A muscular "Jesus nerd" faces the press

If you are a college sports fan of any kind, then you already know about Tim Tebow, the muscular Christian who plays quarterback for the University of Florida Gators. He's already won the Heisman Trophy and two national titles and now he's back again as a senior, trying to build on that amazing foundation.

Of course, he is also the outspoken missionary kid who wrote John 3:16 in the black patches under his eyes in a national championship game, which inspired roughly 94 million Bible-challenged viewers to Google that very, very famous Bible passage. You may also remember the media storm (just kidding) when he turned his brief Heisman acceptance speech into an evangelistic rally.

Now, a reporter has gone and done it, asking the quarterback a controversial question that, dang it, Tebow answered without a flinch. Here's a piece of a typical weblog item on the fiasco, which is still leading the South Florida Sun-Sentinel sports page online. Check out the headline.

Spiritual Florida quarterback Tim Tebow admits he's a virgin

You no longer need to wonder if the devoutly spiritual Tim Tebow is a virgin.

Now you know. Responding to a question from radio reporters at SEC Media Days Thursday about whether he is saving himself for marriage, Tebow laughed initially and then said seriously, "Yes, I am."

When another reporter stumbled through and couldn't finish a follow-up question, the 21-year-old University of Florida quarterback laughed and said, "I think you're stunned right now. You can't even ask a question. ... I was ready for that question, but I don't think ya'll were."

A "spiritual" quarterback? That's pretty weak.

However, the blogger in question goes on to praise Tebow for his candor and his strength, on this issue. But out there in MSM-land, others jumped in to say that this question was totally out of line -- which is interesting since the burly quarterback didn't seem to think that it was. For Tebow, striving to walk his talk seems to be part of who he is and he isn't embarrassed about it.

All of which brings me to that ultra-sympathetic feature about Tebow in the hallowed pages of Sports Illustrated. Reporter Austin Murphy spends some quality time with a young man who -- from the remarkable story of his risky birth, to his medical missionary work in the slums of the Philippines -- is clearly heading into a pulpit after his days in the National Football League (where many scouts doubt he has the right stuff to play quarterback). The feature opens with an evangelistic trip inside a Florida prison, one of many Tebow has made in recent years.

There would be prayers and singing, and gospel music from the prison's own band. But the highlight of the night would be a 25-minute oration by Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, who would stress the importance of "finishing strong" and conclude with an invitation for inmates to come down from the bleachers to be his "brothers in Christ" and be born again.

"It's one of my favorite things to do," Tebow said during the drive, making it sound as if he were bound for Walt Disney World rather than this razor-wire-ribboned stalag 35 miles northeast of Gainesville. "You're talking to guys who have no hope, no support, who have been totally written off by the world."

Watching Tebow zip passes into the seams of opposing defenses, lower his shoulder in short yardage and exhort his teammates like King Henry V on St. Crispin's Day, one might think that he was put on this earth just to run coach Urban Meyer's spread offense. Watching him pace the floor of a gymnasium packed with 660 wayward men hanging on his every syllable is to realize that regardless of what position Tebow eventually plays in the NFL, and for how long, the football phase of his life is merely a means to a greater end.

That's the setting for this quiet, beautiful encounter:

When the speech is over, Tebow is introduced to a wiry inmate named Jeremy Bensen, who within seconds is sharing the initial difficulty he had "trusting in God." The Scripture that got him over the hump, he says, "was Proverbs 3: 5 and 6." He begins to recite -- "Trust in the Lord with all your heart" -- and Tebow chimes in, "In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your path." They finish together, then smile a bit sheepishly across the table at one another like the nerds for Jesus they are.

There's all kinds of interesting detail in this story, including the fact that while some members of the Gator team have made headlines because of their run-ins with the law, another story has quietly been building behind the scenes. Led by Tebow, the team is breaking all kinds of records when it comes to community service hours and work with the poor and needy. Eventually, even the head football coach was hit by a lightning bolt and signed up.

tebow316That leads us to another nice detail, from a crucial day in the team's life:

Even Meyer would admit, however, that the Tebow Effect can be disruptive. Various Gators assistants were approaching DefCon 1 in the hours before last January's BCS title game against Oklahoma: Fifteen or so players were not in their rooms at the team hotel and couldn't be found. It turned out they'd been summoned to Tebow's room, where the quarterback admitted that the immense pressure of the looming title game had begun to distract him, wear him down. Thumbing through his Bible (the one with timmy inscribed on the cover), he'd chanced upon a passage in Matthew that gave him a measure of calm and that he wanted to share with them: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

The verses had the desired effect, relaxing the assembled Gators so much that a kind of impromptu revival meeting broke out. Soon the entire group had broken into song.

But this is where I think the feature story falls short. The story is so sympathetic, that I think it fails to ask some interesting, even critical questions.

Sports fans, I have spent a few years in the torrid sports scene in Florida (while teaching at Palm Beach Atlantic University), and let me assure you that Tebow is not the stereotypical hero for Gator Nation. I mean, what about the school's legendary reputation -- verified many times -- as one of America's top party schools? Gator fans can chant "We're No. 1!" about a lot of things and not all of them are faith-friendly.

Also, note that there are "15 or so" players in that prayer meeting the night before the big game. Yes, SI does tell us that Tebow is not the kind of guy who forces his faith on other people in the locker room, but I think it would have been good if the story talked to some of the wild guys on the team and asked them what they think of their preacher in residence. Any tensions? None? Really?

Which brings us to THAT QUESTION. While it might have been out of line to turn the virginity issue into a "gotcha" moment in a press conference, I think it is a valid question to ask this particular young man -- who is clearly very comfortable in his own skin when it comes to the details of his faith.

Once again, note that Tebow was ready for the question. The reporters weren't ready for the answer.

I think that this is precisely the kind of issue that a quality operation like SI and a fine reporter like Murphy could have handled with grace and respect. You know Tebow, as a "Jesus nerd," has thought this through and created some interesting ground rules for his life on a Florida campus that is a hot place, on several different levels.

Good question. Wrong setting.

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