Quarterbacking for the Lord

Darren Grem

Tonight, in the BCS National Championship, the Florida Gators will lose to Oklahoma by 10 points (at least, that's what I want to happen). Leading them to this big disappointment will be Tim Tebow, a self-professed evangelical who has captured the attention and affirmation of the sports media (especially UF homers Todd Blackledge and Kirk Herbstreit) through his play on the field and demeanor off it.

Altogether, I think Tebow is a great example of how masculinity, race, evangelicalism, and celebrity culture intermix. Eileen Luhr and I talked about this at the AHA this year, discussing his parents' missionary work in the Philippines and involvement in legitimizing the Christian homeschooling movement. Tebow himself has also had connections to the Fellowship of Christian Atheletes (an organization certainly deserving of more study) and his own summer and spring break work in various missions fields has marked him as a sort of folk hero in evangelical circles.

I know we've talked a decent amount on this blog about football and religion, but I'd really like some comparative focus. I guess I get the grounding for Tebow's status as an evangelical folk hero. But is there something specifically evangelical about his status? Would similar social or religious dynamics underscore a non-white quarterback? Or a quarterback/star player at, say, Notre Dame or BYU?

Any thoughts on this would be welcome, especially since the big game's coming up. . . as long as, of course, everyone agrees that Matthew Stafford would have been better than Tebow on a neutral field.


christopher said…
I was hoping someone here would post on Tebow's religion. I was a bit surpised that ESPN recognized Tebow's missionary work on the ESPY awards show last month. Thanks.

Steve Young presents an interesting (though a bit dated) comparison within the Mormon community. Interestingly, Young opted out of serving the standard two-year mission most 19-year old Latter-day Saints do, choosing to pursue the starting QB position at BYU instead. Much folklore has been propogated within Mormon circles concerning this decision (as well as Young's decision to play in the NFL and violate accepted Mormon standards of keeping the Sabbath Day holy). The standard line offered by most Mormons is that Young's high-profile (celebrity?) status as a Super Bowl winner and MVP justifies his decisions and ultimately does more good for Mormonism's public image than Young's proselytizing as a youth would have accomplished.

Quite a few Mormons (especially in Utah) are now lifelong 49ers fans because of Young, and he can certainly be accurately described as a Mormon folk hero.
Gerardo Marti said…
Not much help from me, but I did notice a new book from Harvard University Press, Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport.

My quick blog post and link to the book is here http://praxishabitus.blogspot.com/2008/12/protestants-led-modern-attitudes-toward.html
Will said…
Tebow is an interesting character and I'd second the recommendation of "Playing with God." It's a good read. (Bill Baker is an old colleague of mine, a former evangelical revivalist and former college quarterback). But as a side note, what did you mean by "FS homers"? Maybe I'm not up on my lingo, but Blackledge played for Penn State and Herbsteit for Ohio State.

On a religion in American history site, in a nation where football is religion (church's cancel services on Superbowl Sunday!), you need to get the football facts straight!!
deg said…

I had forgotten about Young. Has anyone written anything about him?


Thanks for reminding me of that book. I picked it up at the library and read a few chapters last night as I watched the game and enjoyed my late night plate of crow.


They're "homers" because they basically fawn over UF football every chance they get. You'd think they were alums. I think it's because PSU and OSU have been embarassing in big games the past few years, so they're living vicariously through UF(and So. Cal. too, although that's more of a Herbstreit/Musberger thing).

I have no facts to back that interpretation up. But if football is, as you suggest a religious enterprise, do I really need to? ;-)
John G. Turner said…
Comment devoid of intellectual substance: it seems patently unfair for Notre Dame fans having to endure folk villain Urban Meyer winning another "national championship" (in quotes because only the stupidity of the BCS awards a championship to a one-loss team in the face of another team's superior record and resume).
Art said…
Additional comments devoid of intellectual substance:

1) "Embarrassing in big games"? OK, it's dueling time. OSU is one thing. But PSU won their previous three bowl games: FSU (06); Tenn (07); and Texas A&M (08). They were just a little off this time around. Scratch that: they were lots off. And it was very, very hard to watch.

2) Since religious/metaphorical language is endemic to college football, I can say without qualification that Tim Tebow is a god. What a game.

3) The BCS "national championship" makes baby Jesus cry. I noticed that Utah's AG is pursuing an anti-trust lawsuit. Let's join hands and pray for his success...because college football is that important...
Brad Hart said…
Well, it looks like Jesus wasn't with Tebow in the first quarter of last night's game. He must have made one heck of a prayer in the locker room because he was EXCELLENT in the second half. It was reminiscent of David's epic triumph over the Philistines! =) As much as it pains me to admit it, Florida was simply a better team.

Here's hoping that Bob Stoops leaves OU and comes to the Mile High City to coach the Donkeys...er...Broncos!
christopher said…
I had forgotten about Young. Has anyone written anything about him?

The only thing I can think of is a brief mention in the conclusion of Richard Kimball's Sports in Zion: Mormon Recreation, 1890-1940, where Kimball discusses LDS Church "firesides" (evening youth group meetings) that featured Young, along with Danny Ainge and Dale Murphy:

"The last quarter of the twentieth century witnessed the rise of other prominent Mormon athletes on the American sports scene. ... Their popularity has increased the visibility of the church, and many of the athletes are committed to speading the Gospel through their fame. For example, in a recent effort to teach young members of the church how to be Mormon, Young, Ainge, and Murphy spoke at a church fireside and described the lessons they has learned from their athletic achievements. The Progressive emphasis on participation may have waned, but the church still used sports and recreation to transmit values to the rising generation" (Kimball, 188).
deg said…
Thanks for the cite, Christopher. Seems like Young would make for interesting article for someone wanting to write it, especially as a way into understanding the mainstreaming of modern Mormonism via popular culture.

Okay, now back to driving the intellectual rep of this blog into a ditch.

Brad: I share your pain. The Dawgs were picked pre-season #1 and who ends up on top? The Gators. Plus we lost our backfield this week to the NFL. I agree with you too - Tebow was fired up and in the groove during the second half. (By contrast, Bradford looked as scared as a mule at an ass kicking party.) I'm not sure Tebow has what it takes for the NFL at that position, but last night he showed himself to be one of the best college QB's of
his generation.

Art: As Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast, my friend!" PSU hasn't been top-tier in the past few years, or played a top-tier opponent in those bowls. I won't throw it down here, but check out the records of FSU, Tenn, and TAMU in those years. Meh. I'm not convinced those were big games.

By the way, where's Randall the Gator in all this?
Manlius said…
I think it was Kevin McHale who said, only half-jokingly, of his teammate Danny Ainge, "He's the dirtiest little Mormon I've ever seen."

Of course, Ainge doesn't need his Mormom faith to assure him of his inevitable godhood. To this Celtic fan anyway, he already is one. :)

Seriously, though, this connection between players and their faiths goes back quite awhile, I think. Way back in the 60's, the Yankees' Bobby Richardson was very open about his faith. Does anyone know of examples prior to Richardson?

I do wonder, though, if it was the NFL of the 1970's where being open about faith really took off. For example, not only were the Steelers and Cowboys Super Bowl rivals, they also seemed to be in a competition for who had the most devout Xns. I remember as a kid having a Christian comic book edition of Tom Landry's biography, and it was full of faith and football. Believe it or not, I also once owned a cassette tape of Terry Bradshaw singing gospel tunes. One glorious song of his is still in my head, going, "A dime-store Jesus and the Lord are not the same..." Perhaps I need an exorcism. :)
John Fea said…
Tebow may not be a god, but the FOX announcers sure made him out to be one last night! I found it amusing that they had no idea what to say when Tebow got the unsportsmanlike conduct call late in the game.
Brad Hart said…
How about giving that Florida defense some love. Stopping Oklahoma on the goal line on 3rd and 4th down. Now that's divine intervention!

BTW, how can you mention Mormon athletes without mentioning Steve Young? Oh, and Rulon Gardner, the olympian who defeated the Russian machine, Alexander Karelin.
Anonymous said…
You ask if similar social dynamics would underscore a non-white quarterback. Tony Dungy, an African American coach, has become quite the evangelical folk hero as well.
christopher said…
I just came across this post on a blog devoted to media and technology from an LDS view point. It praises Tebow for his "extraordinary example for our youth of faith, of priorities, of humility, of love of God and love of all mankind." I'm not sure who the author has in mind when he says "our youth of faith," but I'm guessing he might be referring specifically to Mormon kids. Looks like Tebow has some interdenominational appeal. I would never have imagined that a UF quarterback could be so (unintentionally?) ecumenical. :)
deg said…
This is a really rich topic. I'm loving it.

Re: Young. He's really interesting, especially since - as best I can remember from the 80s and 90s - he was also presented as the public face of San Francisco during his tenure there. The '49ers and Young were almost synonymous and city boosters in SF loved him as much as the fans did. Given the history of the city - especially its history and reputation as a bastion of sexual and countercultural politics in the 1960s and 1970s - I could see how Young could be interpreted as a kind of West Coast cultural savior.

That might fold over into why Tebow has, as Christopher notes, a certain "ecumenical" appeal. He seems to me a kind of conservative rebel who could draw affirmation from across religious boundaries among folks who believe that there needs to be a conservative, cultural counter-revolution in the U.S. Eileen Luhr's AHA paper - who I mention in the post - was on this very issue, and it might provide a tip or two. She showed how evangelical conservatives took up the language of 1960s youth "rebellion" and made it their own during that decade and afterward, arguing that true "rebellion" now came in the form of being as respectable, religious, and right-wing. Tebow certainly embodies that, rejecting with his personal and professional life everything that many conservatives fear will happen to their kids when they move to college (lose their faith, become sexually irresponsible, drink too much, listen to liberal profs, etc.). Maybe Young was a precursor of Tebow in that regard as well.

That said, I'll be honest. Even though I'm a UGA homer and someone that's hard to impress, there's a ton to admire about Tebow. I think his dedication toward the game is great. Heck, if half my students were as dedicated toward their studies as many college athletes are to their respective sports, university culture would be different. I also think his genuine approach toward applying his faith is refreshing.

Whether he's better than Stafford on any given Sunday...well...
deg said…

Maybe Dungy is a good example of this ecumenical effect too. I don't know his story as well because I haven't followed the NFL much in the past few years. Regardless, it'd certainly be good for us to reflect how race complicates or complements these matters as well.
Manlius said…
I remember in Super Bowl XLI (2007) that the media was noting, quite appropriately, that there were 2 black coaches (Chicago's Lovey Smith being the other) in the big game. I found it really interesting, though, that when Tony Dungy was asked about that fact, he said something to the effect of, "Well, that's true, but it's also significant that we have two coaches who are followers of Jesus Christ." (I'll give Dungy the benefit of the doubt that he was simply trying to make a positive comment, not intending to judge the spirituality of past Super Bowl coaches.)

It's also notable that Tony Dungy is considering retiring from coaching in order to concentrate on his work with troubled young men.

No doubt it's easy to see why he's become an evangelical folk hero.
Seth Dowland said…
Loved this email forward -- relevant to the topics at hand!

Shortly after leading the Florida Gators to a national championship with a 24-14 win over Oklahoma, Tim Tebow announced that he would skip his senior season and ascend directly into heaven.

Tebow entered the press room to wild applause. A reporter for a 24 hour cable sports network burst into tears when the 2007 Heisman winner entered the room. Another threw a pair of boxer shorts on the podium. Tebow smiled at the gesture and several sports reporters fainted.

"Sorry I'm late," Tebow began. "There was a six year old boy with cancer in row 54 and I had to make my way through the crowd to heal him."

"I want to start by saying that playing QB at the University of Florida, winning two national championships has been a great honor. There has been some speculation about my future and I want to clear that up right now," he continued.

"Don't go, Tim!" a reporter shouted from the back of the room.

"After much consideration, I have decided to skip my senior season and ascend directly in Heaven," Tebow announced. Upon making the announcement, Tebow was bathed in a blinding white light and vanished.