A few short months ago, he was the much-derided backup quarterback for the Denver Broncos, a Bible-quoting former college-football star whose rah-rah leadership style and unpolished passing technique fell far short of the National Football League's unforgiving professional standards.
So the experts said.
Now, he's Tim Tebow, sports messiah, cultural phenomenon and hero in hard times, an underdog who rescued a failing team and took them to Saturday's playoff showdown against the powerful New England Patriots as much by sheer force of will as conventional football ability.
He's only 24, in his second year with the Broncos, and by the meritocratic rules of professional football, this dutiful son of evangelical Christian missionaries should be serving an obscure professional apprenticeship where the mandated humility of his faith would prove very helpful.
If you listen to his explanations for his recent success, he still sounds like a wide-eyed kid fighting off the sin of pride. “It's probably just that I have really good receivers that make me look a lot better than I really am,” he said this week.
Modesty might be part of his appeal in a sports world that overvalues arrogance, but fame needs a deeper explanation than that: Tim Tebow has become a sudden superstar by turning around the Broncos' dead-end season with late-game heroics that make the God he thanks in interviews a much more tangible presence in American sports culture.
Yet it's not just his brand of football heroics that have prompted Tebowmania. Yes, there's a wonderful, mysterious, otherworldly quality to his unexpected victories: His improvised, go-for-broke style of play confounds the NFL's ordered playbook and delights fans accustomed to more predictable outcomes.
But the fascination with Mr. Tebow is as much about his life story and the way it ties into his country's dreams and desires: the demanding, disciplined upbringing, the evangelical fervour that is rooted in the American sense of constant self-improvement and personal connection with an all-powerful being, the hard times he experienced as a professional who didn't fit the NFL mould, and the up-and-down-and-up season that screens like a succession of Rocky movies produced on a weekly basis.
I. The phenom
The excitement Mr. Tebow generates is palpable, and pulls in those many who have little time for football's over-programmed automatons. His jersey sales, the conventional measure of sports love, are now second only to last year's Super Bowl MVP, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, and could soon surpass them. Forty-two million of his compatriots watched last Sunday's victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in which he threw the game-winning pass on his first play in overtime against a defence that expected him to run, a miraculous moment even for the atheists watching. Republican presidential candidates have sought his blessing, Mr. Tebow says, and both Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann reshaped their political narrative in come-from-behind Tebowesque terms that portray them as defiant fighters overcoming the establishment's naysayers.
His characteristic on-field act of piety has even inspired a rampant social-media meme – fans share pictures of themselves Tebowing, falling to one knee in a fist-on-chin pose that for him at least is a moment of prayer, a solitary communion with his Lord witnessed by 75,000 crazy fans.
“It's once in a generation that we see an athlete like this,” says Shawn McBride of the Ketchum Sports & Entertainment marketing group. “Sports fans love winners, but we also love underdogs. Tebow personifies both.”
II. The mythology
The unstoppable underdog, the team that doesn't have a chance, the outsider that the tastemakers and trendsetters have no time for – these are dominant cultural tropes in an American mythology that Mr. Tebow has tapped into. In a country of self-made men and other countries' castoffs that had to fight for its independence and identity, such figures become living proof that success depends on simple effort and essential goodness rather than unfair judgments and undeserved privilege.
“He wins games with what appears to be hard work and a strong will rather than natural skills for his position,” says Jay Coakley, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Colorado.
That indomitable spirit is deeply rooted in Mr. Tebow's evangelical beliefs. “Evangelicals thrive off being embattled culturally,” says Chad Seales, a professor of religious studies at the University of Texas. “Even when they have a disproportionate amount of political power, they still see themselves as underdogs. Tim Tebow won two national championships in college, he's a starting quarterback for a playoff team in just his second year in the NFL, but evangelicals still see him as not accepted by the media. For them, it's a David and Goliath story, even if Tebow's physically more like Goliath. But in spiritual terms, it's Tebow against the world, and evangelicals love that story.”