I don’t know what to make of the latest chapter of Time Tebow’s life. On Tuesday the New England Patriots signed him to a two-year contract, giving him one more chance to play NFL football. The contract isn’t guaranteed and Tebow will have to make the team before he actually draws any money. Still, the fact a team was willing to take a chance on him at all gives him a second chance at redemption.
Like almost everyone else in the country I’ve watched Tebow play football for years. He led the Florida Gators to two national championships, winning the Heisman trophy in 2007. He might have been the best college football player in history.
Of course, Tebow’s success on the football field became a platform for his faith. He’s such a passionate Jesus follower that he would put Bible references in the blackout under his eyes during games, something the national television broadcasts loved to show. Tebow wasn’t just a showy Christian, thought. His words and actions have always reflected positively on Jesus.
Tebow’s the real deal. While there are many professional athletes who are devout believers, no one has combined them in quite the way he has. So much so that the whole country is fascinated by him.
His unique blend of faith and sports has made him a celebrity—and not just in the Christian world. He shows up at national events. He’s appeared on the cover of magazines from GQ to ESPN the Magazine. Time magazine last year named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
I’m bringing all that up—and it’s a mark of his celebrity status that you don’t really need to tell his story because everyone knows it already—to put into context the unexpected failures he’s had in the last few years. After being drafted by the Denver Broncos, Tebow had a lackluster performance. In 2011 he was traded to the New York Jets, where his playing career sunk even lower, to the point he was released earlier this year. Almost every football analyst said his career was over. Maybe he could play in Canada, but no NFL team would ever hire him again. The peculiar skill set that had served so well in the college game just didn’t translate into NFL success.
That all changed on Tuesday when the New England Patriots brought him onto their team. His career has new life.
There are all sorts of questions about the signing. He’s not a great passer, and it’s a passing league. His size and speed which he utilized to such great effect in college aren’t nearly as effective at the pro level, where everybody is big and fast. Where will he play? All-pro Tom Brady is the first-string quarterback. Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett is the capable back-up. Some are saying Tebow will move to tight end, a position he certainly looks as though he could play although he’s never caught an NFL pass. Maybe a hybrid position somewhere in the backfield. It’s all confusing. The Patriots are known for creative use of personnel on the playing field, but Tebow’s signing still makes people scratch their heads.
Some are saying the Patriots are desperate, since several of last year’s playmakers were traded or are hurt. Maybe the team thinks it can re-train Tebow to one of these other positions. Others point out that whatever team Tebow plays on there’s such a publicity craze that ticket sales go through the roof.
I want to think that someone of Tebow’s character would simply have the chance to prove himself on the football field, but in today’s world of dollars, marketing and positioning a team in the public eye, I have to confess I’m a tad cynical.
My skepticism wasn’t helped when I read what Patriots owner Robert Kraft said when he announced Tebow’s signing:
If you want to win in this league, you need quality depth management, in the age of the salary cap. Whenever you can get a competitive, first-grade person to join your team, you never know what happens. But for me personally, having Tim Tebow on this team, he’s someone who believes in spirituality, he’s very competitive and works hard, and has a great attitude, and he’s a winner. So having him as part of our franchise is great, but he has to compete just like anyone else. We’re blessed to have a lot of people like that, but the fact that spirituality is very important to him is very appealing to me.
Kraft, a Jew, has an obvious admiration for Tebow. Who doesn’t’? But I get a queasy feeling when I read the statement that at least part of the reason for the signing was in fact his faith. I can’t help but to notice how Kraft was extremely careful of how he even talked about that. He never uses the word “Christianity” but instead uses the generic “spirituality.”
A token Christian is the worst of both worlds, helping neither the church nor the world. When Christians are actively persecuted, the faith is yet proved credible. The church father Tertullian pointed this out in his famous formulation: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Tokenism on the other hand reduces the faith to a public relations ploy, a human interest story, a good-luck charm or a part-time hobby. A Jesus follower who is a token in a secular organization is little more than a religious trophy sitting on a shelf.
I hope Tim Tebow makes the team. I hope he makes a great contribution to their success. I hope he proves all his critics wrong.
But I pray that his high-profile position be much more than a token. I pray that he won’t let himself be used like that. I pray that Jesus will be seen through whatever happens, not as a curious side-bar but instead as the Lord of life.
And, knowing what we know about Tebow, I believe that’s what Tebow’s praying for, too.