- - Tuesday, November 22, 2011

In every era, there are athletes who transcend athletics, rising above the level of mere entertainment to express something essential about the national mood, to answer a need in the collective psyche. In the 1920s, Babe Ruth personified America’s explosive new power on the world stage. The comeuppance that Jesse Owens administered to Nazism at the Berlin Olympics cheered a nation deep in the Great Depression. Muhammad Ali encapsulated the volatile 1960s.

A beleaguered, balkanized and self-doubting America needs a different kind of signature athlete, a different kind of hero. And we might have found him.

Last week, he did the same thing to the New York Jets and in front of the New York media that he did the week before to the Kansas City Chiefs, and for years while winning a national championship and Heisman Trophy at Florida.

Last week, America got Tebowed.

Tim Tebow is unpredictable and improbable — symbolizing the triumph of will over skill. The values he embodies are an almost perfect counter to the nation’s sour and defeatist mood. He is relentlessly polite and optimistic, ferociously hardworking, and committed beyond all else to the idea of team over self. (Check out if you can his postgame interview on ESPN after leading the Broncos’ wild comeback against the Jets: The rookie quarterback explains to Hall of Famer Michael Irvin — in the nicest possible way — that not all wide receivers are as selfish as he was.)

NFL purists gasp in horror at Tim Tebow’s ugly mechanics. They cringe at his toe-tied, ankle-crossing footwork, painfully slow windup and floppy release. His success despite those bad fundamentals offends the league’s elect. His clunky, raw game is the very antithesis of the sleek, high-powered, micromanaged precision beloved by the 21st-century NFL. He is the anti-Peyton Manning — an affront to the high priests of the pocket passer and their Church of the Infallible Playbook.

Unfortunately, some people detest Tebow for reasons that go far beyond football. He is an evangelical Christian who takes the “evangelical” part seriously. The home-schooled child of missionaries, he mentions Christ at every opportunity. In college, he famously wrote Bible verses on the black tape under his eyes, and the NCAA made a rule against it.

Tebow is the embodiment of everything that the cultural left hates. That’s not to say that all liberals hate him. Of course not. There must be millions of liberal Gator and Bronco fans who adore him. Team loyalty will trump politics every time. Tebow nevertheless personifies the patriarchy — straight, white, big, strong, clean cut, square-jawed, preternaturally confident, radiating exceptionalism and utterly convinced that God is on his side.

He appeared in a pro-life commercial that aired during the Super Bowl. Like Strap, the character in “Hoosiers,” Tebow will kneel and pray at any given moment, something he does so frequently and publicly that copying the motion by “Tebowing” has become a Web meme.

Some — the Bill Mahers of the world — hate the religious right so much that they’ll rag on Tebow simply because he’s Christian. Not very many, though. Most Americans, being American, couldn’t care less what the guy believes. They just bristle at him being so in-your-face about it.

The most common complaint about Tebow seems to be that he’s simply too good, too pure. He drinks milk. He claims to be saving himself for marriage. He does summer missionary work at the orphanage his parents built in the Philippines. The guy is such a goody-goody, right?

Well, duh. That’s the point. He’s Christian. You know, that whole “do unto others” and “turn the other cheek” thing. So he doesn’t go to nightclubs, get in fights, drive drunk and smoke weed. That’s a bad thing, apparently. Sure. Because the country already has far, far too many unselfish, clean-cut, relentlessly cheerful pro athletes who believe their life can serve a higher purpose. What we need are more hard-partying, self-glorifying anti-heroes. Sheesh.

But opinion, professional and popular, may have begun a kind of phase shift Thursday night, with a polarizing athletic fluke transforming before our eyes into an emerging American folk hero. Against the Jets, Tebow was atrocious for 55 minutes. (What else is new?) Then, yea, though he stood in the valley of the shadow of his own end zone, he rumbled, chucked, juked, ducked, shoveled and heaved himself during a 95-yard drive for the winning touchdown and his fourth win in five games as a starter this season for the no-longer-lowly Broncos.

Mr. Tebow is a throwback, recalling a kind of can-do American that sometimes seems like an endangered species. Tiger Woods turned out to be sleazy. Ditto Brett Favre. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds turned out to be cheaters. The country is still reeling from horrible events at Penn State and Syracuse. Over on the sports page, they will tell you that no quarterback can rush as often as Tebow does and last in the league. They will tell you he can’t pass well enough to win a Super Bowl. Maybe.

Whether Tebow-mania will last is still in doubt. What he symbolizes to the country couldn’t be more clear.