Touching the Nerve: Taking on “Tebow Time”

[Music cue:] Sound effect from “127 Hours,” just as Aron Ralston is about to slice the blade of his knife across the exposed nerve on his self-severed arm.

   Over the years, I’ve learned that the best subjects to write about are the ones that touch nerves, and nothing seems to be touching nerves these days quite like the “miraculous” comebacks staged by the Denver Broncos. Strong feelings, pro and con, have led to strongly worded commentaries in the media and threatened to fracture friendships across the country. Obviously, it’s a topic worth taking on.
   For those not familiar with football, the Broncos are the current leaders in the AFC West after having been dismissed by the pigskin pundits as a longshot for the playoffs. That was before rookie quarterback Tim Tebow took over the starting star position and led the team to win seven of its last eight games in clutch situations. Tebow is most widely known for his overt religious beliefs, which has led him to inscribe Bible verse references under his eyes during games, appear in an anti-abortion advertisement last year, and kneel down in prayer frequently during games to beg Jesus Christ for assistance. Tebow is also known for his rather mediocre NFL passing statistics coupled with a strong preference for holding on to the ball and running to make plays by himself.
   As a person, Tim Tebow appears to be a natural leader. He has done an extraordinary amount of charitable work in his life to date—far more, most likely, than either his most vocal critics or advocates. His performance as a college quarterback made him a worthy recipient of numerous awards. In short, he seems like a pretty decent guy, especially in the company of his peers. He’s not working on a criminal rap sheet, not being caught in scandalous romances, and not making weekly headlines for trash-talking about his opponents.
   So why all the hullaballoo? It’s not who Tim Tebow is; it’s what he stands for. With that in mind, let me make one thing clear at the outset: I’m talking about “Tebow Time” here, not Tim Tebow himself. This is a classic case of a public schism between man and myth, self and symbol, fact and fiction, and, in some ways, between reality and fantasy. No wonder it’s got so many people ticked off.
   Americans, like many folks around the world, love their myths and legends. People are willing to twist history into a desired narrative in order to explain the currently inexplicable, maintain the established order, or justify unproveable beliefs.  Over the weekend, I noticed a number of commentators using the words “script” and “narrative” to describe how, yet again, the Denver Broncos were trailing in the final minutes of a game and somehow, miraculously (there’s that word again), won a game. According to an account I read this morning, Tim Tebow won the game against the Bears with two crucial field goals: one in the fourth quarter and one in overtime.
   Of course, a writer/editor craves accuracy and specifics, so I must stop here to point out that Tim Tebow did not kick the tying or the winning field goal. He’s a quarterback, remember? But here’s the first thing about “Tebow Time”: For many people, it’s all about Tim Tebow. People desperately want it to be all about Tim Tebow. Why? Because to a great extent, American myths and legends are about individuals, not collectives. How many times have you heard this line in a movie: “You’re the only one who can save us.” From “The Matrix” to “Avatar,” this messianic streak is alive and well in American culture. You could argue that it matches the political tenor of the times: rooting for a collective team (of Muppets, let’s say, just to cite a most recent critique) seems, at its core, suspiciously socialist. So, let’s foreground Tebow and background the Broncos for the creation of this particular gridiron myth.
   This creates an immediate problem. As a quarterback in most games, Tebow’s performance has been sub-par. Just look at the statistics and compare them to any other quarterback playing the game today, rookie or not. Few people seem to be suggesting, however, that God or Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost is motivating Broncos kicker Matt Prater, who scores so many of the “miraculous” winning points. In most accounts of the Broncos phenomenon, I’m sorry to say, Matt’s been a footnote. (Though I must point out, the poet in me craves a “Pray for Prater” campaign.)
   So at the outset, a little bit of dissonance creeps into the picture, but let’s just ignore that for now. (If this is going to be a truly American myth we’re creating here, we’ll have to ignore the inconvenient facts for a while.) Instead, let’s consider that the Broncos are always a come-from-behind team, which makes them the underdogs in nearly every game. Despite its current standing as the #1 nation in the world, Americans love to consider themselves outsiders and underdogs. Who knows why; they just do. More on that in some future blog entry.
   As come-from-behinders, Tebow and the Broncos always appear to be beating the odds. The “lamestream” media can make all the predictions they want; “Tebow Time” is all about pulling it out in the clutch. And if this is God’s plan, as Tebow fanatics would have us believe, it leaves a few uncomfortable questions. First of all, why does God let so many of Tim Tebow’s passes miss the mark? Why do the Broncos fall behind in nearly every game? Why is God such a tease? Why does God’s will always seem to necessitate and instance of dumb luck? If Tim Tebow is truly representative of divine forces on Earth, why did God not anoint a better quarterback? Why, for example, is there no halo around Aaron Rodger’s head? If there’s any argument to be made for true grace and strength in football these days, the holy land would be in Green Bay, Wisconsin (even if, technically, the Bronco’s Mile-High Stadium is closer to heaven).
   One of the likely appeals of “Tebow Time,” however, is that Tim Tebow looks like a regular joe. Aaron Rogers used to have that look, but these days too much has been made of his swagger and confidence for him to satisfy the casting call for common-man hero. Instead, we have the narrative of the previously down-and-out Denver Broncos being led to victory by a back-up quarterback without any glitzy or glamorous advertising contracts (yet). The fact that some people question his skills and abilities just makes him more like us. After all, it was no miracle that Eli Manning scored two touchdowns against the favored Cowboys to win in the final minutes of the Sunday night game. You expect that from a Manning. But a Tebow? Nah, he’s not one of the “elite.” He’s one of us. His wins are, in a word, all the more “miraculous” because of that. We can relate to that. If it were you or me on that field on Sunday, we’d need a miracle to pull off a win as well.
   By definition, a miracle is something out of the ordinary, something unexpected or unprecedented. When people rhapsodize about “Tebow Time,” they often suggest that they’ve never seen anything like this before. But let’s again look back on American mythology. We have seen this before. In fact, in hard economic times, we see it time and time again. Consider James Braddock, the supposedly down-and-out boxer from the 30’s whose inspirational rise to the championship became a national fixation during the Great Depression.  Or Seabiscuit, the odds-against underhorse who likewise inspired hope in the odds-against masses of the Depression. In more recent times, I’d even mention the post-9/11 New England Patriots with their own fresh-from-the-bench backup in the lead, Tom Brady. In all of these cases, America latched on to an underdog, finding hope in those who rose despite serious adversity.
   But wait a moment. I may have gone a step too far here. Oh, those beloved Patriots of old, who refused to be introduced as individuals in Super Bowl XXXVI, instead staying true to their claims of being “a team.” They were up against the clearly favored St. Louis Rams, led by a man as God-fearing then as Tim Tebow is today: Kurt Warner. And lo, the Rams lost. In the final moments. By a field goal. Dear God.
   I’m not writing this to sing the praises of kickers like Adam Vinatieri, though I certainly could after that clutch kick. I’m writing this because writers like narratives, and the current Denver Broncos story is one of today’s most talked-about examples. But like many writers, I question narratives that distract from the central questions, whether those questions be of the narratives themselves or the contexts in which those narratives occur. And with “Tebow Time,” the central question seems to be about the positive influence of Christianity in major-league athletics.
   My argument is simple: It’s not that simple. It’s never that simple. People wouldn’t be risking careers and friendships if it were that simple. On any given Sunday (great movie, by the way), professional athletes praise their Almighty and point to the sky all the time after a great play. Keep in mind that a fair number of darn good pro football players are Muslims, by the way. Oh, how this narrative would play out differently if Tim Tebow were praising Allah and facing Mecca after every victory.
   But something in America, nearly all of America, craves a new hero these days. We’re looking for someone like us, facing oppressive challenges and persevering despite dominant adversaries. With the political and economic outlooks both bleak, we want a light in the darkness. We want reassurance, an optimistic narrative, an uplifting myth. Some may turn to movies and music, others to fiction and poetry. Others will look to the stadium on winter’s Saturdays and Sundays.
   Even so, some Americans don’t want that dream to have a religious prerequisite. They don’t want it to have political or financial prerequisites, either. We’d prefer that it take place on that mythological “level playing field,” especially as so many other myths seem to be crumbling around us.
   This seems to get at the heart of the “Tebow Time” narrative. With “Tebow Time,” there is no level playing field. If we take that myth at face value, then no amount of skill, talent, spirit, or grace will help you win in the end. After all, Tim is the Chosen One. He is the only one who can save us all. The health and survival of America’s entire professional sports conglomerate depends on that one person.
   If you mistake that myth for reality, then God help us, every one.
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