Tim Tebow is one of the more polarizing figures in sports today. Fans love him with a manic passion, while his detractors constantly heap vitriol. In an interview for a feature story in the Dec. 19 issue of TIME magazine (available online and on the iPad to print subscribers), Tebow talks openly about the cause of these extreme emotions — his very public faith, epitomized by his habit of “Tebowing” during games. Tebow once told a group of prisoners: “If you have Jesus Christ in your heart, you are going to spend eternity in heaven. If you don’t, you’re going to spend eternity in hell.”
Such a strict religious view is offensive to some people. But Tebow, when asked if he regrets anything he has said publicly about his faith, responds: “No, sir. Some of the things that have given me the most joy in my football career are the different times when I’ve spoken about my faith. Whether it was wearing Bible verses under my eyes in college, or wearing John 3:16 in the national championship game … Because every time I do that, that’s humbling for me because I know where my strength comes from. And I want to honor the person that gave them to me.”
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Some of Tebow’s supporters suggest that such disapproval of his faith is even motivating critiques of his football skills. “There’s all this hand-wringing over whether or not Tim Tebow is worthy in the NFL,” says Larry Taunton, president of the Fixed Point Foundation, a Christian group that promotes public faith, and author of The Grace Effect: How the Power of One Life Can Reverse the Corruption of Unbelief. “They’ve all already announced that he’s utterly incapable of performing in the NFL ranks. And, really, not since Robert Redford in The Natural have I seen a player have to fight his own management. That strikes me as odd.” (Broncos executive vice president John Elway and coach John Fox have not made a long-term commitment to Tebow as the franchise quarterback.)
Taunton takes issue with the hard edge of Tebow’s detractors. “You can just sense that there’s a little extra venom, a little extra dislike, not so much for his play, but for the man,” Taunton says. “Here’s a guy who is open about his faith, increasingly at a time in our culture when faith is treated like smoking. You can do it, but only in the designated area … Religion in general, but Christianity in particular, is being driven from the public space. I don’t believe that if he were Muslim he would be getting the same kind of reaction.”
Tebow’s unusual throwing motion is discussed and dissected almost as much as his religion. “I feel I improve every day,” says Tebow, who is a surprising 6-1 as Denver’s starter this year and has the Broncos tied for first place in their division. While quarterback experts acknowledge Tebow’s progress – “a lot of young quarterbacks struggle with throwing their first few years,” says former San Diego Chargers great Dan Fouts, now a CBS analyst – they agree he still needs plenty of work. “His motion is complex,” says former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who now works for ESPN. “There are lots of moving parts. That gives you less control of the ball. He’ll never be at the level of pure passers.”
Tebow almost winds up before throwing the ball, which slows down his release time. “It’s like his operating system is a musket,” says George Whitfield Jr., a noted quarterback tutor who has trained Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton. “He has to load, then shoot. Everyone else has faster, more modern weapons.” Brian Billick, the former Baltimore Ravens coach who now analyzes games for Fox, says that since it takes Tebow so long to throw the ball, he has to pick up defenses quicker, and have particularly deft footwork, in order to avoid pressure in the pocket. “He’s like the blind man who needs the extra senses,” says Billick.
With all these flaws, how is Denver winning? Tebow’s ability to run the football, for one thing, has helped the Broncos get to 6-1 with Tebow under center. While the rest of the NFL has gone pass-happy, Denver coach John Fox has switched to an old-fashioned option-style offense that calls for Tebow to just take it and go.
Tebow has also risen late in games: he’s engineered four fourth-quarter comebacks. Former Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner, like Tebow a devout Christian, believes something more is at work. He doesn’t shy away from the M word, since Warner believes that God has helped Tebow overcome his shortcomings. “I believe there are miracles around us every day,” says Warner. “Everybody wants to see someone walking on water, or turning water into wine. Maybe what Tim is doing is not on that level, but you can term it a modern-day miracle.”