By Kevin Casey, SI.com
Here, on Monday Night Football in Week 3, was the sight around the Meadowlands.
Yes, those are Tebow Jets jerseys, nearly 18 months after the quarterback was last on the team’s roster.
Wearing gear laced with the names of players past is nothing new or eccentric in the NFL. But donning the jersey of an ex-player whose presence proved to be one of the organization’s worst moves? That’s whole new territory.
Why are fans still wearing that Jets’ No. 15?
On a mild and sunny afternoon in October, SI ventured off to the Meadowlands and discovered at least 20 different people in that green Tebow No. 15. It was a varied mix too, with women and men both sporting the look and anyone from children to near-retirees being seen in the jersey.
Jets fans have garnered a stereotype as a cynical bunch who jump on the team’s failure with a sort of miserable glee. A mockery of the team’s current state, then, sounded like the logical conclusion for this out-of-date wardrobe.
“I do look at this as sort of a protest jersey,” said A.J. Basile, a 27-year-old lifelong Jets fan.
“You want to wear this in protest of what the Jets are doing,” said Jeff Smith, another 27-year-old. “Because obviously what they are doing now is not working.” (Despite a Week 10 upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Jets are still only 2-8.)
But that was it. Among the 10 Tebows SI spoke with, these were the only fans who said a mockery of the Jets played a part in the decision to bring out No. 15 to the Meadowlands.
Even for these two outliers, cynicism wasn’t the only motivator.
“I bought my Tebow jersey over the summer because it was $20,” Basile said. “Otherwise [when buying a player jersey] you spend $150, the guy leaves the team after two or three years and you’re left with nothing.”
Smith’s reason was more personal.
“I mainly wear this because I like his attitude and faith,” he said. “I like him as a person, and have followed him since college.”
Smith’s words get to the heart of the findings. More or less, Tebow’s exemplary character ruled the minds of those who arrived at the stadium with his name on their backs.
The humble, pious persona Tebow has exuded throughout his time in the spotlight resonated deeply, spanning generations and genders among the No. 15s at the Meadowlands. Steve Toth, a 60-year-old season ticket holder, said he appreciated Tebow the “gentleman” for his “conduct” and for his consistency as a “great person.”
That sentiment was almost unanimous, with 32-year-old Tristan Panasik offering the most eloquent summation.
“Tim Tebow stands for much more than football,” said Panasik. “There’s a certain amount of class that came with Tim Tebow as a person and that carries on with more than just being a Jet or even being a football player.”
Fans appreciating Tebow for his character isn’t exactly shocking. But remember that few would ever vote Jets fans the cuddliest group of individuals, and Tebow’s tenure in New York was every bit as inglorious as memory suggests.
Recall that amid expectations he might start, Tebow saw all of 77 offensive snaps throughout his time in New York. His overall stat line: eight passes and thirty two rushes, over 12 games.
Meanwhile, Mark Sanchez proved an invaluable source of comic relief, seventh-round draft pick Greg McElroy started over Tebow and the ultimate hustle man grew so frustrated that he reportedly asked out of the Wildcat. Cutting Tebow wasn’t enough; Sanchez had to air some dirty laundry to add one last wart.
Yet the No. 15s currently roaming the Meadowlands cared little about Tebow’s dubious past.
About half those interviewed obtained a Tebow jersey in recent months. The remaining set held on to a relic they’ve owned since Tebow’s arrival in New York.
When it came to Tebow’s ability though, even these professed followers were only lukewarm in their praise.
Just two of the participants agreed the Florida grad would be the best quarterback on the current roster -- which is particularly devoid at the position. And this duo wasn’t overly optimistic that the team would have a better record with Tebow under center.
Is this “Tebow jerseys at the Meadowlands” trend bound to continue? Is a Tebow movement in the offing?
For the former, the answer is yes. Almost all participants claimed they would not cease wearing No. 15 jerseys any time soon. Not all were season-ticket holders, but plenty of Meadowlands appearances -- and Tebow outings -- were in their futures.
As for a surge of Tebow around the Meadowlands, the reaction proved more mixed.
Toth didn’t see that possibility and Basile was skeptical: “If the Jets do keep losing, maybe there will. But it might just be a lot of people yelling and screaming.”
On the other side, fans Deanna Rittenhouse and Jackie Guzman foresaw a rise in No. 15s. Guzman in fact expected to see more Tebow apparel when attending games at the Meadowlands later this year.
Justin Amodeo, 25, suggested that thousands of disgruntled Jets fans could join the more well-intentioned current minority in the stands if the season turned really ugly.
Panasik posited that further Jets futility would accelerate the trend, but in a heartwarming manner: “If the Jets keep losing and people start doing it as a joke and then the Jets start winning, people may continue wearing them for superstition and turning a negative into a positive.”
Whatever this turns out to be, so far those in Jets Tebow jerseys do so for more practical, good-hearted intentions than scornful ones.
And what advice does this crowd have for other fans contemplating following in their path?
“Of course you should buy a Tebow jersey!” Smith said. “He’s a nice guy, a good leader and can’t be much worse than what [the Jets] are putting on the field right now. Sure, he can’t throw a 30-yard out, but he won a playoff game for the Broncos. He’s a winner, that’s all you can say about him.”