In this Nov. 17, 2011 file photo, Denver Broncos quarterback...

In this Nov. 17, 2011 file photo, Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow warms up before playing the New York Jets in an NFL football game, in Denver. Tebow has been traded from the Denver Broncos to the New York Jets. Credit: AP

The intersection of faith and sports has a long and rich history, but Tim Tebow, the Jets' new backup quarterback, is in a league of his own.

The Knicks' Jeremy Lin is a born-again Christian, for example. Yankees star pitchers Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte are openly devout Christians. But when it comes to flamboyant and relentless expressions of devotion, Tebow stands apart.

He starts every news conference by thanking Jesus Christ and his teammates, and ends them by thanking the Lord again. His signature move -- taking a knee and bending his head down in prayer -- inspired a craze known as "Tebowing," with students in high school hallways and U.S. soldiers in barracks in Afghanistan posting their versions on Twitter and YouTube.

 

The wholesome underdog

Tebow, 24, has famously proclaimed he wants to remain a virgin until marriage.

"There's a ton of religious players in the NFL" and other sports, said Patton Dodds, author of the e-book "The Tebow Mystique: The Faith and Fans of Football's Most Polarizing Player." But "there's been no better representation ever" of the fusion of religion with sports "than Tim Tebow."

His on-the-field heroics added a "miracle dimension" to his story, said Julie Byrne, an associate professor of religion at Hofstra University.

Last season, confounding skeptics about his quarterbacking skills, Tebow led the Denver Broncos to a string of improbable come-from-behind victories and into the playoffs. "He started winning, and that raised the question of to what extent his success comes from being a good Christian and as the result of divine approval," Byrne said.

Steve Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, said Tebow "combines the underdog story that Americans love with the wholesome, born-again guy-next-door story that half of America loves."

But the other half includes fans who prefer the separation of church and football.

"They're trying to get away from controversy when they're watching sports," Prothero said. "They don't want their football mixed up with religion."

To believers, Tebow's life story is infused with a theme of miracles. When Tebow's parents were missionaries in the Philippines and his mother was pregnant with him, doctors feared a stillbirth and urged her to abort the pregnancy. The Tebows said no.

He was home-schooled as a child, in part to instill faith. Today, he is involved in charitable and church works, and his reputation is squeaky clean.

At the University of Florida -- where he earned the Heisman Trophy in 2007 and led the team to two national championships -- Tebow wrote references to biblical passages on his anti-glare eye black. That led to millions of Google searches for the passages, and prompted the NCAA to adopt the "Tebow rule" in 2010 prohibiting eye-black messages.

 

No apologies

Tebow is generally well-regarded by teammates for his toughness and intensity. But the incessant religious talk rankled a former Broncos quarterback, Jake Plummer.

"I think that when he accepts the fact that we know that he loves Jesus Christ, then I think I'll like him a little better . . . I just would rather not have to hear that every time he takes a good snap or makes a good handoff," Plummer, who retired after the 2006 season, said on a Phoenix radio station last fall.

On ESPN the next day, Tebow made no apologies.

"If you're married, and you have a wife, and you really love your wife, is it good enough to only say to your wife, I love her, the day you get married? Or should you tell her every single day when you wake up, and every opportunity?

"And that's how I feel about my relationship with Jesus Christ, is that it is the most important thing in my life. So any time I get an opportunity to tell him that I love him . . . I'm gonna take that opportunity."

And now he'll be doing it from a New York stage.

"He frames himself almost as a missionary whose missionary field is the TV set," Prothero said.

People of varying faiths admire his religious convictions and welcome him as a much-needed role model in a pro sports world littered with spoiled multimillionaires.

"I appreciate someone like Tim Tebow being a man of conviction and being a humble person at a time when many athletes are just extravagant and rambunctious," said Sharif Hannan, 27, a Muslim, a Jets fan and an attorney from Roslyn. "He is a good role model."

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