"But I also truly believe this: He'll be an average NFL player, at best -- and I don't want to see Tim Tebow be average at anything."
-- Gregg Doyel, CBS Sports.com National Columnist, January 3, 2010
On Sunday, November 27, 2011, I went to my second NFL game since watching the Los Angeles Rams beat the 49ers at the L.A. Coliseum while the earth was cooling. As a university sport socio-culturalist but not a regular fan, I was schlepping as a "runner" for a friend of mine, the grizzled and talented Steven J. Skinner. Stevo, for his part, an NFL Films videographer, is just another surf bum from my hood who happens to know and respect and document the game at uber-pro levels. Within the professional sport media, he is a kind of go-to guy when people need something done now and done well. I had picked a good sport media mentor.
And as I watched an "average" Tim Tebow believe his way past my hometown San Diego Chargers--this being done from a very close perspective--I began to appreciate the nuances of the game from a new perspective. Media theory was never a challenge to me. But the phenomenology of it all; the turf beneath you shifting as the collective of two warring sides roll out in your direction, the deafening roar of 70-some thousand...I couldn't teach that to my students.
It was not an average experience of an average game and an average player.
There is nothing like being on the sidelines of an NLF game. Anything you want to believe from the purview of your flat screen or the good seats won't allow you to smell the embodied magnitude of 22 very big and very fast men working in close proximity. Holding batteries and spare lenses and tapes for my hot shot cameraman, I felt humbled. And when the game was over and we'd rushed the field to get the money shots of Tebow and his band of Bronco Believers--the gaggle of media and agents and VIPs following him like some earthly god--everything seemed upside down. Why was this guy so polarizing?
Tim Tebow and I might share a few things. While we would disagree on conservative politics we might agree on the role of home schooling and the need for athletes to leverage their celebrity for the better good. I would admire his passion for Christianity but would be ambivalent to his public use/display. I liked his scrappy style, and his not-so-much-unconventional play but disregard for any convention that didn't fit with him and his team's "one play at a time" tactic.
As a former professional athlete, you have a kind of radar that allows you to sniff out the real from the simulacra; the original from the copy that has no original. Tim Tebow has precedents but they don't function nor take on the same form within the current culture of the NFL. He is what you might call a post millennium original, someone who could not exist in his current form only a baker's dozen years ago. I couldn't imagine Tebow's theatricality of belief going down as smooth to some, barbarous to others in a previous iteration of commercial sport. It makes for good, postmodern TV, pundits would agree, and in the hyperbolic consumption of sports, what else matters?
Well, a lot.
When I found myself standing next to him as he changed at his locker, the seething masses somehow absent for the moment, I didn't mention that I was a Sports Illustrated "Faces in the Crowd" athlete 22 years before he was. Instead, I said, "good game, Timmy. Did you enjoy our San Diego weather?"
He was a nice guy. And to me, another talking head figure with no obvious import...he had no professional reason to be cordial. I'd done 20 years in his shoes and I thought he handled me well.
And then, in the nadir of young Tim's career I asked him about what's next? Not next weekend but life after football. His response to a left field question left no doubt how and why he'd led his team past the Chargers on this day.
"I'm not too worried about it," he said. "Anything I go into will have to do with my Foundation; things I believe in and am confident with." Contrasted with the obvious self-doubt and tenuousness of the Chargers, it became very clear to me that football is as much a game of verve and nerve as it is talent and skill. There is no room for second guessing and your belief, whether it's in the Easter Bunny or Eazy E, better be as deep as the commitment it takes to win.
Tim Tebow is popular because he is not average. He may spew the odd Christian cliché but that doesn't matter. He makes his teammates do things closer to their highest potential. And he makes football fans uncomfortable. These are good things; things that lead to an eventual increase in self-confidence.
The only people who must be afraid of Tim Tebow are the sabermeticsfolk and the fantasy sport statisticians. If professional football becomes this interesting, I'm going to work another game carrying cameras and ideas and new versions of what commercial sport is or is not.
Scott Tinley, a retired professional triathlete and two-time Ironman World Champion, writes about fallen heroes and teaches sport humanities courses at San Diego State University. His book Racing the Sunset: An Athlete's Quest for Life After Sport explores the world of pro athletes in transition.