DENVER — This is the story of three sports-loving Muslim brothers and how they boosted the career of the NFL’s most famous Christian.
The Suleimans - Tariq, Ali and Mohammad - are responsible for “the Sign,” the towering electronic billboard that captured national attention when it began running messages in September urging the Denver Broncos to start Tim Tebow as quarterback.
It worked. “It just goes to show you,” said Mohammad, “when Muslims and Christians get together, miracles can happen.”
Now the talk of professional football and a pop-culture phenomenon for his unorthodox style, onfield heroics and highly visible Christian faith, Tebow just three months ago was stuck on the sidelines as his team’s backup quarterback. He hadn’t started a game this season, and there was no guarantee his number would be called, even though Broncos fans had been clamoring to see him play.
That included 26-year-old Mohammad Suleiman. He had heard about campaigns to raise money to erect a “Play Tebow” billboard in Denver. At that point, those efforts had fallen short, but Mohammad had access to something other fans didn’t: a really big sign.
As employees at Multiline International Imports, Mohammad and his brothers regularly posted digital messages advertising the store’s sales and specials. After the Broncos started the season by losing two of the first three games, Mohammad decided it was time to run an entirely different message.
“We were just tired of [the Broncos] losing. We needed a change,” said Mohammad. “I’ve seen how Tebow plays. He’s just a winner. We had drafted a first-round talent, and we needed to see what he could do.”
Shortly after the Broncos’ loss to the Tennessee Titans in the third week of the season, the brothers issued an orange-and-blue challenge to the team’s skeptical coach: “Broncos Fans to John Fox: Play Tebow!” That message was timed to interchange with “Welcome to Tebow-Land,” showing a photo of the quarterback.
Did they get permission from Multiline’s owner first? “No, not really,” said Mohammad. “We just kind of put it up there.” Fortunately, the boss is also their dad. “My dad didn’t know who Tebow was at first, but he was fine with it,” he said.
The reaction was immediate. Fans began showing up in the parking lot at 58th Avenue and Logan Court to take photos. Customer reaction was “all positive - we never heard anything negative,” Mohammad said.
The Denver Post and local television stations picked up the tale of the sign, which was running new Tebow messages every week. Soon “the Sign” hit the national spotlight with a mention in Sports Illustrated and stories on NFL Network and Yahoo Sports.
Fox, the coach, professed during an October news conference to have never seen the sign, but many Broncos players and executives undoubtedly had. The digital billboard looms above Interstate 25, just three exits north of where the Broncos play.
Two weeks after the first message ran, Fox inserted the backup quarterback at halftime against the San Diego Chargers. The next day, Tebow was named the starter. He promptly became a national sensation after reeling off a string of last-minute, come-from-behind victories.
The Suleimans have continued to run Broncos-themed messages, starting with, “John Fox, We Told You So!” After Ali’s son, Amir, was born Nov. 11, they displayed a photo of the newborn with the caption, “Tebow fan all my life.”
“We had someone call us and say, ‘You guys single-handedly changed the course of the Broncos,’ ” said Tariq, 30. “Not that we’re agreeing, of course.”
The brothers are third-generation Coloradans and Broncos fans. All three graduated from Overland High School in Aurora, and all earned degrees at the University of Colorado at Denver. They play football with family and friends, along with fantasy football, but they didn’t really know much about Tebow before he was drafted in 2010.
“We didn’t really follow him when he was in college,” said Tariq. “But after he got here, we really got excited about him.”
The son of Christian missionaries, Tebow has been criticized by some for his public displays of faith, such as taking a knee to pray during games and thanking “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” before speaking with the press. It’s been suggested that he needs to tone down his expressions of religious faith, but the Suleimans disagree.
“It gives him encouragement, so it’s good,” said Ali, 28. Added Tariq: “That’s where he gets his strength, so he should keep it up because it’s good for Denver.”
They also appreciate Tebow’s squeaky-clean image. “It takes a lot of courage for Tebow to go out there and say he’s a devout Christian,” said Mohammad. “Tebow’s the kind of guy you want representing your city and team.”
Nobody has commented on the juxtaposition of Muslim fans leading the bandwagon on behalf of the uber-Christian Tebow. Well, almost nobody. “Just reporters,” said Mohammad.
The brothers’ support for Tebow shouldn’t come as a surprise, he said. “Muslim players play with Christian players in the NFL all the time,” said Mohammad.
Now that they’ve got their favorite quarterback behind center, the Suleimans have only two requests. First, they would like the Broncos to win a Super Bowl. Second, they would like Tebow to check out the sign in person.
“We haven’t seen Tebow come down and thank us yet,” Mohammad said with a grin. “We’re waiting for him to come see us.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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