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.

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

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?

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.”

Teams of all stripes get fired up by the idea that they’re disrespected underdogs, author Krattenmaker observes. Yet players such as Tebow go one step further. They tap into that dynamic and bring a religious zeal to it when they see their cause as a righteous one that’s sure to draw enemies and naysayers.

Football is indeed a cause with a higher purpose for Tebow. In his book, "Through My Eyes," he describes his career as one of constantly overcoming critics, including coaches, while trusting in a God who had a plan all along and gave him a stage for bearing witness to the world.

“I’m pressing on toward the upward call of Christ Jesus, seeking to continue living in the way that always brings glory to Him,” Tebow writes. “I hope it’s on the football field, at least for now. But I know that He knows my platform and holds my future in His hands.”

Having a sense of God-given purpose helps athletes stay focused even when criticism becomes a din, says Lynn of Athletes in Action. The logic: Since God has blessed them with exceptional skills, they have a mission to make the most of those blessings on the field, win games and be an inspiration in how they live off the field.

What happens when Tebow loses?

Keen awareness of such a higher calling helps some athletes to be fierce competitors because every win widens the platform for proclaiming God’s glory, says Day, the Boston chaplain. Tebow has almost never lost a football game at any level when he’s been the starting QB.

After an unexpected loss during his junior season at the University of Florida, Tebow embarked on a televised apology and made a promise to fans: “You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season.” The team went on to win the national championship, and "The Promise" was engraved on a plaque now hanging in the Florida football complex.

Equating wins on the field with God’s purposes can, however, be a two-edged sword. After all, Krattenmaker notes, what does it mean if Tebow’s team loses? Does it mean he let God down? Or that God no longer supports the cause? Either way, losing can be hard to take.

“Eventually, Tebow is going to fail,” Krattenmaker says. “I hope that doesn’t become a referendum on his faith. [In sports], we’ve seen again and again a conflation between winning and the validity of the faith, and it often leads to embarrassment.”

But Day sees Tebow benefiting from a doctrine that understands God to be in control of outcomes. When he watches Tebow execute game-winning drives in the fourth quarter, he sees a player whose confidence comes from his relationship with Jesus Christ.

“Those who can relax and get the most out of their skills are the ones who can get to the higher levels of succeeding,” Day says. “That’s my impression with Tim. He enjoys those moments of trying to come back and isn’t feeling as much pressure as some people are. It’s that sense of security that lets him do it.”

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