By Jason Keidel
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With all the sound and fury of an election year rattling around us, it’s fitting that a flaming debate rages over our region. And while gridirons from Cortland to East Rutherford comprise the stage, the story cuts along religious, philosophical, and anthropological lines.
It’s probably safe to say that the Jets have only employed one player born in Makati City, Philippines, that hotbed of football gods. Ironic, indeed, that the man seen as the emblem of Americana wasn’t even born in the United States.
Such is the mystery surrounding Tim Tebow, who has been remanded to that rare vocational desert of “football player” – often a euphemism for someone who doesn’t have a position. Is he a QB or RB or TE?
The Steelers had someone like that. Kordell Stewart wasn’t quite good enough to play quarterback exclusively, so “Slash” was born. And thus Stewart became a notable – and pretty successful – hybrid offensive threat. The Steelers employed a kind of shell game where he would line up at several positions but wouldn’t necessarily end up there, scampering behind the line before the snap. He didn’t win my beloved black & gold a Lombardi Trophy, but we came close.
Does anyone see Tebow coming close? Yes. And that conclusion is based on some strange variables. Earlier this week, a caller blasted Joe and Even for daring to doubt Tebow’s qualifications as a starting quarterback, citing his glory Gator days.
There are too many Heisman winners on the NFL scrap heap – legends like Eric Crouch, Andre Ware, Gino Torretta, Troy Smith, Chris Weinke, and Danny Wuerffel – to call that Saturday award a precursor to Sunday greatness. Tebow doesn’t even complete 50 percent of his passes, yet it is blatant sacrilege to mention that to Tebow’s growing congregation.
And when you look at Tebowmania last year, Denver’s resurgence was based on an odd confluence of circumstances, from botched kicks to bizarre fumbles. Tebow’s devotees will say that’s all part of the package, the divinity and karmic goodness of the man with God on speed dial. He is so omnipotent that he can will the other team to loss as much as guide his own to victory.
Part of being a rabid fan of any club means toeing the line between excuses and reasons. The Packers didn’t beat my beloved black & gold in the Super Bowl; Rashard Mendenhall fumbled it away. Dallas didn’t beat us back in ’95; Neil O’Donnell threw it away. And thus the same logic applies to the AFC playoffs last year. Denver didn’t whip us; my Pro Bowl QB (Big Ben) and All-Pro center (Pouncey) could hardly walk all week.
Yet there was Tebow, heaving knuckleballs until overtime, where he found his unattended tight end sprinting across the middle, and laying a pillow into the receiver’s bosom before he sprinted to paydirt. It was hard to explain, and I won’t try.
And thus there’s Tim Tebow the man, even more powerful than his football persona. We often hear of players on a mission, but with Tebow the term is literal. He is just as likely to tour the world to feed sick kids, or parachute into a prison to preach the Gospel. He’s painfully polite, and yet he’s the perfect avatar of the human condition: a man bred to peace yet finds his peace in the war zone of a football field, where violence rules and prison metaphors abound.
And perhaps that’s why so many people find him so polarizing: he makes us hold a metaphysical mirror up to ourselves. He wears his faith on his face, forcing us to examine not just ourselves but the power of the modern athlete. Is it fair for Tebow, or anyone, to use his status to promote an agenda? No one questions his right to say what he pleases, and his crusade is wholly nonviolent. And considering the many reasons big athletes bogart the bold ink, Tebow’s headlines are infinitely more innocuous.
Of course, he isn’t an innocent bystander in all of this. Tebow understands his power and uses it deftly to steer the attention toward his quiver of causes. Not even the Paparazzi –perfectly sculpted and smoothed for our MTV, ADD-ravaged culture of instant pleasure – can find dirt under Tebow’s fingernails.
And on the rare occasion that gossip and gridiron collide, it’s normally the province of players of some renown, like Tom Brady, who happened to dump a movie star for a supermodel, inviting the glare on himself.
But Tim Tebow is an anomaly in almost every way we can imagine. He doesn’t come close to fitting the pop icon template: a reckless, feckless miscreant who drinks, drugs, swears his way onto the police blotter. He’s a virgin, for goodness sake. But type his name into Google and you find the qualifiers “Virgin” and “Hoboken” and “Girlfriend” and “Northport” and “Twitter” and “Gay” before you finally arrive at “Stats.”
There are fanatics on both sides of the issue. There is a strong, secular block of our population – particularly in New York City – who shiver at the mere mention of religion, particularly Christianity. They hate Tebow the man, and always will.
Then you have Tebow’s Twitter flock – an interesting stew of people. Most are benign, yet some are so rabid that I had to block them from my social networks after the tenth time they told me about Tebow’s latest, luminous endeavor, followed by yet another invitation to bible study. Yes, there are loons everywhere, even under the guise of goodness. To them, If you dare question his skills at quarterback, backed with facts, you’re a hater – even if you express a healthy admiration for the man, his ethos and ethics, his blue-collar approach to his job and bruising style and disregard for his Hollywood handsomeness while he crashes into yet another linebacker. So, yes, you can’t win either way.
As admirable as Tebow is personally, there is ample data to suggest he’s not a starting NFL quarterback. But if he is able to summon the surrounding mayhem on the opposing sidelines, as he did last year, perhaps he doesn’t need to.
The Jets were the last team he needed to join. And yet they were the best team. You have Rex Ryan, who curses like a liquored up ensign, next to the quintessential choirboy. These are the contradictions that make Tebow and the Jets so flawed and so fascinating. No matter where they finish in the standings, they won’t be boring.
Tim Tebow is the rare player larger than football, larger than sports. Some of it is accidental; the rest is occidental, even for a guy born in the Philippines.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.Jason@gmail.com
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