I arrived in Gainesville in 1992 and left for good in 1999. It was the first golden age of Florida football and the quarterbacks for most of my time there were two of the four greatest to ever play at UF. Danny Wuerffel and Rex Grossman rewrote most of the record books during their playing days. I loved both for different reasons.
Despite initially being a Terry Dean backer and actually losing a bet in 1993 with my roommate over who would start more games, I fell for Wuerffel’s quiet confidence and leadership, his pinpoint corner and post passes and his toughness in the pocket. I had a few classes with him in Weimer Hall and he was low key and kind, as you would expect.
Everything that Wuerffel wasn’t, Rex was. He is the Sex Cannon for a reason. He was brash, arrogant and in-your-face on the field too. Most who have followed the Gators for a while won’t argue that Rex was the most talented quarterback ever at Florida. The fact that he didn’t win a national championship or a Heisman can be traced to the events of September 11, 2001 and Florida’s game against Tennessee being rescheduled back to the end of the season. That crushing loss, maybe the most painful in Florida history, was in no way Grossman’s fault. He left for the NFL with a firm place among the greats at UF.
Despite the love and passion for both and the difference in proximity, Tim Tebow’s arrival in Gainesville marked a new love affair and a new favorite Gators quarterback. There are many factors that have placed Tebow atop not just my personal list but most Gators lists of favorite sons. He arrived at a time when we absolutely needed him. The hype, the “Chosen One” documentary, the highly publicized recruiting battle between us and Alabama and the announcement on national television all made Tebow a legend before he ever enrolled in classes. And boy did he live up to the hype in four glorious years.
And this is why I wanted to write about Timmy and our “relationship”. I’m a Gator through and through, one who dies a little on the inside anytime we lose in anything. And I’m loyal. I’ve followed with incredible passion the careers of all former Gators in the NFL, NBA and MLB. David Eckstein, David Lee and Jabar Gaffney are some of my favorite pros despite never having played for any of my favorite teams. So when Tebow was drafted by the Broncos, I joked about becoming a Broncos fan (can’t do it, see that loyalty thing binds me to the putrid 37 years of misery being a Dolphins fan has brought). I was excited to see how he would do and hoped he would prove everyone wrong and make it.
Once he took over as starter this year, I was excited. I hated the experts predicting doom for him, even though my football instincts told me he wasn’t going to be great. It was very much a fatherly feeling; I felt like Merrill Hoge was making fun of my own son. I was constantly thinking, “Hey asshole, leave the kid alone, let him prove himself!” I headed to the sports bar at 10am for that first start in Miami and hung in there long enough to see the first comeback. I’ve since made it a point to watch every Broncos game just to see how he was doing. I was invested in his success. I’ve been rooting him on every step of the way.
But I also began to have strange feelings inside. ESPN is such a force in our culture and in our sports, sometimes for good but often for bad as well. Once they latch onto something, it is very hard not to begin to hate it. Ask any baseball fan about the network’s coverage of the Red Sox and Yankees. And the Tebow overexposure began to blossom in those first few games.
Now of course, ESPN’s Tebow love is beyond reproach. And this for someone who is a Gator through and through and roots for Tebow. Imagine what it is like for those who aren’t and those who don’t? They’ve done TWO branded SportsCenter shows on Tebow. Has any other athlete had one? In the most recent one, they mentioned Tebow 160 times in an hour, once every 18 seconds. And it isn’t just the worldwide leader anymore. NFL.com posted a Tebow-celebrity baby spread. USA Today had a huge feature. Every other Deadspin post is seemingly Tebow related. There are theme songs and remixes. Is there really an audience out there craving this kind of coverage?
(my personal favorite Tebow skit so far)
Just in past few days, even out here in L.A. with no NFL team and a deep hatred for the SEC, a Kings hockey player “Tebowed” on the ice after scoring a goal. Kobe Bryant has spoken about him twice, first offering up that if Tebow was more like Kobe, he would have told the haters to fuck off. And second, casually dropping a Tebow reference into a postgame bite when asked about Pau Gasol’s three-pointer against Utah, saying “you think Tebow prays, I said about 100 Hail Marys while the ball was in the air.” Kind of cool, yes. But also a sign that Tebow has reached the cultural icon point with Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber. His name no longer is his own in the way that Xerox and Google don’t necessarily refer to those companies anymore.
The other issue is more complicated and for me personally, more troubling. You see, I never really thought much about Tebow’s faith when he was at Florida. It was a sidebar. Of course, I knew about the missions, the circumcisions, the eye black and all that. But it wasn’t talked about and written about ad-nauseum. It was in the background and all that mattered was what he was doing on the field. And this is because religion, like politics, doesn’t mix with sports. Sports fans don’t care. It is only about what is happening on the field or court. But that golden rule has now been shattered and ignored with Tebow.
The last time I went to church for anything other than a wedding, funeral or baptism was when I was 9 years old. My family wasn’t into organized religion. We had our share of crosses and pictures of Jesus throughout the house and my parents were raised Catholic, but church attendance had fallen out of their practice by the time I was born. So I grew up without it, like many in America over the past 30 years. I’m not an atheist, given the definition means someone who does not believe in God. I’ve always preferred the agnostic label, one who doesn’t know. It fit better with my enlightened, educated self-image as someone who believes he doesn’t know so much about the world and the way things work.
It has become cliché to claim spirituality instead of organized religion but I like the notion, probably because of my inner Star Wars geek. I’m afraid of religions and what they are capable of doing to the weak-minded. We’ve seen examples since the dawn of man and still see them today. Those who don’t think or believe like you, those who are different, those who don’t deserve this land, those who don’t deserve the rights the rest of do. So many examples and really I don’t want to get into that debate because it is one that hasn’t been won for 2500 years.
The main point is that my feelings for Tebow have shifted slightly. I still love watching him play. I still root for him. I still believe he’s truly a special person and an amazing human. But the constant praise for his Lord and Savior, the singing religious songs on the sidelines, it can be a bit much for non-believers and believers alike. Imagine if Cam Newton were Muslim and carried on like Tebow? In this country, the furor would be epic.
Regardless of that, I don’t like the way Tebow will be used by one side or the other in a holy war. It scares the hell out of me that according to ESPN the Magazine, 43% of Americans believe divine intervention has had a role in Tebow’s success. It is dumbfounding that some believe God has chosen to speak to us and show us the righteous path by gracing a quarterback with magic (having him pass for exactly 316 yards or by making an opposing running back fumble or an opposing safety jump the line of scrimmage expecting a run only to get beat deep). It frightens me that many will use his success (or failure) as proof their religion, their ideas, their hatred of others is the right way.
Rooting for Tim Tebow as a football player should be about football. You can admire, love and respect him for his off-field work. But if you feel that way about Tebow, you should also about former Seminole Warrick Dunn. And you should about Drew Brees. And you should about Peyton Manning. And those guys are respected. But the blind love doesn’t translate to the football field for those guys like it does for Tebow. All three of those guys were great football players. Legends. Super Bowl winners. And yet it is OK for football fans to hate them. But Tebow supporters won’t tolerate anyone hating on Tebow the football player because it must be hatred for his religion.
Bottom line, no one should love or hate Tebow just because of his religious beliefs. But the overwhelming obsession has made it difficult to do otherwise. It is just another example of the hyper polarized society we’ve become. I love rooting for Tim Tebow the football player. I respect and admire Tim Tebow the person. I wish more athletes, more people, carried themselves like him. But when it comes to football, I don’t let any of that cloud my judgement of what he is – a young NFL quarterback, still learning the game, making a lot of terrible plays and also a lot of amazing plays. He is never the only reason his team wins and he is never the only reason it losses. He has had some good fortune to have a good defense and some misfortune to have only one competent receiver. He has a long way to go to become a star on the field, something that could be said about just about every quarterback in NFL history with only 15 career starts. I only wish his stardom off the field wasn’t blinding so many of us one way or another.