Go ahead and "Tebow." You know: crouch on one knee, put your fist to your forehead and close your eyes in prayer as Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow does during NFL games. If you're unfamiliar with Tebowing, the latest meme to mesmerize the nation, a quick search will reveal people Tebowing at the Eiffel Tower, on a wedding dance floor, on the curling ice. Not a fan of praying, or of Jesus, or of getting your pant knee dusty? It doesn't matter. Because if you appreciate football, you need to Tebow just a little. You need to give thanks to Tebow, for he has given NFL fans one of the most captivating tales in years.
"I think it's cool," Tebow tells TIME when asked about the Tebowing craze, unruffled by the notion that some people are mocking his display of faith. "You don't know the heart of people. But I tend to think the best of people and believe they are doing it for the best reasons."
Tebow understands clearly that, for better and for worse, he is known for his strong faith as much as his football skills. Even before going 6-1 as the Broncos' starter after replacing Kyle Orton in October and leading the 7-5 Broncos to a first-place tie atop the AFC West division, Tebow was a symbol of America's intense division over public displays of piety. His constant annunciations of his Evangelical faith, dating to his days as a Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback at the University of Florida--and even to high school, when this son of a pastor was the subject of an ESPN documentary segment called "The Chosen One"--make fellow Christians ecstatic. "Tim Tebow is the figurehead for Christianity in sports ... I believe he is fighting against the devil himself," declares the creator of one of several "Pray for Tim Tebow" Facebook pages. But there are hate pages too, and legions of detractors who see no position for God in the huddle and groan at the notion of an NFL star who's a virgin and never curses. Former Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer recently said he wished Tebow would "just shut up" about religion.
For most of his 2010 rookie year, Tebow waited silently on the sideline, holding a clipboard, not the hopes of Christians, in his hands. Since becoming Denver's starter, however, he has won in ways that even an agnostic might call downright divine. He's engineered four fourth-quarter comebacks in seven games, driving the cult of Tebow to epic heights. Searches on Yahoo! for Tebowing skyrocketed in early December, and NM Incite, a social-media-consulting company, says Tebow has generated far more online buzz over the past month than any other NFL quarterback.
Tebow is a chiseled 6-ft. 3-in. (190.5 cm)quarterback who is built--and sometimes throws--like a linebacker. His off-balance, windup delivery is like the golf swing of a weekend hacker somehow playing on the PGA Tour. The Broncos quickly realized he would not succeed in the typical drop-back scheme. "If we were trying to run a regular offense, he'd be screwed," Denver coach John Fox noted last month. So the Broncos pass with prudence. Tebow is averaging 15 tosses per game over his past four starts--Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers, in contrast, has averaged 36 throws a game over that span--and is running an old-fashioned option-style offense, which favors his mobility. Tebow's 20-yard scoring dash against the New York Jets was the NFL's longest last-minute game-winning touchdown run by a QB.