In short order he has become the most polarizing sports figure in generations.
It’s possible you’d have to go back as far as Muhammad Ali to find someone in athletics who inspired equal measures of all-encompassing support and disdain the way Tim Tebow currently does.
The easy assumption is that the mixed reaction comes because Tebow — the former Heisman Trophy winner and current Denver Broncos quarterback — is a Christian.
That’s not exactly it, though. There are lots of professional athletes who proclaim their faith in postgame interviews, lead clean-cut lives and do charity work in the name of their respective religion. None of them inspire the same degree of emotions or anything close to it.
What sets Tebow apart is that he never stops talking about his faith.
If he discussed chocolate chip cookies or puppy dogs or sunny days as often as he does religion, the backlash would be the same — regardless of how appropriate his priorities might be — because the vast majority of people in this country want their sports heroes to be athletes first. Beyond that, they’re free to do what they want.
It is a truth that dates back centuries to the Roman gladiators, if not beyond, and was imagined well into the future by writer William Harrison in the 1975 James Caan movie Rollerball. Whether or not we want to admit it to ourselves The Game is the thing, and those who put on the uniforms are merely pieces to be moved about for our enjoyment.
Think about it.
Last week was the 20th anniversary of Magic Johnson’s announcement that he had HIV. In the years since, he has become a leading AIDS activist, a resonant voice endorsing research and education.
In order to do so, though, he played the game — he stole the show at the 1992 All-Star Game and then led the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics and even returned to the Los Angeles Lakers for the second half of the 1995-96 season.
Once people were comfortable that he still was “Magic Johnson, basketball player” they were willing to hear what he had to say about AIDS.
Ali was no different. People widely accepted his conversion to the Muslim faith and his pacifist stance on the Vietnam War only after he stepped into the ring at Madison Square Garden and got beat up by Joe Frazier. After that, he was allowed to proclaim anything and everything he wanted, so long as he took out George Foreman and completed his epic trilogy with Frazier.
On the other hand, Jim Brown might be the greatest athlete this country ever has produced. His athletic legacy has faded, though, because he walked away from the game before the public was ready to see him go and transitioned into a high-profile role as an activist on behalf of the African-American community.
The thing is, of course, it seems obvious that Brown does not give a flip whether anyone even knows that he carried a football with such a rare combination of grace and brute force or that he lettered in four sports at college, including lacrosse, a sport that owes much of its current style to him.
Likewise, it seems safe to assume that Tebow feels no need to turn down talk of his faith.
Roughly a month ago, though, he was named Denver’s starting quarterback and his team started to win -- two in a row and three of four overall, to be exact as they enter Thursday's game against the New York Jets.
Suddenly the spotlight on him as a football player shines much brighter. His chance is now. If he proves he’s a capable NFL quarterback, people will let him say whatever he wants — as often as he wants.
It might not be right. But it’s reality.