— When I was a kid, I was a seriously picky eater, mashing every home-cooked meal into an unappealing, untouched smudge in the center of my plate. My parents would sigh, give me whatever peanut butter-smeared combination of carbohydrates I’d accept, and hope that I’d eventually try foods that didn’t have a 10-year shelf life. I lived on JIF and grape jelly until until my mother noticed the laundry-faded Los Angeles Rams jersey I wore every day and said, “Jim Everett eats his vegetables. He wants you to eat yours.” She was close — most of the NFC fed him a steady diet of Anaheim Stadium grass that season — but it worked.
I imagine that somewhere in the Colorado suburbs, a harried mother is lifting a fork toward a reluctant elementary schooler, hissing through clenched teeth, “C’mon. Tim Tebow wants you to eat your vegetables.” And I’m sure he does. If asked politely, he’d probably make an appearance in their kitchen with a glass of milk, an orthodontically enhanced smile and a passage from Corinthians. After everyone’s plates were cleaner than his reputation, he’d politely excuse himself, returning home to spend the evening hand-carving a set of wooden prosthetics for a limbless orphan.
I’m only half-kidding. He’d probably opt for Galatians instead. But the very real possibility of that scenario is why Tebow has spent the past two seasons as the NFL’s most intensely scrutinized, incessantly criticized second-string quarterback … and now he can be the most incessantly criticized starter.
It should be impossible for anyone to dislike Tebow, the person. He tweets individual fans to thank them for coming to his book signings, he takes Special Olympics participants to rock concerts, and is deeply involved with the foundation that wears his name, the one that raises money for orphanages and pediatric cancer centers.
So what does he get in return? A @WhyTebowSucks twitter account, infrequently updated websites such as TebowHaters.com and TimmyTebowSucks.com and an Official “I Hate Tim Tebow” Facebook page. There was an ESPN “Outside the Lines” piece that spent 10 minutes reminding everyone how polarizing he is. Even Hulk Hogan took an afternoon away from taping an episode of his wrestling dwarf reality show to bash Tebow on "SportsNation."
Tebow is, obviously, a good guy. A great guy. But he’s also been propped up as the personification of virtue, spending the past five years as an archetype more than an athlete. That’s not to diminish Tebow's athletic abilities — he’s a first-round draft pick who’s built like a bomb shelter — but he’s been put in a position to attract additional criticism, a different, darker kind of denunciation than he’d get if we knew nothing of his life beyond those mile-high sidelines.
The NFL’s other backup-turned-starters don’t generate this type of negativity. There’s never this kind of eye-rolling reaction to, say, Minnesota’s Christian Ponder, so we’re left to — and you know EXACTLY what I’m going to say here — ponder the Christian.
The personal attacks and angry facial expressions that follow Tebow seem to have less to do with Denver’s 1-4 record than they do with Romans 1:16, which reads “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ.” That’s one of the verses Tebow inked beneath his eyes at Florida, during that season when his eyeblack had more Scripture than the bedside table at an airport Sheraton.
I'd be exaggerating if I described myself as a Tim Tebow fan. Despite the St. Christopher medal suffocating in the back of my glove box, I don’t consider myself religious; the closest I get to Jesus is a middle-of-the-night airing of "The Big Lebowski." But I do sympathize with Tebow for the slings and arrows he endures, including the endless examination of his beliefs.
Want an example? At the 2009 SEC Media Day, Tebow had to respond to inquiries about his sex life, respectfully fielding the kind of questions Ben Roethlisberger hired a lawyer to avoid.
Although Tebow doesn't invoke the apostles in interviews often as he did in college, his detractors often cite the fact that he "forces" his Christianity on them. That isn't the case at all; he simply is his faith and, at this point, anyone who follows his Twitter feed, attends his public appearances or listens to his testimonials shouldn't be surprised when they don't involve his version of "The Aristocrats".
Then there are those who sit with their hands hovering expectantly over their keyboards, just waiting for what they'll see as his inevitable misstep. They want to catch him sneaking into The Human Centipede or illegally downloading The Human Centipede or actually building a Human Centipede. They want him to be exposed as a phony, a fraud or — to borrow a word from the New Testament — a hypocrite. I don't see that happening. Just because Tebow has character doesn't mean he's playing one.
But yeah, sometimes he comes across as the Gallant side of every Highlights magazine cartoon ever. Yeah, the constant platitudes for his teammates and pledges to work harder and cloyingly positive attitude can make you shout "CAN IT, DUDLEY DO-RIGHT" at your television screen, assuming you're old enough to remember either Bullwinkle or Brendan Frasier's career.
Maybe it's hard to like Tebow because he makes us feel worse about our lives. Not in an MTV Cribs "I'll never have a pair of solid gold pants" kind of way, but because he's held himself to a standard that we know we can't reach. When we ask ourselves "What would Tim Tebow do?", the answer — at least for me — is "Not this." He wouldn't pocket the stack of change from Exxon's Take A Penny jar. He wouldn't ignore the elderly woman struggling to push her groceries to her car. He wouldn't make snap judgments about NFL sophomores who play two time zones to the left.
Maybe that's why it's easier to embrace a me-first NBA player who calls himself "King James" than to accept the humble NFL-er who quotes King James. Maybe that's why Tebow's around-the-clock commitment to Christ is a tougher sell than the empty gestures airmailed from the end zone, why we no longer notice when every third-down back high-fives the Almighty after a garbage-time touchdown.
Speaking of garbage, the Denver Broncos finished with a franchise worst 4-12 record last season and have sputtered to a 1-4 start, thanks in part to Kyle Orton’s 58.7 completion percentage. Other players would’ve turned water to whine by now, speaking out of turn, criticizing the coaching strategy or strongly suggesting that they get a chance to start. Not Tebow, who stood supportively on the sidelines, ears tucked beneath a mesh-backed hat as he reminded himself that thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s playing time.
But apparently the meek shall inherit the turf, and there couldn’t be a better set of circumstances for Tebow’s first 2011 start. Denver's opponent, the still-winless Miami Dolphins are — inexplicably — hosting Florida Gator Day to celebrate the team's 2008 BCS championship. Tebow will be honored before the game and cheered by a crowd that will probably look as orange and blue as the INVESCO Field stands. Tebow had one college start at the Dolphins' stadium, when he and the Gators collected that championship over Sam Bradford’s Oklahoma Sooners. Tebow completed 18 of 30 passes for 231 yards, and Noah-approved pairs of TDs and INTs. He also rushed for 109 yards.
“I’m honored to get this opportunity,” Tebow said of his upcoming start. “I’m very excited. I just know that every day I’m going to come out here and practice.”
Listen to him! He’s like Ned Flanders in a football uniform! How will he fare on the field? I’m not sure it matters. Tebow has been rotisseried since training camp, with most of the analysts serving their feelings beside criticism of his unorthodox throwing motion. His mechanics will be dissected from the pregame show until the studio lights dim for the night. If Tebow succeeds, it’s in spite of his technique; if he fails, it’s because of it.
John Elway, Denver’s chief of football operations, will be keeping one icy blue eye on Tebow and one on fellow Stanford QB Andrew Luck. First-year coach John Fox will just be relieved not to see the words “Jake Delhomme” on his depth chart. And Kyle Orton will sit sullenly on the bench, ignoring Tebow’s worn copy of Chicken Soup for the Second Stringer’s Soul.
Tebow has been silent since being named the starter. He hasn’t Tweeted since typing “Philippians 2:3” (“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit”) on the day he led Denver to an emotionally charged almost-comeback over the Chargers. He closed his post with “GB²”, his acronym that stands for “God Bless, Go Broncos.” That’s as perfect a summary of Tebow as you can get: He’s a Christian first, a football player second.
That won't change whether Tebow wins or loses, whether he starts or stands, whether you love him or hate him. He is who he is, and I'll always respect him for that. I might even eat my vegetables.