After being knocked halfway to kingdom come, Tim Tebow knew that millions of college football fans would be paying close attention to his eyes the next time he led the Florida Gators into action.
Viewers would be looking for signs that the quarterback was OK after a nasty concussion. Many would also want to see which Bible reference would be written in the patches of eye black that would be visible whenever television cameras focused on the face of America’s most famous muscular Christian.
Tebow was wearing Isaiah 40:31 when he got hurt against Kentucky: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
This biblical commentary continued when he returned against LSU, with a reference pointing to 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”
The Palm Beach Post put it this way: “Give thanks in all circumstances.”
Not exactly. You see, it’s hard to avoid quoting the Bible when you’re writing about an athlete who refuses to stop quoting the Bible.
Viewers can use an Internet search engine to find the full scriptural reference. Those who relied on news reports, however, tended to find language scrubbed clean of the fervent, conservative and, for many, offensive faith that shapes the lives of Tebow and his missionary parents and siblings.
Bob and Pam Tebow already consider his life a gift from God. During that pregnancy, his mother slipped into a coma after contracting amoebic dysentery. Doctors in the Philippines, where the Tebows are evangelical missionaries, feared that the strong medications she received had damaged her unborn child. Doctors advised an abortion.
She refused, the family prayed and Tim Tebow survived.
Thus, Bob Tebow told Sports Illustrated, “I asked God for a preacher, and he gave me a quarterback.”
The son has done his share of preaching and missionary work, both overseas and in U.S. prisons. Meanwhile, he has refused to retreat during the many media marathons he endures as a superstar.
This is, after all, the guy who seized the podium when he won the Heisman Trophy and, after taking some nervous gulps, immediately gave thanks to “my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave me the ability to play football.” In his rush, he said almost exactly the same thing moments later. The news reports that followed steered clear of these references.
While Tebow has been outspoken about his beliefs, he has avoided making openly evangelistic remarks while in the hot spotlight at a secular university in a highly diverse state. The closest he has come to giving an altar call was when he put John 3:16 under his eyes during the 2009 BCS championship game. That verse proclaims: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
But that was a mere tremor compared with the quake that followed Tebow’s candid response when asked during a press conference: “Are you saving yourself for marriage?”
Laughing, he said, “Yes, I am.”
While another reporter struggled to ask a question, Tebow continued. “I think ya’ll are stunned right now. Ya’ll can’t even ask a question. Look at this. The first time ever. Wow. I was ready for the question. I don’t think ya’ll were, though.”
Thus, a simple Google search for “Tebow, virgin” yields 70,000-plus hits. Journalists and commentators can’t seem to decide if they were more offended by the question or by Tebow’s unapologetic answer.
Was this a victory for the religious right or for crass, “gotcha” journalism?
The columnist who pushed that button has refused to apologize, noting that Tebow considered it a logical question in light of his public faith.
“Tebow demonstrated that he lives his life according to his own religious principles,” noted Clay Travis of Fanhouse.com.
“I asked because I believe it’s newsworthy and because, believe it or not, I thought Tim Tebow would answer the question by saying: ‘Yes, I am.’ . . . Why did I believe this? Because Tebow lives his faith. And I believe that living his faith is not artificial, he’s not pretending to be something he’s not.”
Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.