When I Did Church with Tim Tebow

photo: Julie Jacobson (AP)

Historically, I’ve followed college football more closely than I have the NFL – a natural result of having lived in my college town of Gainesville, FL for 14 years. I’m a fan of the NFL’s New England Patriots, and I want them to do well, but pro football is usually no more than a passing interest as the season rushes by.

However, this year has been different. First of all, the Florida Gators stunk. Moreso, I’m tuned in to the NFL this season because of its story of the year, the unlikely success of Denver Broncos quarterback (and Florida alum) Tim Tebow.

Even if you don’t watch football, you probably know Tebow’s story; it’s transcended the sports page. Expected to fail as a pro QB because of his unconventional skill set, he’s led Denver to six straight wins, many of them last-minute comebacks, and resurrected the team from a lost season to first place in their division. He’s living every underdog’s dream on the largest stage in American sports. Even more newsworthy is his outspoken Christian faith, which is testing the boundaries of sports, the media, and religion. He is often seen kneeling in prayer on the sideline and begins many an interview by thanking his “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” If that’s not polarizing enough, he appeared in a pro-life commercial during last year’s Super Bowl.

It’s interesting to watch the media analyze every angle of Tebow’s piety because I’m reminded of when I saw it in person – before he led the Gators to the 2008 national championship, before he won the 2007 Heisman Trophy, and before I stayed late at work to watch him commit to Florida in a 2005 press conference. Before all of that, I praised the Lord with Tim Tebow the High School Kid in a small church near Jacksonville, FL.

For most of my 14 years in Gainesville, I was in a Christian rock band. The band often led the music at church gatherings for middle and high school kids. The events went like this: we played a few songs, a speaker preached a short sermon, and we closed with more music. At some point in Christian antiquity, pizza and soda must have been decreed as the official meal of such youth events – an adolescent Eucharist.

Before the program, we greeted the event speaker, Tim Tebow, quarterback at Nease High School. The first thing I noticed about Tim was that he exuded more manliness than us four band members combined.

Having to run for your life and throw a ball 30 yards, QBs are obviously athletic, but they’re not often known for their physiques. They look like normal guys, maybe on the tall side. However, this Tim kid must have lived at the gym when he wasn’t at church or on the field. Maybe he did push-ups during his bedtime prayers. More bodybuilder than quarterback, I’m not sure which he shredded more, opposing defenses or the stitching in his polo shirts.

And let’s be honest, the guy is gorgeous, with the winning smile and supermodel-marrying capability of Tom Brady.

I wish that I could remember Tim’s sermon as well as I do his appearance. I paid attention. It’s just that our band had led hundreds of youth gatherings, and I don’t remember most of those sermons. If someone had told me that he would be the most prominent athlete of 2011, I would’ve taken some solid notes.

What I do remember was that he seemed genuine, which is not a given when you put a teenager in a position resembling royalty (high school football star in Florida) and ask him to be a moral guide. He didn’t talk down to his audience; he spoke to them like they were his peers, because they were. As the band drove back to Gainesville, we agreed that God was doing some good things through Tim Tebow.

When Tim came to Florida, the campus was in a frenzy. He was to be our football Messiah. Though I rooted for the kid, I swore not to succumb to TebowMania. He was 19. How could I, a late-twenty-something data entry expert/musician with an engineering degree, look up to him?

He won me over. I didn’t buy his jersey or paint #15 on my chest on game day, but I couldn’t help but admire all of his good work on the field and the way he helped and encouraged people in the real world. I even featured a Tebow-like character in my first (and only) screenplay, a dramedy about faith and college life.

As I watch Tim on TV now, it’s hard not think of that high school kid preaching in front of a few dozen of his peers in a small Jacksonville church. It’s probably because that, despite the accolades, admirers, and riches he’s amassed, I don’t think he’s changed much at all.

I’ve been a Patriots fan since their first Super Bowl in 1986. I’ve never rooted against them, but I guess there’s a first time for everything. This Sunday, they play the Denver Broncos.

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