No prayer

How the mania made Tim Tebow too toxic to talk about -- or to hire

Originally Published: May 30, 2013
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 10 Taboo issue. Subscribe today!

THERE WERE TIMES when Tebowmania could be downright painful. Midway through his first season in Denver, John Fox was standing on the practice field sideline one day when an errant football hit the ground well in front of an intended receiver's feet, skipped hard across the grass and shot into the unsuspecting coach's legs. Fox looked around, rubbing his shin with a pained "WTF?" look on his face, only to discover that instead of coming from a confused ball boy or a malfunctioning Jugs machine, the pass actually had been thrown by his new starting quarterback, Tim Tebow.

For the Broncos, Tebow's scattershot arm left teammates and coaches scratching their heads and ducking for cover. At the same time, to the outside world he had become a transcendent talent. In one of the most remarkable and revealing runs in recent sports history, Tebow combined a magical mix of athleticism, leadership skills and, let's face it, plain old dumb luck to guide the 1-4 Broncos all the way to the 2011 playoffs. To his followers, it was a miracle. Meanwhile, everyone else in the NFL was flashing Fox's "WTF?" face.

Eventually, with help from ESPN and a disastrous trade to the Jets, Tebow's messianic melange of faith, football and fame mushroomed into a nauseating, ratings-driven phenomenon so huge, all-consuming and annoying that it actually became taboo to even mention his name for no other reason than, well, we had already talked about him too much. "This league has never seen something like Tebow," says Jon Kitna, a devout outspoken Christian whose 15-year career as an NFL quarterback ended after the 2011 season. "He's someone with such a passion for this position, with a rock-star following, who causes so many polarizing views, in and out of football."

In late April, Tebow was cut by the Jets and seemingly cast out of the NFL at age 25. Yet that didn't stop Forbes from naming him America's most influential athlete. About 18 months after taking Sundays by storm, Tebowmania had turned on its namesake and morphed him into the NFL's version of Kim Kardashian: over­exposed, divisive … and more popular than ever. It seemed only fitting that Tebow's first public appearance after getting pink-slipped was on an episode of All-Star Celebrity Apprentice.

Even now, after Tebow cleared waivers unclaimed and with members of his camp privately admitting that his NFL run is probably over, the football world remains as divided as ever over him. It's nearly impossible to find a teammate who will say anything bad about Tebow as a person -- or a scout who will say anything good about him as a player. But the sports masses mostly side with the NFL personnel people. It's embarrassing and exhausting to discuss him, which makes it official: Tim Tebow has jumped the shark.

Tim TebowJeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesTebow's potential payoff wouldn't outweigh the parking lots of satellite trucks.

Go back 18 months, though, and it's hard to fathom that we're at this place. During Tebow's run with the 2011 Broncos, Kitna's Cowboys -- no doubt among other teams -- would race into the locker room after games to check out Tebow highlights. "When you can captivate other NFL players, that's really saying something," Kitna says. Contrary to public perception, Tebow's Jets teammates were just as moved by him. Some still talk about the time he took on a lineman in a power-lifting contest and won. In friendly banter throughout last season, linebacker Bart Scott would call Tebow Baby Jesus, and Tebow would laugh and say, "Go sit in the cold tub, old man." Former Jet Darrelle Revis says he knew immediately upon meeting Tebow that the QB was a born leader.

But ask an NFC scout what he thinks of Tebow and the response is a gut punch: "He's not a quarterback. When you look at his run two years ago, when you watch the tape and break it down, he wasn't really doing anything that impressive. He's a tough guy, a great leader, a great person. But he isn't a good enough quarterback to have all the distractions that come with him."

In the end, this is the formula that ultimately doomed Tebow: Fatal flaws in his throwing mechanics and his cognitive understanding of the position left him as little more than a wildcat specialist, a No. 3 QB or a long-term project. Thanks to his athleticism, work ethic and leadership, that still meant he was an upgrade on at least a third of the rosters in the league -- after all, such QBs as Pat Devlin and Ricky Stanzi are currently on rosters. But in the minds of GMs, Tebow's potential payoff would never outweigh the billboards, the parking lots full of satellite trucks, the endless QB controversies or any of the other distractions and internal conflicts he brings with him. Like the mythical snake Ouroboros, Tebow has been devoured whole by his own success. "There's no going halfway with Tebow anymore," says former Colts coach Tony Dungy. "You either gotta sell out and give him the keys to your team or stay away. Because, unfortunately, there's too much attention for him to be a regular, developing backup like everyone else."

Inside the bunker mentality of NFL locker rooms, it doesn't matter whether a distraction comes from a church group or a strip club. All teams really care about is that for a few precious hours, the team's effort and focus are not diverted from the singular task of winning games. And while he appears to be a man of high character and principles, Tebow seems to have a blind spot for the steep level of humility required of a backup. He was fined repeatedly by the Broncos' kangaroo court for refusing to publicly censure supporters who erected a pro-Tebow billboard early in the 2011 season. "Tim's religion isn't a factor at all," Dungy says. "People don't care about your lifestyle off the field as long as you're performing every week. If he's getting blackballed, it's because backup quarterbacks are not supposed to be the focus, and if Tim's on your team, he's the sole focus. Nobody wants to be answering those questions all day long, every day, from the fans, media and teammates."

Certainly not about a QB whose ability makes him a third-stringer, tops, and not just because of his well-chronicled throwing issues. More troubling for potential employers is that Tebow struggled badly with the mental side of the game, according to a league source. At age 7, he was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disability that affects how he reads and processes information, such as a playbook or game plan. Tebow won a Heisman Trophy and two BCS titles and graduated from Florida with a 3.7 GPA. But he scored a below-average (for QBs) 22 on his Wonderlic test. As a kinesthetic learner, Tebow absorbs information better through using flash cards and hands-on repetitive experience than the traditional method of memorizing diagrams, notes and Polaroids from a playbook. That doesn't mean Tebow isn't smart or that he couldn't develop into a brilliant, quick-thinking quarterback. It just hasn't happened yet.

When the Broncos defense was on the field, offensive coaches would often tell Tebow the first series of plays they wanted to run when the team got the ball back. Tebow would nod, and they'd separate. And then, invariably, a short while later he'd ask for the information again. Sometimes this ritual would repeat right up until Tebow had to duck into the huddle and call the play. As a result, despite starting only 11 games in 2011, Tebow was flagged for delay of game an NFL-high seven times. Worse still was the fact that, according to scouts, Tebow almost never audibled because he struggled to quickly and properly read defenses. And of all the deadly sins Tebow committed against quarterbacking, this was the worst: lacking the self-awareness to recognize and fix these shortcomings. Maybe the most shocking part of Tebowmania isn't that he has been cast out of the NFL after just three years but that he lasted as long as he did.

The last place on earth he needed to be at this stage of his career was inside the Jets' dysfunctional fishbowl. But that's where Team Tebow chose last year when the Broncos grew weary of the circus and traded him.

On his first day of open practice as a Jet, Tebow was so bad that fans booed and heckled him and coaches feared, almost immediately, that he wasn't a legitimate option to replace Mark Sanchez. Yet that wasn't the breaking news from Jets camp that day. When it started to rain at the end of practice, Tebow took off his shirt and jogged across the field. Video of his buff, slow-motion trot instantly went viral. With his fans satiated, Tebow turned his attention to soothing his annoyed teammates. Showing that he could poke fun at himself, Tebow arrived shirtless to the next team meeting and remained that way for the entire session.

It was one of the greatest tricks Tebow ever pulled off.

No one remembers that he completed only three passes in practice that day.

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