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Broncos’ Tebow is all the rage, whether it’s his playing style or spiritual beliefs

By John Powers
Globe Staff / December 13, 2011
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Traditionally, kneeling with head bowed has been called genuflection. Now, thanks to a certain Denver Broncos quarterback, it has become known as “Tebowing.’’

“I said that if I won in Colorado I would do it - Go Broncos! - and I did,’’ Olympic skiing champion Lindsey Vonn declared last week after she’d celebrated her first World Cup victory on domestic snow by Tebowing at the awards podium. “Gotta represent.’’

Tim Tebow’s outward display of his Christian faith, along with his unorthodox playing style, have made him, along with Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, the most controversial and polarizing player in the National Football League.

“We have a young man who believes that belief and behavior should be one and that public and private should be one,’’ said Dan Britton, executive vice president of ministry programs for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “It’s fascinating to see people’s response to a humble act of prayer.’’

As Tebow has directed his once-floundering teammates to six straight victories going into Sunday afternoon’s showdown with the Patriots, his visibility has soared. The second-year signal-caller, who spent the first 3 1/2 games this season on the bench until stepping in for beleaguered starter Kyle Orton, since has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was the subject of an hourlong feature on ESPN.

That visibility also has provoked a spirited debate not only about whether Tebow, the former Heisman Trophy winner who led Florida to two national championships, is a legitimate NFL quarterback, but also whether his genuflection is an out-of-bounds religious expression. “He has the right constitutionally to do it,’’ said David Silverman, a Marblehead native who is president of American Atheists. “Having said that, it’s inappropriate. People don’t watch football to watch someone pray.’’

Religion and sports have been interwoven for decades in America. The FCA, the world’s largest sports ministry involving an estimated 2 million athletes and coaches, was founded in 1954. Athletes In Action, the other prominent evangelical sports organization, was established in 1966. Bible study groups and pregame prayers are commonplace in clubhouses and locker rooms and athletes frequently ascribe results to divine intent.

“Tonight was God’s work on the mound,’’ former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling proclaimed after his “bloody sock’’ victory over the Yankees saved the 2004 season and led to the club’s first World Series championship since 1918. After Boston’s historic swoon this year, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez reckoned that “it wasn’t God’s plan for us to be in the playoffs.’’

Not everyone believes that a divine hand works the scoreboard. “If there is a God, let’s hope he’s doing something more important than watching hockey games,’’ NHL goalie Glenn Hall once remarked when told that some athletes prayed when they were scared.

Tebow, who has been dubbed the “Mile High Messiah’’ and has given new meaning to quarterbacks “taking a knee,’’ has found himself a humorous target. Broncos jerseys with “JESUS’’ emblazoned above his No. 15 are hot sellers in Denver. Bill Cosby asked residents to “call Tim Tebow and ask him for a great day’’ before the comedian performs there at the end of March. Oakland fans held up “Welcome to Hell’’ signs before the Broncos played there last month.

But when Detroit linebacker Stephen Tulloch mimicked Tebow’s pose after sacking him during the course of a 45-10 loss, there was a backlash from Christians who thought it was a mocking gesture. “Football is a form of entertainment,’’ Tulloch replied in a tweet. “Have a sense of humor. I wasn’t mocking GOD!’’ Tebow, though, was unbothered. “He was just celebrating, having fun with his teammates,’’ he said, “and I don’t take offense to that.’’

Since his days at Florida, Tebow has been a lightning rod for comment and criticism and he has learned how to sidestep critics as deftly as tacklers. “He hasn’t been visceral in any response and in general people are visceral,’’ observed Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern’s Sport in Society program. “They have a reaction to celebrity one way or the other. To his credit Tim has not gotten into the defamatory fray.’’

After mentioning Jesus, Tebow consistently credits his teammates for victories, three of which have come in overtime. “It’s not Tebow Time,’’ he said after yet another “miracle’’ triumph Sunday over the Bears. “It’s Broncos time.’’

Tebow’s evident humility and sincerity have made him more popular with people who don’t follow pro football than with sports fans who are more likely to focus on his pigskin shortcomings. According to polling done during the summer, Tebow’s Q Score, based on familiarity and likeability, ranked sixth among active NFL players, five places ahead of Patriots counterpart Tom Brady.

“[Tebow] comes across as a straight-and-narrow kind of guy and that works to his behalf,’’ said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Marketing Evaluations, Inc., which created the Q Score. “People like to see that kind of personality succeed and when he does public interviews he rarely says anything that counteracts that.’’

His Denver teammates insist that what Silverman calls a “Christian shtick’’ is genuine. “People may think he’s faking or he’s not telling the truth,’’ said safety Rahim Moore, “but that man walks the walk and talks the talk.’’

Tebow’s story line essentially has been consistent since his high school days, when an ESPN documentary dubbed him “The Chosen One’’. The son of Baptist missionaries who worked in the Philippines, he was a prominent FCA member at Florida. When he inscribed John 3:16 on his eye paint for the 2008 season title game against Oklahoma and prompted more than 90 million people to Google the Biblical reference during or after the game, the NCAA passed the “Tebow Rule’’ banning cheekbone messages.

During his senior year when Tebow and his mother Pamela, who rejected doctors’ advice to abort after she developed an infection while carrying him, appeared in Focus on the Family pro-life TV ads during the Super Bowl, it led to a countervideo by Planned Parenthood and charges that Tebow was endorsing a hot-button political position.

“What’s appropriate? When do you cross the line? That’s probably an individual question,’’ said NBC analyst Tony Dungy, the former NFL coach who is a devout Christian. “What I admire about Tim is that he puts it out there. He says, I am a Christian. This is who I am and I live it . . . Some people are going to receive it well, some people are going to be dead-set against it.’’

Tebow, who says that he is “grounded upon my faith, my family,’’ has been sanguine about the criticism. “I suspect that as a passionate evangelical Christian the calculus that goes on in Tim’s mind about what he does in public, including how he displays his faith, is hardly affected by what he thinks others might or might not consider appropriate,’’ said Harvard chaplain Pat McLeod, a former Broncos season ticket-holder whose brother Mike played for the Packers. “He’s playing to an audience of one - namely, Jesus.’’

But in a sport where every game is played in packed stadia on national TV and every video clip can go globally viral on YouTube, even a simple genuflection can be seen as divisive and polarizing. “Tim’s an authentic follower of Christ who does what he believes,’’ said Britton. “It’s a natural outflow of who he is in Christ. People don’t know what to do with that.’’

Those who believe in separation of football and faith say that Tebow should only take a knee to run out the clock. “How are the Patriots fans supposed to feel if the Broncos score and he thanks God for it?’’ mused Silverman. “Are they supposed to think that God somehow is a Broncos fan? He’s not. That’s ridiculous.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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