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Keith Strudler: The Apostle Comes to Philly

Say this for Philadelphia Eagles head football coach Chip Kelly. He must be a man of great faith. Fortunately, his new talent acquisition quarterback Tim Tebow also has a robust sense of faith, if perhaps in different artifacts. While Tebow wears his religious devotion on his muscular sleeve, Chip Kelly clearly has faith in a series of largely unproven young quarterbacks that most other NFL teams have quickly forgotten. That includes Mark Sanchez, presumptive starter Sam Bradford, and Matt Barkley. These were all great college quarterbacks whose glory days may have reached their zenith back on campus.

None for whom would this be more true than Tim Tebow. His college career was so grand that it’s already warranted a statue at his Alma matter the University of Florida. Yet his three year pro career was considerably less grand after being drafted in the first round by the Denver Broncos, which most people assumed was two rounds too high. After two seasons in Denver and one uncomfortable year with the Jets – although to be fair, when is it not uncomfortable with the Jets – Tebow spent the last two football seasons in the broadcast booth, transitioning from athlete to analyst. He also made the rounds as a motivational speaker, where he was only slightly less popular than Jesus, who some suggest is his doppelganger. But it was largely assumed Tebow would not and could not hack it as an NFL quarterback, a victim of poor mechanics and accuracy, two imperatives in a game largely contested by human freight trains.

Yet despite those clear impediments, Philadelphia and their mad scientist of a coach came looking for the apostle. Mind you, this is the same franchise that hired a newly freed Michael Vick. The sinner and the saint, although that’s far too simple an analysis. It’s hard to know what the Eagles want out of this acquisition. Certainly, Tebow can sell tickets. But that’s something that would matter in a small NFL town like Jacksonville, not a league stronghold like Philly, where fans would buy tickets just to boo and throw things on the field. Chip Kelly actually seems to think that an NFL quarterback five years out of college whose best work was in a television booth will make his team better.

It’s perhaps a bit surprising that Tebow would take back to the field after enjoying a taste of the easy life, where he made money talking about violent hits instead of actually enduring one. But perhaps from his perspective, his seat in front of a microphone will always be there. Still, it’s hard to imagine Tebow plays more than a supporting role for the Eagles, unless they ultimately decide to run the same offense Navy does. I’d imagine this a one-year experiment, not unlike the time you tried to give up potato chips or enrolled in yoga.

It’s a fair analysis that Tebow’s ego is considerable part of his return, despite what his fan army likely thinks. Tebow has done more magazine covers than Cindy Crawford, and I’d assume his well-orchestrated appearance isn’t simply a divine accident. So for all his perceived selflessness, Tim Tebow probably couldn’t resist a chance return to the bright spotlight of the American gridiron. As many professional athletes can attest, football isn’t simply what they do – it is truly who they are.

But this odd situation, where a marginal NFL talent garners outsized adoration, begs the question: why do people love him so much, so much that many still believe the Eagles will thrive under his stewardship, assuming he ever actually gets the chance? My educated, academic answer is, well, I really just don’t know.

Perhaps it’s best understood in the context of what football means in this country. Not only is it our favorite sport, but also our most pervasive religion, where top figures become athletic divinity. Tim Tebow, particularly while in college, came straight from central casting, winning a national title with Jesus on sleeve. Actually, literally on his face, where he referenced biblical verses in eye black. For much of America, Tim Tebow isn’t just a football player. He’s a god that plays football. And in a country that converts old NBA arenas to churches, how could that not compel our populace.

To understand Tebow-mania is to understand America, one that wants its athletes to occupy rarified air. Tim Tebow may just do that, even if his passes rarely do.  A man of limited NFL talent, he certainly does command faith. For Philadelphia Eagles fans, faith may just have to be enough.

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