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Tim Tebow and Christianity: Is it the secret of his success?

Tim Tebow has been an unexpected success as a pro quarterback. Strong faith might be helping Tim Tebow deal with adversity, say some observers – but that could be a two-edged sword.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent / December 5, 2011

Denver Bronco Tim Tebow prays after an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday in Minneapolis.

Genevieve Ross/AP

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In this football season, Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow has proven to be a magnet for two things: victories and criticism. Does the pairing amount to injustice? Or a match made in heaven?

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Since Tebow took the helm as starting QB in October, the Broncos have gone 6-1. Once among the dregs of the league at 1-4, they are now 7-5 and in a playoff spot. In what is becoming a weekly spectacle, Tebow rallied the Broncos in the fourth quarter Sunday to beat the Minnesota Vikings, 35-32.

But with Tebow, it's never just about winning (or losing). It's about his stiff throwing motion, it's about the unorthodox college-style offense the Broncos have implemented just for him, and above all, it is about his faith – the regular references to Jesus Christ, the pre-game prayers, the squeaky-clean lifestyle that includes virginity until marriage.

Religion and football have long coexisted without too much comment – from perfunctory praise in sideline interviews to postgame prayer huddles. But Tebow has gone further, making his career a sermon for his Lord. 

In some ways, Tebow can use the Christian narrative of faith tested by trial not only to cope with adversity, but to thrive on it. But by wearing his convictions so openly, Tebow also risks making his career a referendum on his religious beliefs. 

Either way, observers say they can’t remember a young player who drew so much scrutiny and evoked such strong feelings, both pro and con.

“For the evangelical athlete, sports stardom is an opportunity to give God the credit and give God the glory, but we haven’t seen it go to this Nth degree before,” says Tom Krattenmaker, author of "Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers." “I can’t think of anybody, other than Tebow, where the whole conversation has been this intense, where the success has been so vivid, and where the criticism has been so vivid.”

'Trials and temptations'

For many sports stars, winning tends to silence critics, at least for a little while. But for Tebow, personal attacks are to be expected – and might even help increase the competitive juices.

“Jesus promises there’s going to be trials and temptations and sufferings for His name’s sake,” says Jarrod Lynn, Brown University campus director of Athletes in Action, a Christian ministry to people in sports. “I imagine that for Tim Tebow, [the criticism of his style] is confirmation that he’s living out his faith as God wants him to.”

Tebow knows his scriptures. His parents were overseas missionaries. He used to paint chapter-and-verse citations on his eye-black during college games. For him to regard attacks on his religious style as badges of honor would come as no surprise. Then again, he might genuinely not care what such critics say, again for theological reasons.

“He doesn’t fear failure,” says Walt Day, assistant chaplain to the Boston Celtics and former chaplain to the New England Patriots. “He feels he’s loved and accepted by God no matter what. His success in life isn’t based on his performance. My impression is that he feels freed up [by this understanding] to give it all he’s got.”

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