It’s not hard to be a Christian while everything is going well — while grace flows all around, while providence sprinkles miracles along the path, while joy abounds and times are good. It’s easy to praise the Lord and feel his presence, to do his work, when you stand in the bright sunlight. But eventually the night cometh, the darkness and the shadows, when faith is more difficult and no man can work.
The quarterback Tim Tebow was always something of a young mystic — he was David, dancing in the joy of his youth before the Ark of the Lord — and amid all the hoopla of the overtime victories and sudden triumphs to which he led the Denver Broncos last season, he found himself professional football’s most vocal and visible Christian: praising the Lord, feeling his presence, and spreading his message.
Always well-mannered — “the politest interview in NFL history,” Sports Illustrated’s Peter King called him — he expressed nothing but confidence in his teammates and his coaches, nothing but a manifest belief in the hoariest of cliches about hard work and sportsmanship and inspiration, nothing but alleluias for the Lord who had so blessed him.
Then came a darker time for him: something like the night when no man can work. Playing this season for the Jets, he found the New York press still obsessed with him, taking pictures of him running shirtless through the rain and accusing him of disrupting the team simply by his presence. But he has mostly fallen off the national stage, primarily because he has played so little. The combination of injuries and a coaching staff that lost confidence in him during training camp produced a football season in which his total production now stands at completing 6 of 8 passing attempts for 39 yards, and 32 runs for 102 yards.
But maybe this is the moment to point out just how deep Tebow’s faith seems to run. If it’s easy to be a Christian in the sunlight — to turn the other cheek, to speak the mild word, to convert every loaded question shouted out by a reporter into an occasion to name the name of Jesus — it’s harder when life isn’t going well. But still Tebow speaks as he always has, saying things like “the team comes first,” “the Jets‘ players are giving their best,” and “the Lord has a plan.”
Tebow told us last year about the reality of his faith. He’s proving it this year.
Remember that scene in “The Pilgrim’s Progress” when young Christian, the hero of John Bunyan’s 1678 epic, comes to the town of Vanity and discovers there the brightly lit marketplace called Vanity Fair? I’ve often wondered what young Tebow thought early this year, as he came down from the mountains of Denver and saw the lights and delights of New York, lying before him.
Not that his previous football season hadn’t occasionally looked a lot like Vanity Fair. As he led the Denver Broncos into the postseason and over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the playoffs, he became the focus of as bizarre a media storm as football has ever seen. More viewers tuned in to see a postvictory television interview with him than had actually watched him play the game. An online dating service offered a $1 million bounty on his virginity. However much sportswriters insisted the real football stories of the year were elsewhere, the ESPN sports talk shows became little more than festivals of Tebow praise and Tebow bashing.
And through it all, Tebow maintained a strangely wonderful insistence on his Christian faith, an aw-shucks turning of every question back to the central core of his belief. I’m not sure he actually talked about God more than other players ever did; as Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton — son of a Pentecostal preacher — pointed out last year in the Wall Street Journal, American football has always been closely joined with a very visible Christianity. But Tebow somehow became the focus of it all, last year, and his strange ability to produce great, last-minute victories even while not being a particularly skilled quarterback made him appear a deliverer of miracles.
And then the Broncos unceremoniously told Tebow that they were getting rid of him, bringing in the veteran Peyton Manning to quarterback the team. Tebow said all the right things — how the team came first, how much he hoped for their success — but, then, Tebow always says the right thing. And off he went, traded to the New York Jets, whose coach, Rex Ryan, promised the young man that he had a serious role in mind for him.
In truth, Ryan didn’t have an idea. Or whatever idea he originally had, he soon abandoned. The series of wildcat plays that Tebow was supposed to run never quite came together, and the former Heisman Trophy winner and hero of Denver’s improbable 2011 season was reduced in 2012 to punt protection and a few decoy plays.
Never known as a good practice player — his strange manic genius as a football player always seemed to require the pressure of an actual game — Tebow slid down the depth chart. And when the season of starting quarterback Mark Sanchez was fumbled away Monday in a 14–10 loss to the Tennessee Titans, ending the Jets slim chance at a playoff spot, the team announced they were passing over Tebow to start the Jets‘ third-string quarterback, Greg McElroy, in the remaining games of the season. “I think it’s where we are right now, and I just think it’s best for our team,” Ryan inarticulately explained his decision. “That’s how I feel.”
And so Tebow’s time in New York — his pilgrimage, one supposes, through Vanity Fair — is likely at an end. The Jets seem certain to trade or even simply release him in the off-season. The CBS sportswriter Mike Freeman reported Monday that Tebow is angry about it all: his lack of use by the Jets, his misuse, the ways he was misled with promises during the off-season. Of course, Mr. Freeman couldn’t name an actual source for his reporting, and Tebow has not gone on record with anything resembling a complaint.
But, then, Tebow never seems to make a complaint. It’s a shame, although typical of the season he’s been having, that his mild answers have not managed to turn away the wrath of his fellow Jets or the New York press. Tebow is “terrible,” one of his teammates told the Daily News. If the Jets “are smart — and merciful — they will let Tebow join Jeremy Lin and R.A. Dickey as compelling New York sports stories of 2012 who won’t be here in 2013,” Newsday said. Tebow was brought in to run a single series of plays (poorly chosen by the coaches) during the loss against the Titans and, after the game, the media repeatedly invited Sanchez to say that Tebow’s brief playing time interrupted his concentration and caused his bad play. Sanchez, it was reported, only “smirked” and declined to answer.
What a peculiar year this been for Tebow. Perhaps the Jets should not have pursued him so vigorously and publicly less than a year ago. But given that they did, it’s hard to think of anyone as badly treated by a team as Tebow has been by the Jets — the complete waste of a player and media sensation whom the Jets went out to get less than a year previous.
Still, in that waste, Tebow offers us yet another lesson on how a pilgrim progresses. Last year he tried to be a Christian in the sunlight. This year he is trying to be one in the shadows.
• Joseph Bottum is a widely published essayist and poet, living in the Black Hills of South Dakota. His recent work includes the Kindle Single “Wise Guy,” the #1 bestseller on Amazon’s Christmas fiction list.