Our story begins with the end, with Tim Tebow walking from the interview room into the off-season via a chilly corridor of Gillette Stadium, where 20-year Zachary McLeod was waiting with his family. Tebow, the southpaw quarterback with the scruffy beard and smiling eyes, was about to execute the postgame plan a whole lot better than he and the Denver Broncos had performed outside on the field against Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Back in the interview room, Tebow had mentioned McLeod, of Cambridge, Mass., who four years ago suffered a traumatic brain injury in a high school football game that left him mentally disabled, unable to return to school or ever live on his own.
He spoke of spending time with McLeod before Saturday's game in what has become part of the weekly routine for Tebow wherever he has travelled as part of his foundation's Wish 15 program.
"Overall, it wasn't a bad day," he'd said, after a 45-10 playoff drubbing by the Patriots. "It depends on what lens you look through."
Tebow, as usual, was looking through the light of a devoutly religious life. In the corridor, he hugged the young man, whose parents, Pat and Tammy, called themselves devout Christians and said their son had been to South Africa on a mission only months before his injury.
Soon they were all praying together, while a protective cocoon of Tebow's people formed around the pair, getting huffy when a couple of reporters stopped to observe.
"Private family time," one said, which was strange, since the scene was a hard-to-miss public spectacle, like so much of the Tebowing phenomenon, and it lasted considerably longer than any Denver drive.
It was after midnight and Tebow's teammates were nowhere in sight, gone from the locker room and perhaps the stadium. A while earlier, John Elway had walked past the scrum, seemingly paying it no mind on his way to the bus in a long camel coat, a cell phone pressed to his ear. And at that moment you had to wonder if the Denver vice-president and most famous Bronco of all really believed – if he ever did – that Tebow could ever be the unquestioned quarterback of an NFL title contender.
Elway wasn't in the mood to talk – "not right now," he said, politely – but good luck to him if he had any thoughts of dislodging Tebow in the near future, even if he already is convinced that Tebow will never be more than a gadget player, a wildcat specialist. As much as Tebow, Elway becomes a featured player in this still-developing drama that has seized hold of the American psyche as a heated subtext to the ongoing culture wars. While Tebow has made his priorities clear that his faith comes first, Elway's job demands that he be the analytical secularist and stick to the science of football.
On the matter of Tebow's future as a starting quarterback, Elway has to play God. But even he may be hamstrung by the sheer magnitude of what Tebow has become in rescuing the Broncos from near oblivion earlier this season and driving them into the playoffs and past the Steelers on wild-card weekend.
Can Tebow ever be a quarterback in the classic Elway mould? No one believes that. Can he improve beyond being the spirited leader with the admirable but unconvincing knack for grading out greater than the sum of his dubious throwing parts? Hard to say, though on the subject of unimagined ascension, we were all witnesses Saturday to the stunning performance of the much-maligned Alex Smith, fourth-quarter conqueror of Drew Brees, in San Francisco.
But on the subject of NFL spectacles, there was also the unmistakable takeaway from Saturday's games that professional football has more than ever become a study in life imitating video game art. When the 49ers' Smith and New Orleans's Brees were done lighting up San Francisco skies and America's television screens, Brady and the Patriots were in the end zone at Gillette almost before the coaches in San Francisco had a chance to shake hands. And with that opening drive of 80 yards in 1 minute, 51 seconds, they were just clearing their throats.
Brady would shred the Broncos for 246 first-half passing yards, for five touchdowns, three to the galloping block of granite named Ron Gronkowski. It wasn't Tebow's fault that Brady was unpressured and destroyed the Denver secondary. But his three completions for 28 yards as the Broncos fell into a 35-7 hole had to make Elway wonder if he could have done better against what had been a porous Patriots defence if had he taken over in his suit and tie.
Afterward, Tebow described what a few weeks ago had the feel of a breakout season as one of "ups and downs." He said he tried to tune out the overwhelming attention, but at the same time was grateful for the platform it gave him to spread the word and continue his good works.
He comes off as exceedingly earnest and sincere, though his religious invocations can have the same repetitive effect of those uttered during a Miss America pageant. Being uncomfortable with them doesn't make one a hater or a heathen, just one of many who wonder if there is an appropriate time and place and if the football environment doesn't always have to be one of them. Maybe as part of the growth process Tebow will figure that out.
As he always does, he thanked his teammates for their support and effort immediately after praising God. But one was left to surmise that he, the Broncos' purported leader, should have been with them late Saturday night instead of in the corridor tending to his own personal business, no matter how giving it was.
There are times when duty to team has to come first. Surely one of them is in the wake of lopsided and season-ending defeat.