e arrives early, wearing a white T-shirt and red cotton shorts, and during the handshake he reaches out with his free hand, as if to say, I’m open to hugging, but I’ll leave it up to you. You would like him. He would like you. You would like Tim Tebow because he actually looks at you, instead of the floor, or the cars rolling past on Santa Monica Boulevard, and his mind seems nowhere else but here, with you, in this conference room at a law firm in Los Angeles, at 2:25 p.m. on a Tuesday in late October. He asks how your flight was, and are you hungry, or thirsty, and when you take a glass of water he asks would you like some ice, and you say no, and he says yes, of course you would, and pours ice in another glass.
This meeting has taken five months to arrange. He apologizes for having declined several previous interview requests and having told his close friends and relatives to do the same. Tebow loves to talk, with anyone, anywhere, about things both trivial and profound. But his fame has overshadowed his football career, threatening to destroy it, forcing him into seclusion. Football executives who consider signing him fear they will also be signing the Tim Tebow Circus, an unnerving combination of satellite trucks and fan-sponsored billboards, and Tebow cannot afford to appear to be seeking more attention. A note to those executives: If Tebow and his advisors had their way from the outset, this story never would have been written.
“I’m getting better every day,” he says, referring to his training sessions with the latest in a parade of personal coaches. “I’ve really been working a lot on my weaknesses, trying to make them strengths. And I think one of those main things is accuracy, especially on the short routes, touch [passes], intermediate throws, crossing routes. I feel like I’m improving on that daily. And I love what I do, and I’m still just as passionate, and fired up, and lovin’ the game. As always.”
There is no real precedent for his situation. Tebow is America’s most influential athlete, according to a poll of 1,100 adults published by Forbes in May, and he is also unemployed. In 23 months he became a starting NFL quarterback, won seven of eight games in exhilarating fashion, led the Broncos to an astonishing playoff win over the Steelers and was cast aside by the Broncos, Jets and Patriots. Every other team had a chance to pick him up, and none did. Now, at 26, in his early prime as an athlete, he is trying to become what he already was.
WHY CAN’T EVERY QUARTER BE THE FOURTH QUARTER?
or all who believe Tebow deserves a starting job in the NFL, there was no better day than Dec. 11, 2011, when the Broncos played the Bears on a warm afternoon in Denver. It was not his best game, or his most famous one, but two years later it remains the high point of his professional career. The believers call Tebow a winner, someone who always finds a way to get it done, and they had more evidence on their side in the days after this game than they have had at any other time. The Broncos were 1–4 when Tebow became their starter, and with a win on this day they would be 8–5. You could argue about his pocket awareness, his long delivery, the loose revolution of the ball from his hand, but the results were indisputable. With their old quarterback, the Broncos couldn’t win. With their new one, it seemed they couldn’t lose.
Tebow ran from the tunnel into the blazing sunlight, wearing a microphone from the NFL Network. Much of his life had been captured and broadcast in one way or another—in a bestselling autobiography, in at least two documentary films, in thousands of newspaper and magazine articles—and he understood that fame was a rare and valuable currency. Anyone could live a Christian life. Anyone could preach the Gospel. But if Tebow could do these things while excelling at America’s most popular sport, the effects would spread far and wide. Money would pour into his charitable foundation, helping him rescue orphans from China and build a hospital in the Philippines. People would read PHIL 4:13 on his eye-black and type it into Google and read the corresponding Bible verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” which would dovetail with Tebow’s strength and amazing feats, and then maybe people would wonder how Christ could strengthen them. In this sense the gridiron was Tebow’s church, a stage from which his action-packed sermons could be heard around the world.
“Put a wall of protection around my teammates today,” he prayed, kneeling on the sideline. “And we can go out there and we can honor You with everything we do and say. I love You. In Jesus’s name, amen.”
Tebow had been praying since he was a boy. At age five he was caught in a riptide off the Florida coast and swept into the Atlantic Ocean. His older brother Peter swam out and held him until a lifeguard pulled them in. After that Tim lay awake at night, wondering where his soul would go if he died. The Tebows were Southern Baptists, and they believed some particular things about Heaven. You couldn’t earn or buy your way in. You would never be good enough on your own. You were drowning, flailing in the waves, and somewhere up there God was watching, listening, waiting to reach down and pick you up. You only had to ask, and believe, and accept the gift of salvation. This is what Christians mean when they talk about grace. Tim Tebow was five years old when he first received it.
Now, on Sports Authority Field at Mile High, he sang during pregame warmups. The song was “Awesome God,” by the late Rich Mullins, a contemporary worship anthem. Tebow does not sing well. But his voice has a disarming quality, making you feel better about yourself by comparison, and this disarming continued after the game began. The Bears had a number of fierce defenders, men whose paychecks depended on crushing quarterbacks such as Tebow, and Tebow treated them like friends.
“What up, Lance Briggs?” he said to the All-Pro linebacker during a stoppage in play.
“What up, man. Hey, man. How you doin’, brother?”
“I’m doin’ all right,” Briggs said, almost sheepishly.
“I looked forward to playing you for a long time,” Tebow said.
“Me too,” Briggs said, as if adjusting to the notion of a friendly chat with the enemy.
“I love watchin’ you, brother,” Tebow said.
“Thank you, man,” Briggs said. Late in the first quarter he was flagged for hitting Tebow helmet-to-helmet.
Anyone who has played a sport knows how easy it is to be nice when you’re playing well. Tebow was awful in the first half, completing 3 of 13 passes for 45 yards, and he did not break character. On third-and-6 from the Bears’ 39 near the end of the first quarter, he went back to pass. The linemen put a wall of protection around him. He danced, rolled, danced, rolled, looked, looked, looked and finally threw after nine seconds, more than three times the average for an NFL quarterback to release the ball. Bears cornerback Charles Tillman stole it from the air and fell across the sideline, feet barely inbounds, breaking Tebow’s streak of 103 passes without an interception. Tebow smiled and put an arm around Tillman.
The Broncos led the NFL in three-and-outs, and in the first half they gained more yards by penalty than they did through the air. They stayed in the game because the Bears were even worse. The Bears had lost their starting quarterback, Jay Cutler, to a broken thumb, and their best running back, Matt Forte, to a sprained knee ligament, and their reserves had gone six quarters without a touchdown and 16 third downs without a conversion. The game was tied 0–0 at the half.
Early in the third quarter, after the sixth Bears punt in six possessions, Tebow faked a handoff and threw deep. He often throws 40 yards more accurately than he throws 10. This ball was on the money, in the hands of Demaryius Thomas, and Thomas let it fall. It should have been a touchdown. Instead the Broncos had to punt. Tebow had made some atrocious throws, along with several good ones that weren’t caught. He was now three of 15, zero for his last 10, and on the sideline he found Demaryius Thomas.
“Hey,” he said, putting an arm around him, “guess what. You’re about to go catch the game-winner here in a minute. So you good.”
“My fault, man,” said Thomas, a second-year receiver whose development had been slowed by injuries. In this game he had one catch and two drops.
“Hey,” Tebow said, “no big deal. It just makes it closer for a little bit longer, man. You’re about to go catch the game-winner. And then you’ll be the hero of the game.”
“Let’s do it,” Thomas said.
“Let’s go, baby,” Tebow said, grinning.
This is where they went: Three-and-out, and the Bears scored a touchdown, and three-and-out, and the Bears kicked a field goal, and three-and-out, and Tebow fumbled, and Thomas dropped another pass, and the Broncos punted again, giving the Bears the ball with a 10–0 lead and 5:41 left in the game. Where was Tebow leading them? Not toward a win. The Broncos were five minutes from being shut out at home for the first time in their 51-year history.
Here, then, was the mystery. Tebow always tried hard. In the weight room he lifted as much as the linemen did. In practice he tried to outrun receivers. He played every down of every game with the urgency of life and death. But in the NFL, that unflagging effort led to wildly inconsistent results. Today those results had been consistently horrible. And then, late in the fourth quarter of a close game, something changed. Something about last-minute desperation made Tebow play not harder, because that would have been impossible, but better. This ran counter to neuroscience, which showed that people under pressure usually perform below their abilities. Tebow didn’t just play his best when the situation was desperate. He seemed to become a different player.
A similar transformation had taken place in high school, in his sophomore year at Nease in Ponte Vedra, Fla., in a game his fans still talk about. Mainly they talk about the broken leg, the fibula that snapped in the second quarter, and the way Tebow kept running and kept scoring as the bone cracked and popped. What they may have forgotten is the way he played before the injury. He threw incomplete on a fake punt, missed a wide-open receiver on a deep ball, ran around for 10 seconds before throwing a ball that should have been picked off, ran into a sack, missed on one third down after another. His last pre-injury pass was intercepted. By then Nease trailed Pedro Menendez 24–7. What happened after that? Tebow played better on one leg than he had on two. And as the game film from Nease Sports Media shows, he didn’t just stand in the pocket. He scored his second touchdown of the game on what appeared to be a designed quarterback run, 18 yards through the heart of the defense, leaping over the last defender into the end zone and landing on the broken leg. You can imagine the pain. Someone kept calling quarterback runs. Seven yards. Three yards. He held the ball too long and got sacked and came up limping worse than ever. Only then did he throw his first touchdown pass. Tebow and Nease tied the game before losing 27–24 on a field goal with two seconds left. With an able-bodied quarterback they were 17 points worse than Menendez. With a broken one they were 14 points better.
Now Tebow watched from the Denver sideline as the Bears tried to run out the clock. Two first downs would seal the game. One might. But the Broncos’ defense stuffed three straight runs, forcing the 10th Bears punt in 12 possessions. Tebow got the ball at his own 37 with 4:34 left, trailing 10–0. The Bears sat back and covered the deep routes, so Tebow took what they gave him. Complete to Lance Ball twice, to Jeremiah Johnson twice. Four completions for 28 yards. And then, with the middle opened up, he fired to Demaryius Thomas for 19 more. He hit Thomas again, this time for seven, bringing up second down at the Bears’ 10 just outside the two-minute warning.
The next play showed Tebow’s improvisational talent. He dropped eight yards back to pass, and for a moment he had a clean pocket and a receiver breaking toward the end zone with a step on his man. Could he have made that throw? Maybe. The average NFL quarterback probably could have. But Tebow is not the average NFL quarterback. He sprinted toward the end zone, toward that open receiver, daring Bears cornerback Zackary Bowman to come up and tackle him. Bowman froze. Tebow ran to the line of scrimmage, never quite stepping over, luring the defender even farther in. By the time the ball sailed over the five-yard line, Thomas was about as open as you’ll ever see an NFL receiver. This time he held on.
It wasn’t quite the winning touchdown, but it made the game close. The Broncos trailed 10–7 with 2:08 left and no timeouts. Matt Prater squibbed a perfect onside kick, putting it up for grabs, but two Broncos collided on their way to the ball. The Bears recovered. The game was all but over.
“Dear Jesus, I need you,” Tebow prayed aloud, hands together, fingers intertwined. “Please come through for me. No matter what, win or lose, Lord, give me the strength to honor you.”
Here the Bears made an inexplicable error. On second down, running back Marion Barber ran dangerously close to the sideline, and Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams shoved him out. The clock stopped. The Bears punted again. If Barber had stayed inbounds, Tebow probably would’ve gotten the ball with about 15 seconds left. Instead he had 56.
From his own 20, Tebow found Eric Decker in the flat. Decker spun away from Charles Tillman to get out of bounds. Tebow hit Lance Ball for 12 more yards and then spiked the ball to stop the clock. Second down from his own 40 with 30 seconds left. He made a brilliant throw just before Brian Urlacher leveled him on a blitz. Complete at midfield to Matthew Willis, who ran out of bounds at the Chicago 41. Two incompletions and a scramble out of bounds set up fourth down with eight seconds left. Prater came on for a 59-yard field goal. It would have been good from 70.
“Thank you, Lord,” Tebow said.
The Bears won the toss in overtime. Three completions later they were in field-goal range. On third down from the Denver 38, Barber took the handoff and broke through the line and seemed on a path to the winning touchdown until Broncos linebacker Wesley (the Lumberjack) Woodyard snagged Barber by the right hand, clung to his white glove and pried his arm off the ball. The Broncos recovered the fumble. When Tebow strolled onto the field, he was singing a song called “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High.”
Now the win seemed inevitable. On third-and-8, Tebow hit Thomas for 10 yards. Two plays later Thomas made a wonderful catch for 16 more. Tebow picked up five on a quarterback draw. The Broncos reached the Bears’ 33 and brought on Prater again. He drilled it from 51 yards. Broncos 13, Bears 10. Tebow had won seven of eight games as a starter that season. Fireworks burst as he pointed to the sky. In the first three quarters his quarterback rating was 13.5. In the fourth quarter and overtime: 111.6.
“I tell you,” said Fox Sports analyst Daryl (Moose) Johnston, “if you’re not a believer coming into this game, you have to be now.”
The Broncos were believers, and then they were not. Three months later they shipped Tebow off to New York to make way for Peyton Manning. If the Jets had a plan for Tebow, it never materialized. He threw only eight passes in the 2012 season. After the Jets cut him, he waited six weeks on the open market before the Patriots brought him in as a third-stringer for training camp. He did not survive preseason cuts.
As time went on, Tebow’s NFL career became a sort of national Rorschach test. What you saw there said as much about you as it did about Tebow. There were enough conflicting facts to build any number of arguments. What he had done on the field that year got so mixed up with religion and politics that it became dangerous to mention his name in public. Dozens of former teammates declined to comment for this story. Just as anything you said about Tebow was right, anything you said was wrong. And probably offensive to someone. To many Christians he was a hero, a paragon of virtue in an age of great sin, and this feeling complicated any rational measurement of his quarterbacking talent. Those in the mainstream media knew this, and thus began prefacing their opinions by saying Just a great kid, but. . . . Nicest guy you’ll ever meet, but. . . . Phenomenal athlete, but. . . but those prefaces only made it worse. Then you had the people who made a job of offending others, and for a while Tebow paid their mortgages. He was white, male, straight and Christian, so in 21st-century Western civilization you could assail him at no risk to your own standing among the politically correct. The British comedian John Oliver told an audience that if he were in a room with Tebow and Osama bin Laden and he had a gun with two bullets, he would shoot Tebow first. Did Oliver get in trouble for that? No. He was chosen as substitute host of The Daily Show.
But if you pulled free from the culture wars, the debate over Tebow came down to two inseparable questions. Did he deserve to win all those games? And does he deserve a chance to win more?
Questions like these had been swirling since his college days at Florida, where he crossed paths with a freshman quarterback named Cam Newton.
WAS CAM NEWTON BETTER THAN TIM TEBOW?
ast Christmas Eve, near the end of Tebow’s disastrous year with the Jets, Bomani Jones put another log on the fire. “While Cam Newton was at Florida, Tebow wasn’t the most talented quarterback on campus,” Jones wrote on SB Nation. “After winning the Heisman Trophy, according to sources, he was outperformed by Newton in practice, yet Tebow [understandably] remained the starter. Newton was promised an opportunity to start in ’08, but he never had a real chance given Urban Meyer’s affection and preference for Tebow.”
It was a convenient time for such an argument. Newton had left Florida, won a Heisman Trophy for Auburn, risen to the top of the NFL draft board and started the past two seasons for the Panthers, throwing for nearly 8,000 yards. Tebow had fallen to third string for a losing team, behind Mark Sanchez, who made two turnovers for every touchdown pass that year, and Greg McElroy, a seventh-round pick with one career start. Jones suggested that Tebow’s whole career had been a product of preferential treatment. Deadspin ran a post on Jones’ article with the headline TIM TEBOW IS A CODDLED MALCONTENT.
The main problem with Jones’ argument was obvious. No coach in his right mind would have opened a Gators quarterback competition in the spring of 2008. Tebow had just won the Maxwell Award and the Davey O’Brien Award and been named the Associated Press Player of the Year. He was the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. He had accounted for 55 touchdowns that season in the toughest conference in college football. If Urban Meyer had even considered a quarterback change, they would have run him out of Gainesville with pitchforks.
Nevertheless, Tebow’s intersection with Newton has real significance. Twelve former Gators spoke with SI about it, and their recollections say a lot about what Tebow was given and what he earned.
Any conversation about Florida quarterbacks from that period has to begin with Chris Leak. He was a senior when Tebow arrived in 2006, and that season he led the Gators to the national championship. Here’s what the former Florida players remember about Leak: He threw a perfect spiral, the prettiest ball they’d ever seen. Then he graduated, leaving the job open for the ’07 season. Of the two best quarterbacks in camp that spring, one threw a pretty ball. That was Cam Newton, a 6' 5", 240-pound freshman whose physical talents seemed almost too great to be true. The other was Tim Tebow.
Was it a fair competition? No. The timing made that impossible. Tebow had already been there a year, learning how to be a college quarterback. He was almost two years older than Newton—19, while Newton was still 17—and it showed. The Gators liked Newton. They laughed at his jokes. But he treated football like a game while playing for a coach who treated it like war. You’re charging the beach, Meyer told the players. If the guy in front of you goes down, you just pick up his rifle and keep charging. In this context Tebow made perfect sense as the starting quarterback. His throws may have fluttered sometimes. He may have tucked and run too soon. He may have thrown too many interceptions in practice. But he was a warrior. He inspired his teammates to fight harder. Some of this inspiration he achieved by yelling, loud and hoarse, like the frontman of a hardcore band, but mainly he inspired with his play: headlong, reckless, without fear or sensibility. Let’s say you were an offensive lineman, like Jim Tartt, and every spring you had shoulder surgery, and your cartilage was gone, leaving bone on bone, and you needed adrenalin to get you through the searing pain. Tebow was your quarterback. He was just as strong as you were, and he flattened guys like you did, and he endured pain like you did. That fall against Kentucky, Tebow separated his right shoulder and then lowered that same shoulder to smash a guy and score the touchdown that sealed the win. Against Florida State his non-throwing right hand was broken between two helmets. Tebow finished the game.
Yes, Newton was the more talented passer. He did some things in practice that would take your breath away. But nine of 10 Gators told SI they would have chosen Tebow as their starter in the spring of 2007. He was talented enough, and he worked harder, and he wanted it more. In the spring of ’08, Tebow no longer had to prove he was the starter. He’d just won the Heisman. Before the annual Orange and Blue scrimmage, he had a fever of 102º and vomited so much that he needed IV fluids. He played anyway, completing 13 of 21 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions. Newton went six of 18 for 53 yards.
Tebow and the Gators were so good in his three seasons as starter that they rarely needed a fourth-quarter comeback. When they needed one against Ole Miss in 2008, they fell short by a blocked extra point in a 31–30 loss. In his postgame press conference, Tebow made a promise. “A lot of good will come out of this,” he said. “You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season. You will never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of the season. You will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season. God bless.” And he followed through. The Gators beat Arkansas by 31, LSU by 30, Kentucky by 58, Georgia by 39, Vanderbilt by 28, South Carolina by 50. Down 20–17 in the fourth quarter of the SEC championship game against Alabama, Tebow changed his tactics. In the huddle he looked from one player to another without a word. Just looked them all in the eyes. Then he led them on two touchdown drives and a 31–20 victory on the way to another national championship. The Gators lost to Alabama in the next year’s conference title game, but Tebow delivered his best statistical performance in the last game of his college career. Against Cincinnati in the 2010 Sugar Bowl he completed 31 of 35 passes for 482 yards.
By then the notion of finishing strong had permeated his thinking. It would appear often in his autobiography, Through My Eyes, co-written with Nathan Whitaker. “Eventually some people are going to stop,” he wrote, “some people are going to quit, and some people are going to start going slower, but the people who can finish and finish at the same pace or stronger than when they started, those are the ones who are going to succeed; those are the ones who are going to be great.” He visited men in prison, some on Death Row, and this is what he told them: Forget about the first three quarters. You can still finish strong in life.
WHY WAS TIM TEBOW AT A BAR WITH AARON HERNANDEZ?
ebow’s former teammates answer one question more often than any other: Is he really that good? This is not a football question. It pertains to his character, his virtuous public image, which inspires both love and hatred. If you want a reason to hate Tebow, the answer to the question doesn’t matter. If the answer is no (he is only pretending to be good), then you hate him for being a fraud. If the answer is yes (he really is that virtuous) you hate him even more. When John Oliver said he would shoot Tim Tebow before shooting Osama bin Laden, it was easy to understand why. You know you’re better than a terrorist. With Tebow you can’t be sure.
The question took on a new dimension last summer, when Tebow’s former Gators teammate Aaron Hernandez was charged with the first-degree murder of a man named Odin Lloyd in Massachusetts. He was investigated in the shooting deaths of two other men in Boston. He was accused in a lawsuit of shooting yet another man in the face. He was identified by a witness as the possible shooter of two more men in Gainesville during his freshman year with the Gators. None of it had been proven, but six men had been shot and three were dead, and the cases appeared to have Aaron Hernandez in common. In the midst of all this, yet another violent incident involving Hernandez came to light. The first witness named in the police report was Timothy Richard Tebow.
On the last Friday night of April 2007, before he’d started a game at quarterback, Tebow went out to The Swamp, a restaurant and bar on University Avenue in Gainesville. With him were Shaun Young, a tennis player who would later accompany Tebow on a missionary trip to the Philippines, and Aaron Hernandez, who would be a freshman tight end for the Gators that fall. Young was 21, Tebow 19, Hernandez 17. Despite Hernandez’s age, a server brought him two liquor drinks. Hernandez would later deny ordering the drinks, but he would not deny consuming them. The problem arose when it came time to pay for them. Hernandez apparently believed the drinks were free. The manager believed otherwise. He waved the bill around, saying, “What about this?” He got in Hernandez’s face. A woman tried to pay the bill, but the manager ignored her. Tebow tried and failed to make peace. Hernandez punched the manager, bursting his left eardrum, and ran away so fast that he left behind one black sneaker.
Although Tebow feared negative media attention, he cooperated with the police. He helped arrange an interview between officers and Hernandez later that night. During that interview, both Tebow and Hernandez said they had already called Gators head coach Urban Meyer and told him about the incident. The police prepared a sworn complaint for felony battery. And then, about two weeks later, an officer visited Michael Taphorn, the injured restaurant manager. “Taphorn did state that he has been contacted by legal staff and coaches with UF and that they are working on an agreement however nothing has been finalized,” the report said. “Taphorn stated that he may request that the charges be dropped.” Hernandez was not prosecuted.
The situation makes more sense in historical perspective. When Meyer took over for Ron Zook in 2005, he repeatedly told the players, I inherited a real bag of s--t. (Former Gators Roderick Blackett, Tony Joiner and Kyle Jackson all remember this.) Meyer may have been talking about the program in general, but Zook’s leftover players saw the statement as an example of what soon became a double standard in the way Meyer treated players: Good players got away with more than worse players did, and Meyer’s recruits got away with more than Zook’s did.
In retrospect, the Hernandez-Taphorn incident looks like a good example of this. Hernandez was Meyer’s recruit, and poised to be a superstar. If he was disciplined for throwing the punch, which he admitted to police that he had done, that discipline did not remove him from the Gators’ lineup. He played all 13 games in the 2007 season. Hernandez also failed at least one drug test, with only minor repercussions. Meanwhile, fullback Eric Rutledge, one of Zook’s recruits, tested positive for marijuana and was removed from the team with one game left in his senior season and then banned from Florida’s Pro Day, thus limiting his chances to audition for the NFL. Rutledge and two teammates say it was the only rules violation of his four-year career.
“If it really was the first time he got busted for it, I think it’s bull---- that he got kicked off the team,” says Jim Tartt, a captain under Meyer who made 33 starts at left guard. He says several other players routinely smoked marijuana, “and they were still on the team, and they were superstars, and Urban was talkin’ [positively] about ’em every day.”
Six former players told SI that Meyer’s disciplinary practices seemed inconsistent or unfair: Tartt, who manages controlled burns for the Florida Forest Service; Kyle Jackson, a three-year starting defensive back and now a chiropractor in Jacksonville; Rutledge, who was charged in a home invasion in 2010 but later cleared for lack of evidence; Roderick Blackett, a linebacker who now has his MBA and works as a financial consultant for PNC Bank; Lawrence Marsh Pinkney, a defensive tackle who started 18 games for the Gators; and Tony Joiner, a captain and starting safety whose brief tenure as Tebow’s roommate sheds light on Tebow’s ability to make friends even in unfavorable circumstances.
If coaches are fathers, and players are sons, Tebow was Meyer’s favorite son. Meyer did not have to bend the rules for Tebow. He could have written them from Tebow’s example. Joiner had been arrested twice in three years, once on a misdemeanor domestic-violence charge and once in connection with underage drinking, and although the charges had been dropped, Meyer saw him as a character risk. When Joiner wanted to live in an off-campus apartment, Meyer said he could, but he would have to bring Tebow. Joiner was a senior, a defensive captain, an African-American, and he felt as if the coach had just made a white sophomore his babysitter.
This seems like a surefire way to breed resentment. And it did. For various reasons, Joiner still feels hurt by Meyer. So do Jackson and Rutledge and Telly Concepcion, a reserve cornerback who was excused from the team following a back injury and couldn’t get a face-to-face meeting with Meyer about it. Here’s the point, though. There are many players who will always love Meyer. And some who resent him. You might think this second group would also resent Meyer’s favorite son. You would be wrong. To a man, they love Tim Tebow.
Despite the odd arrangement, Joiner liked being Tebow’s roommate. They ate Honey Bunches of Oats and watched Prison Break on DVD while hiding from the stalkers who wrote I LOVE YOU TIM in whipped cream on Tebow’s car. It was a real tightrope, respecting Meyer’s authority while winning the respect of players who had lost respect for Meyer, and somehow Tebow made it across. How? He treated everyone the same. He listened when guys told him their troubles, and he kept them confidential. He wasn’t close friends with everyone, because that would have been impossible, but he tried to meet people halfway, including Aaron Hernandez and Tony Joiner, who liked to go out. Tebow didn’t drink, but he didn’t wall himself off either. Sometimes he went to bars and drank water. One time in Jacksonville Joiner wanted to get drinks at Hooters. Tebow went with him and ordered a slushie. Was he really there to keep watch? Who knows. But he seemed to be Joiner’s friend, genuine to the core, and Joiner gave him the benefit of the doubt. Much has been made of Tebow’s premarital abstinence, and Joiner has no evidence to the contrary. Sometimes a girl came by the apartment, whereupon Joiner quietly excused himself. He didn’t want to interrupt their reading.
The cohabitation ended suddenly, in January 2008, after Florida’s 41–35 loss to Michigan in the Capital One Bowl. Joiner says he came home and found that Tebow had moved to a different apartment in the same complex. That led to an awkward conversation. According to Joiner, Tebow politely explained that “it was told to him that it was in his best interests that he no longer live with me.” Joiner had played his last game for the Gators, and thus needed no more watching. He had neither asked for the living arrangement with Tebow nor asked for it to end. It was a situational friendship, and pretty good while it lasted. In September, after Tebow threw a touchdown pass against Tennessee, Joiner found him on the sideline and kissed him on the cheek.
WHY DID IT GO SO WRONG WITH THE JETS?
here’s a revealing moment in the documentary film Tim Tebow: Everything In Between, directed by Chase Heavener, which covers the 111 days between the end of Tebow’s college football career and the 2010 NFL draft. The moment comes early in the film, when Jimmy Sexton auditions for the role of Tebow’s agent.
“Y’all speak very well,” Tebow says when the pitch is done, “but, you know, a lot of people, around the country, either believe in me or don’t believe in me. Or they say I can do this or I can’t do this. You know, if you wanna draft me, then draft me. If you wanna recruit me, or you think I’ma be a quarterback, then I will be. If not, don’t talk to me, cause I want someone that wants me.”
Tebow was one of the best college football players of all time, but draft experts were skeptical. Just as the best college coaches often fail in the NFL, the best college quarterbacks often fail, too. You can see this pattern in a list of the last 11 quarterbacks to win the Heisman before Tebow did. Carson Palmer (2002) had a decent NFL career, but look at the 10 others:
Although Tebow ranked second in NCAA history for career passing efficiency (170.8), scouts looked for things that didn’t show up in the numbers. Why were Matt Ryan (2008) and Matthew Stafford (’09) both drafted in the top three even though their college statistics were vastly inferior to Tebow’s? Their skills appeared more transferable to the pro game. They ran plays that looked like NFL plays; they made the same difficult throws that NFL quarterbacks had to make; they released the ball before the receiver got open and had it in his hands as he came out of his break. Tebow knew about timing patterns, about going through reads and progressions. In high school one of his favorite plays was Tornado, a Y-cross with a three-step drop where you look for the skinny post and then the 15-yard crossing route and then, if necessary, dump it to the halfback on a five-yard out. Then he got to Florida, where winning games and impressing scouts did not always correlate. Meyer’s spread-option attack busted up the SEC, but it didn’t put as many NFL throws on film as the evaluators would have liked. Of course Tebow made great throws, and hard ones. But the draft experts saw a lot of easy ones, too. The hash marks are closer to the sidelines in college football than they are in the NFL, and smart college coaches such as Meyer use them well. Say the ball is snapped from the right hash. That leaves the left side of the field open for lateral movement. Tebow throws a bubble screen out there to a world-class speedster such as Jeff Demps or Chris Rainey or Percy Harvin and watches him beat everyone to the corner and rip off 40 yards to the end zone. In the record books, Tebow just completed a 40-yard touchdown pass. But as Greg Cosell of NFL Films puts it, that’s a pass “that you or I could complete.”
Denver drafted Tebow in the first round, 25th overall, astonishing the experts, who thought he’d fall to the third or fourth round. Broncos executives interviewed Tebow for six hours and saw traits the numbers couldn’t show: poise, leadership, competitive spirit, superlative work ethic. It was just the scenario Tebow had described to Jimmy Sexton. Broncos coach Josh McDaniels believed in him. Wanted him. Drafted him. And got fired late in the 2010 season after losing 17 of his last 22 games.
John Fox took over as head coach. John Elway took over football operations. Neither man had chosen Tebow. And after the improbable 2011 season ended with a 45–10 playoff loss to the Patriots, they chose someone else: Peyton Manning, the four-time league MVP.
Now came a pivotal moment in Tebow’s career. The Broncos put him on the trading block. The Jets and Jaguars made similar offers. It’s been widely reported that the Broncos gave Tebow an unusual privilege: They let him choose where he would be traded. Tebow was asked about this at his introductory news conference with the Jets, and he answered the question without answering the question. To say he’d chosen the Jets would have been to say he’d chosen not to go home and play for his most loyal fans. But the Jaguars’ owner said it for him. In an interview with The Florida Times-Union, Shahid Khan said, “We’ve offered more money, and we have a higher draft pick. It’s up to the player. It’s not up to me. We’ve done everything. In a way, this turned out great. . . . We would have blown through a draft pick, blown through money, because cash and salary cap, you’ve blown through all that, and we have a player who doesn’t want to be there.”
In hindsight it looks like a bad decision by Tebow. Maybe a career-killer. Whatever happened in Jacksonville could have been no worse than what happened with the Jets. But Tebow didn’t know it then. In Jacksonville, the fans wanted him. The owner wanted him. But former coach Mike Mularkey later said on NBC Sports Network that he thought Tebow would have been a distraction, “and that’s not something you want for your football team.” Meanwhile, Jets coach Rex Ryan did want Tebow. He had mysterious plans that involved Tebow and the Wildcat offense. Tebow had led a 95-yard drive to beat the Jets the previous November, giving Ryan such a fit of indigestion that someone called the paramedics.
Ryan knew what Tebow could do with the game on the line. But Ryan never gave him a chance to do it for the Jets. Here’s one explanation: Try as he might, Tebow can’t play consistently in practice. At Florida, he played better in games than in practice. Same thing in Denver. In Will To Win, a positive book about Tebow written just after the 2011 season, Denver Post football writer Mike Klis said Tebow “may be the NFL’s worst practice player.” He was no different with the Jets. He gave up on reads and took off running. He threw some good deep balls, but his short passes were often wild. In preseason games he was 13 of 36 for 151 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and a rating of 26.5. It no longer mattered what Tebow had done to the Jets. In practice and preseason, he couldn’t do the same for the Jets.
Late in October Tebow sat down with Manish Mehta, Jets beat writer for New York’s Daily News.
Mehta: Do you think you’re a better player now than you were at the end of last season?
Tebow: Yes . . . Why? Just because you can’t show it?
Mehta: There’s no tangible evidence of it.
Tebow: That’s for you. I don’t have to convince you of it. It’s about me believing that I’m better.
Tebow worked hard and quietly did his job. It must have been the first time a quarterback who had won a playoff game the previous season was asked to serve primarily as a decoy on punts. “I had a ball with him,” says Mike Westhoff, the Jets’ special teams coach. If Tebow had to be a personal punt protector, he wanted to be the best in the league. On fourth-and-3 against the Dolphins, he ran for five yards on a fake punt in Jets territory. That led to a field goal, which eventually led to overtime, and the Jets won 23–20. He converted another fake punt against the Texans in a game the Jets might have won if not for a late interception thrown by starting quarterback Mark Sanchez. Against the Colts Tebow did it again, completing a 23-yard pass on fourth-and-11 that led to a touchdown in a 35–9 win. Then the Jets lost three straight, and Tebow suffered cracked ribs against the Seahawks. By the time he came back, Sanchez had played himself out of the starting job. In a three-game stretch with a playoff berth on the line, Sanchez had one touchdown, seven interceptions and two lost fumbles. The Jets were eliminated with two games left in the season. Ryan benched Sanchez.
“We thought if there was gonna be a change made, it would be the number two,” says Eric Smith, the veteran safety. “Which was Tebow.”
Mehta had been merciless in the interview, merciless again in a story in that quoted anonymous players who questioned Tebow's quarterbacking ability. But even Mehta thought Tebow should have started a game. “He kept his mouth shut, he did what the coaches asked him to do,” the writer says. “This guy did nothing to deserve being passed over.”
Ryan passed him over. He started third-string quarterback Greg McElroy against the Chargers, who sacked McElroy 11 times and gave him a season-ending concussion. One game remained, and Ryan had another choice to make.
You could argue he had nothing to lose by starting Tebow. But the opposite was true. Ryan had nothing to gain. Tebow could have made him look good in Week 1, or Week 5, or even Week 10. Now, with the playoffs out of the question, Tebow could only make him look bad. The better he played, the worse Ryan would look. Everyone would ask why he hadn’t gone with Tebow sooner.
Ryan passed him over again, unbenching Sanchez for the last game. Tebow did not play a down. He had embarrassed Ryan with a strong finish in 2011, and he would not get a chance to do it again.
DID TIM TEBOW KNEEL AT THE ALTAR OF POLITICAL CORRECTNESS?
ix weeks later, on Feb. 14, 2013, the The Huffington Post published a story under the following headline: TIM TEBOW, JETS QUARTERBACK, TO SPEAK AT VIRULENTY ANTI-GAY, ANTI-SEMITIC CHURCH FIRST BAPTIST DALLAS.
The Daily News published a story called TIM’S HATE DATE, and other news outlets followed suit. Mike Bianchi, an Orlando Sentinel columnist who calls himself a Tebow fan, wrote, “Why is he risking it all? Why has Tim Tebow agreed to speak at a church where the head pastor is filled with venom, vitriol, castigation and condemnation for anybody who doesn’t believe quite what he believes? Say it ain’t so, Timmy. Cancel your April 28 appearance at this church and immediately tell its hateful pastor you have a previous engagement.”
This collision was inevitable, given Tebow’s history and his place in modern culture. He grew up in First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla., one of the larger churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. Although three-quarters of American adults call themselves Christians, and the bulk of those Christians are Protestants, and Southern Baptists are the largest group of American Protestants, with some 16 million members, the Southern Baptist worldview has less in common every year with the prevailing American worldview. Preaching has gone out of style in America. So has telling people what they should or shouldn’t do, and telling them there’s only one way to get to Heaven, and telling them they need to renounce their old ways or they’ll probably go to Hell. Southern Baptists haven’t changed much. They mostly say and do what they’ve always said and done, but those things have become unfashionable in the Age of I’m OK, You’re OK. And being unfashionable is OK with some Southern Baptists. Certainly it is with the Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas. He’s not afraid to say, No, you’re not OK, and this lack of fear has made him a cultural heretic.
One week after The Huffington Post story appeared, Tebow made a four-part announcement on his verified Twitter feed. “While I was looking forward to sharing a message of hope and Christ’s unconditional love with the faithful members of the historic First Baptist Church of Dallas in April, due to new information that has been brought to my attention, I have decided to cancel my upcoming appearance. I will continue to use the platform God has blessed me with to bring Faith, Hope and Love to all those needing a brighter day. Thank you for all of your love and support. God Bless!”
The Rev. Jeffress took the stage that Sunday to a 30-second standing ovation. He wiped away a tear. He thanked a dozen Christian leaders by name for their public support. “You know, I am grateful,” he said. “I am grateful for men of God like these who are willing to stand up and act like men, rather than wimping out when it gets a little controversial and an inconvenient thing to stand for the truth.”
A shiver of applause ran through the congregation. Jeffress did not have to say Tebow’s name. “Now, there are some people who would say, ‘Well, God’s given me a different ministry. God has called me to go out and preach about the love of God. That’s what I’m called to do. I’m not called to preach about sin, and talk about controversial things. I’ve been called to talk about the love of God. And they’re sincere when they say that. But they are sincerely wrong. The fact is, you cannot talk about the love of God—the love of God has no meaning whatsoever unless you understand the judgment of God that all of us deserve.”
“I had a little revival and recommitment in my life this week. And I recommitted to God, and to this congregation, that as long as I’m the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, we are not going to kneel before the altar of political correctness and convenience. We’re gonna stand up and boldly proclaim the grace of God and the truth of God without compromise. So help me, God.”
Tebow had appeased some critics in the media, but now the pastor of a major church in his native denomination had publicly called him a coward. Others chimed in. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association wrote of Tebow, “If his NFL career washes out, this street cred with the Christian community is all he has left. He is squandering that enormous reservoir of goodwill and admiration as we speak, by taking a knee rather than stepping up in the pocket.”
Tebow made no public response, but six months later he sat on a golf cart in a tunnel beneath Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., and talked with SI about some of the things Jeffress brought up.
“Do you still think of yourself as a Baptist?” he was asked. “Or is it sort of bigger than that?”
“Bigger,” he said. “Yeah. For me, at home I still go to First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Fla. And love it, and love that church. But for me, the church is not about the name on the building. Church is about the people inside the building. And it’s about relationships, which, that’s what Christianity is about. Christianity is not a religion. Christianity is having a relationship with Jesus Christ. And, you know, I—one of my bigger goals is to . . . be able to break that down. Break some of those barriers, and bring people together. Say, you know what? We’re on the same team. We’re on the same side. And let’s bring people together.
“I wanna be someone, as a person, that is, is loving? That is not judging. . . . We all have our faults. We all fail. We all mess up. We all make mistakes. So I’m not gonna be someone that is gonna try to, y’know, point that out in other people. I wanna be someone that loves them. You know? I’m a big quote person, and, um, y’know, one of my favorite quotes, and I can’t—I forgot who it’s from, but it’s, you know, Every day we share the Gospel. But every now and then we use words. You know? Meaning, we share what we believe every day in how we act. How we treat people. How we love people.”
The interview was supervised by Stacey James, vice president of media relations for the Patriots. A flood of requests for Tebow had put James in an awkward position. He knew Tebow made the Patriots sound good every time he opened his mouth, but he also knew that coach Bill Belichick didn’t want undue attention paid to a new third-string quarterback who hadn’t even made the 53-man roster. After weeks of internal discussion, James granted SI the only one-on-one interview of Tebow’s brief career with the Patriots. He had spent some political capital arranging it, and had said it would last no more than 15 minutes. Now it was pushing 20. “And with that,” James said, “I’ve gotta give you the hook.”
Tebow wanted to keep going. He spoke loudly above the drone of heavy equipment.
“I was told by a really wealthy man one time—he said, ‘Timmy, do you know how you make a lot of money?’ I said, ‘How do you make a lot of money?’ He said, ‘You make money while you sleep. You make money while you eat. You make money when you’re just going off, hangin’ with your family.’ I said, ‘All right.’ And then he said, ‘But money isn’t important.’
“I started to think about that, and that’s when I kinda came up with my overall philosophy of what I want out of my foundation. How can you help a lot of people? Well, I can go and I can talk and I can share and I can go to hospitals and orphanages and prisons and, you know. But I can only do—I only have so many hours. I can only do so many things. Well, how can we impact a lot of people? It’s by bringing people together. So even when I’m sleeping, when I’m eating, when I’m with my family, when I’m playin’ football, we’re still makin’ a difference in people’s lives. We’re still putting smiles on kids’ faces. We’re still bringing faith, hope and love. And so, like, you wanna look at a big picture of what my heart is about? That’s what my heart is about. Impacting lives, even when I don’t have to be there, and so when I’m dead and gone, we’re still impacting lives, and we’re still making a difference, and we’re still encouraging people. And, big-picture way of how I look at life and my goal, that’s how I look at it. And that’s what I want. And, y’know, it’s, ’cause, y’know you can take the same philosophy that people have in money, but I do it for lives.”
Now James gave the hook, and Tebow made for the locker room.
“Kinda gets you all fired up,” the reporter said on the way down the tunnel.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t get me fired,” James said.
Tebow’s foundation gives money and assistance for about 850 orphans in five countries. It helps Americans adopt foreign children with special needs. Along with CURE International, the Tebow Foundation is building a hospital in the Philippines where children will get affordable surgery to correct bow legs, club feet and cleft palates. More than 18,000 people have joined Team Tebow, a loose collective of volunteers doing good in their own communities. And the foundation has granted wishes for more than 40 children with life-threatening illnesses.
One of those children is Alexis Lato, a 12-year-old athlete and straight-A student from Orange Park, Fla. Early in 2012, Alexis suffered a stroke. It turned out she had a rare genetic disease called neurofibromatosis Type 2, which meant tumors were growing in her nervous system. She needed brain surgery, weeks in a rehab hospital, steroids that weakened her bones and made her face swell like a balloon. Alexis and her family liked the Giants, but they also liked Tebow, even though he played for the Jets. Alexis had often seen him on SportsCenter, and she remembered his tuneless rendition of “Awesome God” from the day of the Bears game. When she got a chance to have a wish granted, she said, “I wanna meet Tim.”
The Tebow Foundation does nice things with a competitive fire that reflects Tebow’s will to win. “I want to be the best at wish-granting in the country,” says executive director Erik Dellenback. And so, when the Lato family flew to New York to meet Tebow in December, every detail was just right. They stayed at the Hyatt, which was a nice change for her parents from sleeping on hospital floors, and the room was stocked with Gatorade and Sprite and M&Ms and huge chocolate-chip cookies. The family rode in a limousine to Carlo’s Bake Shop and the Hard Rock Café and Macy’s and FAO Schwarz and Newsies on Broadway, where Alexis went backstage to meet the cast. On Sunday the Latos watched the Jets beat the Cardinals from a luxury suite while eating nachos and chicken tenders and frosted brownies. Tebow was still recovering from his broken ribs, so he couldn’t play, but he spent more than two hours with the Latos after the game. Alexis had her own injury, a broken vertebra that kept her in a wheelchair, and Tebow wheeled her around the field for half an hour, talking about life. He recorded the voicemail greeting on her phone. Alexis called her friends one by one and asked them to call her back and then pressed IGNORE so they would hear the recording: Hi, this is Alexis’s phone, but this is actually Tim Tebow.
On the first day of summer, four months after the Jeffress incident, Tebow spoke at the National Peanut Festival fairgrounds in Dothan, Ala. If he had lost any evangelical street cred for cancelling on Jeffress, he still had plenty left over. His fans came from Florida, Tennessee, northwestern Iowa. They felt good about paying $40 to get in, or $100 for VIP seating, because after expenses the money was pledged to charity. Some paid $500 for a face-to-face meeting with Tebow in an air-conditioned warehouse. Some got to meet him for free—including Jennifer Clark, 25, who had cerebral palsy and couldn’t walk or talk.
“Hey, sweetheart,” Tebow said, and he took his time with each person. Outside the air was hot, alive with gnats, and people huddled in the shadow of the outdoor stage. They represented the Gators, the Auburn Tigers, the Crimson Tide. They were patient and orderly. “I just love him,” said 19-year-old Taylor Grice. “I love that he stands up for what he believes in.”
Mark Schultz, the opening act, sang about Heaven and glory and mercy and soldiers writing home. The sun set behind the stage. The moon rose behind the crowd. “How we doin’, Dothan?” Tebow said, taking the stage in dark jeans and a plaid shirt whose rolled-up sleeves displayed his muscular forearms. “Good to see y’all.” Then he settled in with the Rev. Jim Tate of Dothan’s Memphis Baptist Church.
“Your siblings had a nickname for you, growing up,” Tate said.
“They had a lot of nicknames for me,” Tebow said. “I think the one you’re referring to is Timmy the Tumor.
“When my mom was pregnant with me, she had a lot of complications in that pregnancy, and a lot of the doctors told her that she needed to have an abortion or she would lose her life. And at first, they didn’t even think I was a baby. They just thought I was a tumor. And, obviously the name, Timmy the Tumor. And so my mom just trusted God with the pregnancy, and, y’know, throughout the whole time, and they found out after I was born that the placenta wasn’t attached the whole time, and there was miracle after miracle, but my mom just trusted God the whole time. And I was a little malnourished, but I made up for it pretty quickly.”
He told many stories about love and grace. After he collided with the Steelers’ Troy Polamalu, they bestowed God’s blessings on each other. After he told Alabama coach Mike Shula that he’d attend Florida, Shula said, “I love you.” After he finished strong for the Gators, Urban Meyer pulled off his headset and gave him a big hug and said, “I love you.”
Did Tebow kneel at the altar of political correctness? Maybe it doesn’t matter. There’s another way to boldly proclaim the grace of God: by loving people without judgment.
“How special would it be,” he said as night fell on Alabama, “for Him to pull off his headsets that run this world, and come up to me, arms open wide, and squeeze me, and embrace me, and hold me, and say, ‘Timmy, I just want you to know, I love you. I’m proud of you. You finished strong.’”
WHO DID THE PATRIOTS THINK THEY WERE GETTING?
ere's what separates Tebow from the average person: an optimism that borders on the irrational. Tebow believes he can solve any problem if he just works a little harder, and he’s often right. After the 2012 disaster, everyone knew he was finished as a Jet. But Tebow prepared as if the starting job were his. Fighting through his dyslexia, which makes reading comprehension more difficult, he made a stack of 400 flash cards from the playbook, play name on one side, diagram on the other, and studied them for hundreds of hours. When voluntary offseason training began on April 15, Tebow arrived first. He won the Heisman at Florida in his second season. He won those games for the Broncos in his second season. He came in well prepared for his second season with the Jets, and two weeks later they cut him loose. That only led to more optimism. “It’s all right, man,” he told his brother, Robby. “We’re gonna get another shot.” And they threw a football in the hotel corridor.
He did get another shot. The Patriots signed him six weeks later. It made perfect sense and no sense.
Perfect sense because there could be no quarterback controversy in Foxborough, not with Tom Brady starting and Ryan Mallett waiting precociously in the wings. Perfect sense because Bill Belichick was a genius at shifting his personnel, using a tight end at running back and a receiver at cornerback and anyone anywhere if he could help the team win. Perfect sense because the tight end who had played running back was about to be charged with murder, and the Patriots needed some goodness in their locker room.
No sense because Tebow couldn’t help the team as a third quarterback, and Belichick rarely kept a third quarterback on his 53-man roster. No sense because Tebow didn’t want to be an H-back or tight end or fullback or punt decoy or Wildcat or anything else besides the guy who takes the snap and throws the ball. No sense because he couldn’t fire up his teammates while sitting on the bench. To win a place with the Patriots, Tebow would have to do something much harder for him than leading a fourth-quarter comeback: He would have to outplay Ryan Mallett in practice and preseason. Many observers saw this as Tebow’s last chance in the NFL.
On July 26, the first day of training camp, Tebow put on a red number 5 jersey and took the field. According to Robby Tebow, the Patriots’ playbook is about as thick as two dictionaries, and Tim had learned it with help from nearly 800 flash cards. Light rain fell. When the three quarterbacks stood together, Tebow looked shorter and thicker than the other two. They were right-handed; he was left-handed. They threw bullets, tight and predictable. Tebow threw some bullets, some butterflies. The fans wore plastic coats to keep off the rain. They cheered loudly when Tebow completed a short pass.
The U2 song “Beautiful Day” played on the loudspeakers. The Patriots ran conditioning drills. In their red jerseys, the three quarterbacks stood out in a sea of navy and white. Tebow ran third, pacing himself, regulating his effort. You could imagine what he wanted to do: kick it into another gear, sprint past everyone, get in Brady’s face and tell him to run harder, arm-wrestle Vince Wilfork, body-slam Rob Ninkovich, run up on Belichick and chip his tooth with a shoulder pad. Tebow did none of these things. He was not in Gainesville anymore.
In 7-on-7 passing drills, Brady took the first turn and Mallett took the second. Tebow was third. He dropped back, waited, waited. Nervous yells came from the sideline. After a long time he tucked the ball and took off running, prompting a woman in the press tent to say, “You’re scrambling in 7-on-7?” His next pass was short, wobbly and nearly intercepted.
The three quarterbacks threw deep to the end zone with no defense. Tebow’s passes looked better than Brady’s or Mallett’s. He could always throw the deep ball. The rain kept falling. Mallett was shaky in 7-on-7, and Tebow had a couple of nice completions. Then he threw a long pass that should have been intercepted and a swing pass that was intercepted. At the end of practice, the fans still chanted his name.
The next day he hit a defender in the numbers with the ball. He made a few good throws, had a couple knocked down at the line. Then he waited too long and hurled a short pass into the ground. The fans were silent. The next play was even worse. He dropped back, danced, danced, danced, danced, looked, looked, looked. Someone yelled, “Twelve Mississippi!” The crowd buzzed with astonishment. Tebow rolled to the left sideline and threw the ball to the turf. The fans changed their tune.
Brady! Brady! Brady!
In the Patriots’ first preseason game, Tebow took three sacks and completed 4 of 12 passes for 55 yards. He was not discouraged. As Kent Babb of The Washington Post later tweeted, “In the Pats locker room, a camera guy has a mishap and yells, ‘Jesus Christ!’ Tebow, in earshot, looks at the guy and says: ‘He loves you.’”
In the second game Tebow had more interceptions (1) than passing yards (-1). In the third he didn’t play. In the fourth he played the second half. The Patriots punted, punted and punted. In the fourth quarter Tebow hit Quentin Sims over the middle and Sims ran for a 52-yard touchdown. Next possession: interception. Then two more three-and-outs. The defense held, giving Tebow one more play, and on that last play he threw a nine-yard touchdown pass that brought his preseason rating up to 47.2. Finishing strong was not enough. Two days later he was cut.
Weeks passed, and no team could find room on its roster for a quarterback who had tasted success as a starter and wouldn’t be satisfied until he tasted it again. Warren Moon was 27 when he started his first NFL game. Kurt Warner was 28. Steve Young didn’t become the 49ers’ undisputed starter until he was 31, and now he’s in the Hall of Fame. Tebow is only 26. But his career has come to a strange and intractable place. The fans won’t shut up about him until he loses a bunch of games as a starting quarterback. Just give him a chance, they keep saying. If only you gave him a chance. He will not get that chance unless he becomes a different player—a consistent practice player—or finds a coach willing to risk his own job by throwing him out there and seeing what happens. Just give him a chance. You could argue that the Jets did, and the Patriots did, and Tebow did not take it. Or you could say it’s a travesty that a quarterback with a 7–4 record in his most recent season can’t get another job in the NFL.
Say what you want. It will probably be true. But so is this: The incredible thing about Tebow’s year with the Broncos is not that it hasn’t happened again.
What’s incredible is that it happened at all.
HOW DID HE DO THAT?
ou may not know which quarterback holds the record for best seasonlong rating in the 94 years of the NFL. Maybe you did, and you forgot. In the first game of the 2011 season, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns in a 42–34 win over the Saints. That was good, but Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 419 yards. Which was also good, but three days later the Panthers’ Cam Newton threw for 422 yards in his first NFL game. Yes, that Cam Newton. In his second game he threw for 432 yards. That broke the record for most passing yards by a quarterback in the first two games of any season. The new record stood until late that afternoon, when it was shattered by Tom Brady.
Rodgers was so good in 2011 that his excellence became almost monotonous. The ball came whistling out of his hand at the right angle and speed and hit the open receiver almost every time, and Green Bay built such big leads that Rodgers didn’t have to throw very much. He was not among the league leaders in comebacks or game-winning drives, because those require you to have been losing. Rodgers threw 45 touchdown passes and only six interceptions that year, for an unprecedented rating of 122.5. He had the best season of all time in the most popular sport in America, and the fans barely noticed. They were too busy watching Tim Tebow.
Tebow had played well enough at the end of his rookie season to contend for the 2011 starting job. The Broncos even tried to ship off their incumbent starter to Miami. But the deal fell through, and Kyle Orton stayed. Which meant Tebow had to outplay Orton in practice if he wanted to play in games. Orton was smooth, predictable, reliable. Tebow was still in his second year, and the lockout had deprived him of important off-season work with his teammates. Late in training camp he didn’t look like the Broncos’ second-best quarterback; that was Brady Quinn. On Aug. 23 Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports argued that Tebow was not even the team’s third-best quarterback; he quoted an anonymous source inside the Broncos who preferred an undrafted rookie named Adam Weber.
In any case, Tebow entered the last preseason game as the Broncos’ third quarterback. Orton had won the starting job, so he sat and waited. Quinn started the game with a firm grip on the job of primary backup. If he’d played well, Tebowmania might never have come to pass. But he went 4 of 12 for 26 yards and an interception, thus giving Tebow one last chance.
On the first series, Tebow tucked and ran twice. The Broncos punted.
On the second, he moved the ball 38 yards but finished the drive by scrambling around and throwing to the wrong receiver. The Broncos missed a 60-yard field goal.
On the third, he went three-and-out with a sack and an incompletion. The preseason was almost over, and Tebow had not driven for a single touchdown.
The Cardinals got the ball with 7:50 left and a 26–0 lead, intending to run out the clock. But after one first down, the Broncos’ defense stood firm, and the Cardinals punted to the six-yard line with 4:33 left. One more last chance. This time Tebow stood in the pocket. He completed passes of 26, 12 and 43 yards, finishing with a perfect deep ball that went for a touchdown. “It was by far the best he had looked as a passer in his year-and-a-half with the Broncos,” Mike Klis wrote in Will To Win, his book about the season. That one drive gave coach John Fox a glimpse of what Tebow might do if he were desperate enough. So when Kyle Orton played himself out of a job in the fifth game of the season, Fox gave Tebow another chance.
In Tebow’s first game as a starter, the Broncos played an 0–5 Dolphins team that had given up an average of 26 points per game. This is a summary of the Broncos’ first 11 possessions: punt, punt, missed field goal, missed field goal, fumble, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt. Tebow was 4 of 14 for 40 yards. The Dolphins got the ball with 5:50 left, a 15-0 lead and a chance to run out the clock. But the Broncos’ defense forced a three-and-out, giving Tebow another chance.
Now he came alive. Complete to Demaryius Thomas for 15 yards, to Knowshon Moreno for nine, to Matt Willis for 42. He was sacked again, but on the next play he scrambled for 13 yards to the Miami five. Then he spun away from a blindside rush and hit Thomas for a touchdown.
The comeback seemed too little, too late. The Broncos were down 15–7 with 2:44 left and no timeouts. They lined up for an onside kick that they had a 1-in-5 chance of recovering. If the Dolphins recovered, the game was over. Matt Prater drove it into the ground, sending a high bounce toward the Miami line. Receiver Marlon Moore caught it with both hands against his chest. Then he dropped it on the grass. First-and-10, Broncos. Tebow went to work. First down, first down, first down, touchdown. Two-point conversion on a quarterback draw. Game tied at 15.
In overtime, Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams tomahawked the ball out of Miami quarterback Matt Moore’s hand and recovered at the Dolphins’ 36. The Broncos gained two yards, and that was enough. Prater put a 52-yarder just inside the left upright for the win. Tebow knelt and prayed.
He was honest in the postgame news conference. “That’s my fault that we were in that position in the first place,” he said. “I just gotta play better in the first three quarters so we don’t have to make that comeback in the fourth.” In other words, he wasn’t trying to make it so exciting. Given the choice, he would have played more like Aaron Rodgers.
The next week, at home against the Lions, Tebow averaged 4.4 yards per pass, was sacked seven times and had a fumble returned for a touchdown. He stood eight seconds in the pocket before one sack. In the fourth quarter he threw the ball so far behind an open receiver near the goal line that a defender covering a different receiver caught it like money from the sky and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown. The Broncos lost 45–10.
Then the winning streak began. The Broncos redesigned their offense in midseason to maximize Tebow’s skills and hide his deficiencies. They stunned the Raiders with a read-option attack that racked up 299 rushing yards. Tebow still completed fewer than half his passes, but two went for touchdowns. The Broncos won 38–24.
Tebow completed only two passes the following week. This is how much Fox believed in him as a passer: On third-and-6 on the Chiefs’ 21 in the second quarter, the Broncos ran the ball. Even more strangely, the Chiefs seemed prepared for a running play. They stuffed it for one yard. Tebow completed his first pass with 3:57 left in the third quarter, and it was caught behind the line of scrimmage. On another play Eric Decker got free on a double move, and Tebow hit him for a 56-yard touchdown. He was 2 of 8 for 69 yards. “I’m a football player first, before a quarterback,” he said after the Broncos won 17–10.
What you remember from the following Thursday night is Tebow’s 20-yard run for the winning touchdown. What you forget is the rest of the game, which was a lot like the rest of the season, which was a lot like watching a drowning man pulled from deep water by the hand of God. It was riveting. America is still a Christian nation, and the story of Tim Tebow in 2011 looked a lot like the Christian story of humankind. Which says you fail and you fail and you flail and you flail, and all along God is giving you more chances.
Tebow led the Broncos to eight consecutive punts that night. Their only points of the first half came on a field goal that was sponsored by a 13-yard Jets punt. New York missed two field goals. The Broncos scored one touchdown in the game’s first 59 minutes, and Tebow had nothing to do with it. It was a 26-yard interception return by Andre Goodman. Tebow may be the hardest-working man in professional sports, but no one could earn such a bounty of chances. They just came to him, like amazing grace, and he was good enough to use them when it counted most.
He started the Chargers game with four straight punts. The Chargers missed a 48-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that might have won them the game. In overtime Broncos linebacker Von Miller busted through a double-team to bring down the San Diego running back for a four-yard loss and turn a makeable field goal into a missable one. Tebow had three chances to lead a winning drive in overtime. On the third one he succeeded.
Against the Vikings he played well and won. Against the Bears he played badly for most of the game and still won. Against the Patriots he played very well and lost. In the last two games he fell apart. Four turnovers in 12 minutes against the Bills. One scoring drive against the Chiefs, and it covered five yards. The story should have ended there, in a hideous 7–3 loss at home, when Tebow ran around for six seconds and threw the interception that sealed the Broncos’ defeat.
But the grace did not run out. The Raiders lost for the fourth time in five games, falling into a three-way tie with the Chargers and Broncos at 8–8. The Broncos held the tiebreaker. They were going to the playoffs. Tebow would have another chance.
“The three losses haven’t shaken my confidence,” he said, and by now you knew he was telling the truth. In the playoffs it didn’t matter that Tebow had been less accurate in the regular season than any starting NFL quarterback in 12 years. He knew how to receive grace, and when the Steelers gave him single coverage with no deep safety, he wound up and threw it deep. A perfect 51-yard bomb to Demaryius Thomas. A strike to Eddie Royal for 30 yards and a touchdown. Another one to Thomas for 58 more yards. He went left on play-action and lobbed it to Daniel Fells for 40. The Broncos led 20–6 at halftime. They failed to put it away in the second half, just as they’d failed to secure the division. Playing with the lead was a foreign concept. Then the Steelers tied it at 23, sending the game to overtime, and Tebow was back in his element.
Miracle after miracle. Those words could not be spent on a football game. Tebow reserved them to describe his very existence, his survival in the womb, the difference between life and death. He was glad to be here, for a short ride on this mysterious planet, and if it led somewhere better, that was good too. These chances came unpredictably, inexplicably, and you never knew when or if you would get one again.
The Broncos won the toss. First and 10 from their own 20. Tebow went back to pass. There was no hesitation. Within a second he was winding up. Within two the ball was singing toward Demaryius Thomas. You’re about to go catch the game-winner, Tebow once told him after he dropped a touchdown. And then you’ll be the hero of the game.
Another thing about grace: The more you receive, the more you can give. Thomas caught the pass at his own 37. He covered the other 63 yards himself, stiff-arming one defender and outrunning two, giving Tebow the winning touchdown pass on the last throw of the last home game of his only season as a starting NFL quarterback. Or the first of many. Nobody knows. Success can be earned, but every sunrise is a gift. What he gave after the victory was the same thing he gave when the Patriots let him go, the same thing you give every time you say grace. Tim Tebow gave thanks.
Twenty-one months later,
as Tebow prepares for his latest comeback, he eats a bison burger, no bun, no condiments, and says, “I’ve never found my identity in who I was as a football player. I found my identity in who I am in Christ. And when you find your identity as a Christian, then regardless of your status, or your fame, or your popularity, or your position, that never changes. So the roller-coaster that the world has always looked at my life and viewed, I’m very thankful that I don’t have to live it.”
This statement is both heartfelt and oversimplified. Tebow does see himself as a football player, a once and future NFL quarterback, or he would not be in Los Angeles, 2,400 miles from home, working every day on those short routes, crossing routes and touch passes. It’s late October, near the midpoint of the NFL season, and whenever he is called, he plans to be ready. He believes in God. He believes in himself. He believes these words as he speaks them:
“I’m the best now that I’ve ever been.”