism.
“He very clearly puts his beliefs out there, and it’s an opportunity to expand on that,” he said.
After the loss to the Patriots, the media swarmed to Tebow, but, eventually, the young quarterback prayed on the field with other players from both teams and trotted off to the locker room, head up.
“That I pray before games, during games, after games is regardless whether, you know, I win, whether I lose. ... I still honor the Lord and give him the glory, because he’s deserving of it,” said Tebow after the game at the recorded press conference. “Just like my effort shouldn’t change, neither should that, and so that’s how I try to approach it. And you know, sometimes even in a loss you can honor him more.”
Justin Bell writes from Boston. He attended the Jan. 14
Broncos/Patriots game in Foxborough, Massachusetts.