The Magic of the Tim Tebow Saga

It has been difficult to digest every bit of criticism and praise that Tim Tebow has endured in the past weeks.  One minute, Bill Maher is lambasting him as a right-wing Christian nut and sports columnists are essentially laughing at the fact that he even has an opportunity to play quarterback in the NFL.  The next, Bob Costas is speaking at halftime on Sunday Night Football, citing the New York Times' praise for Tebow's "confidence, equanimity, optimism," and "a presence that can't be explained, but can certainly be felt."

Such opposite assessments exist in abundance because Tim Tebow has become a polarizing figure in recent years -- so much so that to proclaim his greatness or his ineffectiveness reflects a particularly well-defined social position.  In his superb analysis in the Wall Street Journal, Patton Dodd explains: 

Feelings about Mr. Tebow have been a litmus test of political and social identity. If you think he's destined to be a winner, you must be a naive evangelical. If you question his long-term chances as an NFL quarterback, you must hate people who love Jesus.

But if there's one thing that American sports fans have historically loved almost universally, it's a winner.  And if there's anything they love more than that, it's an underdog that overcomes difficult odds to become a winner.  And in that regard, the Tim Tebow saga over the past two months plays like a modern sports iteration of a Horatio Alger tale, at once showcasing the individual's power to overcome society's expectations and exemplifying the American dream. 

And it is undeniable that on the field, Tim Tebow is a winner.  If his collegiate record is not evidence enough, consider that he took the helm of a Denver Broncos team that had lost 80% of its games.  Since then, it has won roughly 88% of its games and is hunting a playoff berth, with more than one win resulting from an exceptional clutch play on Tebow's part.

But as impressive as this is, especially for an inexperienced NFL quarterback with unconventional throwing mechanics, it is only a small part of why Tim Tebow's story is so special. 

Patton Dodd points out that in the context of what we've come to expect of professional athletes, it would seem impossible that the overall integrity and compassion of Tim Tebow can be genuine.  In the modern professional sports landscape, sportsmanship and morality have many times given way to self-importance and debauchery, evidenced convincingly by the taunting and fighting that takes place on the field, and perhaps even more so by athletes' rampant drug-use, sexual crimes, and the violent tendencies shown off the field.

Tim Tebow, however, is almost unnaturally polite and humble, living an exceedingly philanthropic life while encouraging others to do the same.  He responds kindly when others openly mock him.  And what's more, he seems to make the most of his opportunities to give others personal joy.  Dodd recounts one such story. Tim Tebow encountered an avid fan of his at a gala in 2009.  Her name was Kelly Faughnan, and she also happened to be a "brain-tumor victim who suffers from hearing loss and visible, continuous tremors."  Where most athletes would have cordially offered an uncomfortable handshake and a smile, Tim Tebow did no such thing.  According to Dodd: 

Mr. Tebow spent a long while with Ms. Faughnan and her family, and asked her if she'd like to be his date for the award ceremony the following night. She agreed, and the scene of Mr. Tebow escorting the trembling young woman down the red carpet led much of the reporting about the event.

These are all unmistakable indications of a rare and unimpeachable character. 

And it is an example that has been widely observed.  Former Florida Gators coach Urban Meyer attests that Tim Tebow reshaped the culture at the University of Florida, but that may fall a bit short of his impact.  In truth, Tebow's example did not merely reshape the University of Florida, nor is he merely reshaping Denver's fan base today.  As a sports figure, he is a cultural icon and a role model.  And as such, his example is helping to reshape American culture. 

Of course, not everyone finds his cultural influence to be positive.  Many progressives are still experiencing the euphoria of their "victory" in the "culture war" waged in the 1960's, in which they believe a new, looser standard of morality was instituted.  Naturally, they find Tim Tebow threatening, and go to ridiculous lengths to describe his exercises of goodwill as the symptoms of antiquated Christian kookery rather than traits worthy of admiration.

But in a broader political sense, Tim Tebow is teaching America a lesson that we once learned, but now appears lost.  In a society that is consumed by belief in the power of the collective, he is a testament to the often underestimated potential of the individual, and proof that individual success can lead to the success of those around him. 

Barack Obama could spend every dime of American wealth on countless government initiatives to promote the social and physical development of the collective, but none of that will promote individual excellence.  Rather, such programs teach people that if the right social support structures are put into place and the right individuals are in charge of seeing to the good of the collective, all people can reach an acceptable standard.  In this state of communal reliance, the potential for greatness is vastly diminished. 

Tim Tebow, on the other hand, is teaching people a much more valuable lesson.  He is a personification of the traditional American belief that if people work hard, believe in themselves, and have the humility to believe in something greater than they are, they can exceed what the collective believes them to be capable of.  That the impossible can become possible, even if only for a short while.   

That is the magic of the Tim Tebow saga.

William Sullivan blogs at and can be followed on Twitter.