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Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. Photo illustration by David Woodside/The Globe and Mail


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.

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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.

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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."

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III. The life

Mr. Tebow's very birth has been portrayed as a rebellion against secular wisdom. It is part of his family's anti-abortion campaign, which culminated in a Super Bowl TV ad that aired while he was still in college. His parents were doing missionary work in the Philippines in the 1980s, and the drugs his mother took to fight amoebic dysentery caused life-threatening complications during her subsequent pregnancy. She says doctors recommended an abortion but she refused – making the overachieving quarterback not just a conventional sports legend but the living moral of an anti-abortion story.

Mr. Tebow's upbringing was extremely sheltered and protective in one sense. He was home-schooled even as a record-breaking Florida high-school player, sharing a city apartment with his mother far from the family farm so that he could suit up for a team that pledged to focus its offence around the quarterback who refused to share his teammates' classes.

But in another way, his evangelical background established his preternatural confidence and leadership traits. As a student, he travelled back to his father's mission outposts in the Philippines and gave inspirational speeches to backcountry crowds numbering in the thousands. While studying at Florida, where he took courses in applied social work and became renowned for etching Bible verses on his football eye-black, he made regular visits to state prisons in order to win souls for his Lord and Saviour.

"A lot of you have started the first, second and third quarters really bad," Mr. Tebow told his hardened congregants, as witnessed by Sports Illustrated's Austin Murphy. "You might be losing. But you know what? It doesn't matter. Because it's all about how you finish."

IV. The American moment

The message hasn't changed all that much. Evangelistic promises of a better world and football demonstrations of the unpredictable and extraordinary are not that far apart, for those who feel imprisoned by a harsh world's dreary inevitabilities. It's probably just as well that Mr. Tebow lays off the hellfire and damnation strain of old-style American evangelism – his style is more encouraging and optimistic, the prayer warrior as team player.

"When people in the United States face austerity," Prof. Coakley says, "they often find religious beliefs to be a source of solace and hope. But the faith that sustains those beliefs can be difficult to keep in the absence of reaffirming evidence. Tebow provides a form of reaffirmation tied closely with traditional U.S. values. And so he has come to personify the so-called American dream at a time when evidence and experience suggest that the dream is out of reach for many Americans."

The real-life Rockys and inspirational Miracle on Ice hockey victories are few and far between, the triumphs of a Muhammad Ali or a Martin Luther King may have happened in spite of, rather than because of, core American values, and the faltering economy has checked the aspirations of the underprivileged much more than their overlords. But faith in the underdog narrative endures: To stop believing in the story is like giving up on America, like giving up on yourself.

V. The Season

Tim Tebow is a believer on a team that had essentially given up on itself within the first month of the NFL season. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound oversized underdog got his chance to play only because the Broncos were clearly going nowhere, having lost three of their first four games. The college star wasn't seen as pro material, and many observers felt that he was being given an opportunity to fail so that Broncos management could shift him to a position better suited to his bulk.

And then the myth began to build. He won seven of his first eight games after taking on the starting quarterback role. The fact that six of those wins were nerve-racking games decided by a touchdown or less, three of them in overtime, only added to his aura: A better quarterback might have won more decisively against mediocre opponents that were active contributors to their own destruction. But Mr. Tebow won more memorably and dramatically, with late-game heroics, elusive backfield sidesteps, and bruising, self-sacrificing runs that gave muscular Christianity its showcase and overshadowed three quarters of often-forgettable play.

Even then his job security was minimal. His own boss, Broncos vice-president and legendary quarterback John Elway, voiced doubts about Mr. Tebow's abilities in a November interview.

And yet his surprising, unexpected, seemingly miraculous victories were more persuasive than the methodical blowouts of other quarterbacks in powering fans' emotions and generating the image of the hero.

"When people see the unpredictable things that are happening on the football field, they experience a feeling of transcendence," argues Geoff Smith, a sports historian and professor emeritus at Queen's University. "It's a quasi-religious moment that's available even to non-believers: The need to connect with something that's supernatural is deeply rooted in our psyche."

One victory in particular defied sport's natural laws and justified the growing fascination with Mr. Tebow's miracle-working.

The Broncos were behind the Chicago Bears 10-0 with less than three minutes to play, the point where the average NFL viewer knows he can turn off the game and get back to the real world. But Denver came back under Mr. Tebow's dogged leadership to tie the game on a touchdown and an improbable 59-yard field goal before winning with another long field goal in overtime.

An on-field microphone caught Mr. Tebow singing a hymn at the game-changing moment when the Broncos recovered a Bears fumble to begin their final winning drive – and that faith-inspired coolness under pressure has only added to his mystique while frustrating analysts who insist that he's not good enough to be football's Chosen One.

VI. Yes, he can

"There are so many people out there who say he can't do this, he can't do that," observes Scot Loeffler, one of Mr. Tebow's former coaches at the University of Florida. "He just worries about what he can control and what he can improve and he puts the so-called haters aside."

The doubters are right to doubt. Over the season, Mr. Tebow was ranked as only the 27th best NFL quarterback (there are 32 teams in the league) and completed an appalling 46.5 per cent of his passes – last in the league.

But to his acolytes, the traditional yardsticks don't apply. "There's something special going on here," Denver receiver Eddie Royal said after yet another Tebow-inspired fourth-quarter comeback. "We really believe in each other. We're playing together as a team and a family."

Even the mercenary business of professional sports turns out to be deeply human after all: Style points can't trump the ability to inspire, the mystical intangibles of leadership that high-paid athletes believe in even when deskbound analysts tell them they're being misled.

"Tim's No. 1 strength is his ability to will his way to a win," says former University of Florida assistant coach Dan Mullen. Never mind that he also lost his last three regular-season starts, and the Broncos only backed into the playoffs thanks to the lame performance of their division rivals. Failure is a built-in component of the underdog's appeal: He's human, he's more like us, now he'll show the doubters and the haters what he's really made of.

VII. The expectations

The public expression of religious convictions is divisive almost by definition, and Mr. Tebow has been depicted as a polarizing cultural figure even as he has been derided for his awkward throwing motion. He is certainly not shy about saying that he views football as a platform to spread his faith, according to those close to him.

"Early on, he comes across as strong and opinionated, especially about religion," says Dan Mullen, his former coach. "But when you see his work ethic and desire to be great in a team setting, that trumps everything."

He wouldn't be who he is, or where he is, without his faith. And yet the tenets of the evangelical belief system don't define or limit his appeal – hence all that wacky Tebowing.

This is where the mysteries of sports come back into play. Dave Zirin writes about the politics of sports for The Nation magazine and has made it clear that he is strongly opposed to Mr. Tebow's evangelical proselytizing. Like most football pundits, he also predicted that the quarterback's run of good fortune would come to an end last weekend.

He was proved wrong, as so many experts have been. "One of the reasons we love sports," Mr. Zirin now says, "is that no one knows anything. As much as we try to understand the world of sports, it operates by it own spontaneous rules. Luck plays a huge part in it and so does confidence, Tim Tebow's great gift. It's what allows him to persevere after he throws some of the ugliest balls that the NFL has seen in a generation."

The doubters still doubt, but the believer will always believe. Bring on the Patriots and let the American dreamers live out their dreams.

John Allemang is a senior feature writer for the Globe and Mail. Globe and Mail Sports reporter Rachel Brady contributed to this report.

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