Commentary

Fame, fortune and being Tim Tebow

The NFL draft will change his life this week, but don't expect it to change Tebow himself

Originally Published: April 22, 2010
By Johnette Howard | Special to ESPN.com

TebowAP Photo/Dave MartinHas any football player ever provoked the range of responses that Tim Tebow does? Not likely.

Tim Tebow has the answer to the NFL draft's best-kept secret. His agent, Jimmy Sexton, was maintaining Tuesday night that they already know where Tebow will be drafted this week.

No, really. Sexton claims he knows.

"Yep," he said.

So, Sexton was needled, will it shock the world?

"I don't know if it's gonna shock the world because I always thought he was going to do well," Sexton laughed. "But we pretty much know. We have a pretty good idea what's going to happen."

That's quite a claim considering that leading up to the draft, the debate about Tebow's destiny has been the NFL's version of a total solar eclipse, blotting out nearly every other name and topic in play. But then Sexton, a longtime and very respected agent, followed it up by agreeing with a suggestion that Tebow will go on to be the most marketable athlete in history.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
AP Photo/Phil SandlinHe's been through a mechanics makeover since the college season ended. Will it matter?

"He will be, he will be," Sexton nodded.

Laugh if you want. Despite months of relentless scrutiny of Tebow's game and leadership skills to the point that we now know everything from his vertical leap down to how large his hand is -- 10¼ inches, "an absolute paw!" raved one talent evaluator after the Indianapolis scouting combine -- many NFL types can't even agree he's a quarterback.

Either way, the short and eventful life of Tim Tebow will start a new chapter at the end of this week. And the longer Tebow is around, the clearer it's becoming that the curious and the outrageous, the unprecedented and the over-the-top are going to be the norm with him. So get used to it.

With Tebow, the unbending three-word rule is this: Expect the unusual. Once you accept that, it's easier to understand the amazing phenomenon that has sprung up around him, or why the piping-hot debate about where he should go in the NFL draft has turned into something of a national obsession.

People love Tebow. People hate Tebow. People doubt him. People rave about him.

Tebow, more than any athlete in recent memory, tends to polarize people without doing anything really wrong. Or at least criminal. He's been called one of the greatest college players ever. Yet he's also been parodied as "The Chosen One" and blamed for the just-passed NCAA rule banning messages on the little black patches players wear under their eyes (though Reggie Bush actually started the trend years earlier). He's been both celebrated and mocked for the way his hyper-intense college coach, Urban Meyer, had a post-defeat speech Tebow gave two years ago all but promising a national championship cast on a metal plaque, then bolted onto the side of Florida's stadium to immortalize it. This, though Tebow still had his senior season to play.

Who else does this stuff happen to? Who else provokes these sorts of responses?

NFL talent guru Gil Brandt has predicted Tebow will be a late first-round pick. Others say he'll be a bust wherever he's drafted.

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Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesFor some NFL teams, drafting Tebow will take a leap of faith.

"He's not an NFL quarterback," Miami starter Chad Henne scoffed not long after some of his Dolphins coaches worked with Tebow before his poor showing at the Senior Bowl.

The saga of how Tebow changed his throwing mechanics after the Senior Bowl has been reported and flogged to death. And he's shown big improvement. Still, Sexton says NFL talent evaluators have cleaved off into three very distinct camps going into the draft: (1) The people who think Tebow can play and want him on their team; (2) The people who aren't sure Tebow can play quarterback, but might draft him anyway; and (3) The people who don't think he can play a lick at all.

Once again, the "why?" -- as in, why does he constantly defy consensus? -- shouldn't be a mystery.

Nobody can get a fix on Tebow because he's the oddest amalgam of traits to come down the sports pike in a long time. To underscore it, just try this little game: String together a few of the adjectives everyone already knows about him, like: Star virgin college quarterback. Does that compute? ("Look at you guys -- you don't know what to say," Tebow laughed after a reporter asked him last season if he was "saving himself" for marriage and Tebow, a devout Christian, stunned the room into silence by answering yes.) Tebow is the son of two missionaries, spent part of his childhood in the Philippines, and has returned there a number of times to help out by performing services in the field such as, um … circumcisions?

No wonder you scare NFL people, Tebow was told Tuesday.

"Ha!" he laughed.

Tebow was in New York making an appearance for EA Sports, which chose him to be the cover boy of its 2010 NCAA video game, hoping to tap into his folk-hero status. Just across the room waiting to talk to him next sat a blogger who had earlier joked (sort of) to me that he'd secretly hoped Tebow might be persuaded to perform a circumcision on his infant son. A little further away, leaning against a pillar, was a newspaper reporter who kidded he'd come to this Manhattan nightclub only because he thought he might catch Tebow sneaking a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser.

"Ha!" Tebow nodded, laughing again.

Tebow knows the wait for The Fall is the second-biggest curiosity around him, right after where he'll go in the draft. But when I asked him to name something that people still don't know about him, something that would surprise people -- he's a slob, maybe he cusses a blue streak when somebody cuts him off in traffic -- Tebow thought it over and said, "You know what? I crack my knuckles. All the time!"

[+] EnlargeTebow
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLife was good after the Sugar Bowl. Chances are, it'll still be good for Tebow after the draft, regardless of what happens.

"Yeah, well, that's not exactly bad," Tebow was told.

"But it is," he insisted. "It's not good for you."

I said, "I was thinking more like, I don't know, maybe you don't recycle?"

"I also have this really bad habit of leaving my cereal bowl on the table when I'm done, too," Tebow said.

So much for dark secrets.

It's a risk to ever say never in sports. But at this point it feels safe to trust Tebow isn't playing a character named Tim Too-Good-To-Be-True Tebow in the way that, say, Tiger Woods spent a significant portion of his career playing Family Guy.

This really is who Tebow is. And if he hasn't been distorted already by the mountains of attention and criticism and love he's received, if he hasn't found it weird or dislocating to have people hand him their babies over the stadium railing just so he would touch them or encounter a guy at a recent autograph session who asked Tebow to help him propose to his girlfriend right there in line, it feels safe to say the freak-out probably isn't going to happen.

Tebow at age 35 might not be the same person he is now; the rigors of the NFL or the passage of time may coarsen him a bit. But look: It didn't exactly happen with other straight arrows such as Kurt Warner or Roger Staubach or David Robinson, did it? When asked Tuesday what Tebow has bought himself now that he's finally earning real money, Sexton laughed and said, "Nothing. He's still driving a 1995 kelly green Ford Thunderbird with something like 230,000 or 270,000 miles on it."

There's always a chance Tebow's earnestness could undermine him in an NFL locker room more than his faith-based stands or that hitch in his throwing motion he's worked so hard to correct. His assertion to Jon Gruden in ESPN's "Gruden's QB Camp" -- that his new teammates will be swayed by the magnetic pull of his leadership skills (my words, not his) once they realize that Tebow "cares" about them, not just about the game -- was met with a cocked eyebrow and sardonic smile by Tedy Bruschi, the retired New England linebacker, now an ESPN football analyst, during a recent panel discussion.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IITebow has always appreciated the importance of being earnest.

Tebow is an odd duck, all right. He accepts that characterization with the same unsinkable cheerfulness with which he endures harsher criticism. Pressed for his take on the off-the-hook ways he's been prodded, poked and picked apart in the days leading up to the draft, Tebow shrugs and says, "I understand the need for it all. But you know, sometimes I think people or these teams can over-evaluate things, too.

"Sometimes, you just have to put on the film and see if a guy can play."

It's the closest Tebow comes to a protest.

Even if it was a slight exaggeration for his agent, Sexton, to say they already know where Tebow is going to land -- countless things could change hour to hour -- you can't blame them for believing they also know how Tebow's NFL career is going to turn out. He's going to get with some NFL team. Work his butt off. Wow everyone with his talent and personality. And probably succeed. Doesn't matter how long he has to wait. His ability to communicate with people, the way he's genuinely nourished by simple human interaction or merely a job well done and not necessarily the success or money or status that come with it, is something to see.

"Magic," Sexton calls it.

It's been a short but eventful life, indeed. And Tebow admits he's ready to get on with the next stage of Being Tim Tebow.

When asked for the weirdest question he fielded during his NFL team interviews, Tebow says it came from a club executive who asked him, "Would you rather be the starting quarterback for our franchise, or the governor of Florida?"

Tebow, smiling as beatifically as ever now, said just what you'd expect him to say: "I told him I want to be a starting quarterback first. But later? Why not both?"

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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