“Grind on me, test me," Tim Tebow recently told Sports Illustrated's Peter King. "I feel I've prepared my whole life for this." He was talking about the Senior Bowl, where Tebow was huffing his way through brutal workouts before an audience of NFL scouts.
The University of Florida quarterback could have just as easily been talking about today's Super Bowl commercial. He will appear alongside his mother, Pam. They'll tell the story of Tim's birth: how Pam's pregnancy was threatened by a tropical disease, doctors told her to abort the child, and she refused.
And now look at her kid: Heisman winner, preacher, Christian heartthrob. Tebow has said that he's "always been very convicted" about the wrongness of abortion "because that's the reason I'm here."
Ponying up the estimated $2.5 million for the 30 seconds of airtime is Focus on the Family, the evangelical ministry. Truth is, Tim Tebow's appearance in this ad shouldn't be surprising at all: Tim Tebow is a messenger. His name is "Timothy" because 23 years ago Bob Tebow was out preaching in the Philippines, and he asked God to give him a preacher son. (Timothy is the name of a biblical preacher.) "Timmy has it built into him that he is on a mission from God to affect people's lives," Bob has said. So Bob Tebow's son needs an audience.
The Tebows have been clear about this mission. Decisions about Tim's career are motivated by a search for a larger soapbox. "I believe that I have a big platform here," Tebow told me last spring in Gainesville, "and I have an opportunity to help a lot of people here and influence a lot of people here."
And now he's set to reach the biggest audience in Christendom. The commercial isn't a means; it's the end.
What is the end? It's not just stopping abortions. Tebow wants to convert people, like his father does in Muslim areas of the Philippines. Until now, he's been subtle in his outreach, pushing his message gently, painting "PHIL 4:13" and "JOHN 3:16" and "MARK 8:36" in his eye black — an ingenious touch that prods even the most degenerate couch potato into Googling Bible verses out of curiosity. This Super Bowl commercial represents a new strategy for Tebow Inc.
The true extent and character of Tebow's faith has always flown under the media radar. There's probably some queasiness on the part of media elites (me included) over the idea that the family really believes what it says it believes.
Tebow has always referred to himself as a "missionary" who just happens to meet his flock on a gridiron ("There are a lot of ways to be a missionary," he told me); many of us, I think, have assumed he was speaking symbolically. But go to Bob Tebow's Web site (www.btea.org) and you can read a 10-point, 2,200-word manifesto that begins with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and ends with the Apocalypse: "The universe will be destroyed, followed by the judgment at the Great White Throne."
Tim Tebow has never really been asked about this stuff, which is a shame. I had a chance when I wrote a profile of him for GQ, but I blew it. I only got as far as a little riff on evolution, which Tim brought up himself, mentioning his admiration for creationist Ravi Zacharias. But when I got to the heavier God stuff, I started to sweat, fumbling my questions like a blown snap. I kept thinking, This guy is a college football player. It's not fair to ask him about Mohammed.
That was not only stupid; it was condescending. I really regret not asking Tebow about Islam and gay marriage. I regret not asking him if a Jew can go to heaven, and whether he believes that Hurricane Katrina and the stock market crash are manifestations of "God's wrath" — as the new pastor at his church, Mac Brunson, has said.
These are more than fair questions given Tebow's decision to politicize the Super Bowl, and if reporters don't ask them, they're actually doing Tebow a disservice. It can't be much fun to be a culture warrior if the opposing culture is constantly wimping out, denying you a chance to show your true mettle. Grind him, test him — he's ready.