His voice comes through on a speakerphone, relaxed and eager. Tim Tebow talks about his blessings and offers prayers for the victims of the Penn State sex-abuse scandal. He is polite, accommodating and thoughtful.
"I look at my situation and consider myself extremely blessed," he says, "to play the game I love and have a platform to go out there and influence young people."
Statements like that have come to define the Denver Broncos' 24-year-old quarterback. He is 4-1 as a starter in the NFL, and he won a Heisman Trophy and was part of two national championship teams while at the University of Florida. Tebow might be the best college football player ever, to say nothing of his work with underprivileged children and the way he inspires others to live well, be good to others, and follow Christianity.
But this isn't about him. It's about us.
"He's going to have his fall one of these days," says James Franklin, 25, a bouncer at the Brooksider.
Inside, a crowd has gathered to watch the Oakland Raiders play the San Diego Chargers. Many of them have opinions on Tebow.
"I think he's rehearsed; I think he's robotic," says Tommy Myers, a 25-year-old Broncos fan. "I just don't think he's real."
As scandals have permeated America's favorite sport, corruption digging deeper into college football and a growing inability of the common fan to identify with NFL players, it is Tebow who has become the nation's most polarizing athlete. For many of the same reasons, he is loved by some and reviled by others. Hype has followed Tebow since his freshman season at Florida, and he is open and outspoken about his Christian faith.
Billboards went up in Denver this season, part of a movement for Tebow to become the Broncos' starter. "Tebowing," the act of dropping to one knee, forehead to fist to mimic Tebow's signature celebratory prayer, has become part of pop culture. But there are also websites and movements dedicated to Tebow's shortcomings, the emotions that some believe to be phony, and many Americans' overall dislike of an athlete and man who sometimes seems too good to be true.
"People pump him up to a status of a god, essentially," says Seth Winkel, listed as an officer for a Facebook page titled "I HATE Tim Tebow," which has nearly 3,500 members. "Always, everybody is like, 'Tebow this, Tebow that.' After a while, you just get sick of hearing his name."
Jacob Kleinstein was having fun a few Sundays ago, euphoric after Tebow led the Broncos to a comeback win against the Miami Dolphins, when he dropped to a knee in mock prayer. This is a familiar celebration ritual for Tebow, and Kleinstein wanted to imitate it. Someone took a picture, and Kleinstein uploaded it to his Facebook page.
This is how "Tebowing" was born, and three weeks later, Tebowing.com — a site Kleinstein created so that others can share their own photos — has been viewed more than 7 million times.
"The idea came from paying tribute," says Kleinstein, a Broncos fan who lives in New York. "Not in a mocking way, but to pay tribute to what had just happened."
Kleinstein also is a Tebow fan, and he understands the complexities of that. Following Tebow means more than admiring his football skills; there also are religious and cultural issues in play.
He also understands why these are reasons why so many others dislike Tebow.
"When somebody sees ESPN covering Tim Tebow," he says, "instead of Joe Paterno's retirement, it sort of makes people cringe."
Tebow is, in some ways, the new generation's Brett Favre. He is colorful, famous and divisive. One way or the other, most sports fans have an opinion. Les Shapiro is an afternoon radio host for Denver's KDSP-AM, and he says it's not uncommon for him to spend all three hours discussing Tebow.
"The people who support him are so fanatical and so loud," Shapiro says, "that the people on the other side of the equation ... want their voices to be heard. But because it's so loud coming from the other side, they feel like they need to be loud as well."
Shapiro says most callers in Denver target Tebow's play, which has been erratic despite a 4-1 record as the Broncos' starter. He has an unusual throwing motion, and many of the nation's most well-known NFL analysts have suggested that Tebow's skills can't work at this level. To make matters tenser, few have forgotten that Denver traded three draft picks in 2010 to move up in the first round and select Tebow, who was projected as a possible third-round pick.
Tebow was inserted by coach John Fox into the starting lineup last month, silencing a side that had howled for Tebow to play more, but inciting the faction that believes the Broncos are at a disadvantage with Tebow in the lineup.
So the debate continues, and Shapiro and others are left to referee it, adding more discussion and hype to one of the most discussed and hyped players of this generation.
"It has really become a yelling match," Shapiro says, sounding exasperated.
Kleinstein watches from afar. He has benefited from the hype, and he says he hopes it doesn't soon end. After all, he says on this afternoon, Milwaukee Brewers slugger Prince Fielder just submitted a photograph to the website, "Tebowing" in Prague.
Winkel joined the "I HATE Tim Tebow" Facebook page while Tebow was still at Florida. Winkel was a University of Miami fan, and Tebow's success — and theatrics — in Gainesville was nauseating for most anyone who didn't follow the Gators.
Tebow's celebrations and emotional responses became legendary, and so did his character. He wept after significant losses and erupted after big wins. He wore Bible verses on his eye black, discussed his mission trips as often as the spread option, and in July 2009, announced that, yes, one of the nation's most popular athletes was a virgin.
"Is this guy the real deal?" Winkel remembers thinking. "Is it just an act? Does he just want the popular public opinion? Everybody has those thoughts."
Tebow was unlike some college students and star athletes. He avoided trouble and adoring women, and instead of drinking himself into a stupor on a beach during spring break in 2008, Tebow was in the Philippines, performing circumcisions on impoverished children.
The legend grew. So did the doubts that the Tebow character was genuine.
"A myth," Myers says. "It's an image he wants to portray."
If it was contrived, it was working. During the 2009 BCS championship game, Tebow wrote "John" and "3:16" on his eye-black patches, and the next day, the verse was the most-searched item on Google. Tebow was asked to speak at religious functions, and this past February, he appeared in an anti-abortion-themed Super Bowl ad for a Christian lobbying group.
Tebow's supporters rejoiced, admiring him for spreading the gospel. His detractors suggested that he keep his beliefs to himself, or at least away from sports.
"In a lot of people's eyes, religion is a private matter," says Gary Ebersole, the director of the University of Missour-Kansas City religious studies program. "To mix one's public position with something private . . . it just rubs people the wrong way."
Even some Christians are put off by Tebow's outspokenness. Myers says he finds some of it to be over the top, and instead of attracting more believers, Tebow's behavior might be a turnoff. Myers adds that he doesn't find the humor in "Tebowing."
"I find it insulting," he says.
Winkel, now the student ministry director at a church in Sarasota, Fla., says he struggled with some of these same issues. Then, he says, he prayed about it and tried to understand that, genuine or not, Tebow might push a few roaming souls toward Christianity.
"He knows why he's here," Winkel says. "He's doing positive stuff for this world."
Tebow has at least converted a few doubters. Winkel says he's considering leaving the anti-Tebow Facebook page.
He knew it was coming, but Tebow still chuckles at the question: In an age of liars, cheats and monsters, why is Tim Tebow among sports' most disliked figures?
"That's each person's choice, and I'm sure they make it for different reasons," Tebow says. "You're always going to have people that doubt you, and I can't control that. What I can control is my attitude, my effort and how I approach every day, how I treat people. If I'm real with that, and if the people in this locker room and the people I come in contact with on a daily basis, if they see that and they see that's real, then I think I'm on the right track."
He goes on.
"You can't always listen to the naysayers," he says, "and the people that doubt you or don't like you for different reasons. They're always going to be there, and they have always been there in my life."
He says the dislike and doubt have fueled him, made his voice louder, and galvanized the things about him that some adore and others despise. Whether he has been coached to say these things — further shining an image that's both golden and lucrative — or if he truly believes them is unclear.
Shapiro, the Denver radio host and a Tebow critic, says he believes the quarterback's personality is genuine. He says it'll be Tebow's inconsistent play that will eventually quiet him, forcing him out of public view and back to a stage or pulpit far smaller than the one provided by the NFL.
To some, this possibility sounds appealing.
"I want to see him go away," says Franklin, the bouncer and a former basketball player at Kansas State. "I kind of do want him to fail."
comments on this story
Perhaps this is where American culture is now, when skepticism and disdain are sometimes easier to muster than faith and hope. How could Tebow be genuine? No one could believe what he believes, do what he does, snub temptation as he has claimed. Right? If it is genuine, then perhaps it's more difficult for many of us to connect with someone so pious. As other athletes' salaries and lifestyles leave the common fan behind, sometimes it's the flaws that offer something familiar.
"We've been burned a lot by people," Shapiro says. "We found out they had a dark side. He doesn't seem to have a dark side."
Tebow keeps talking; keeps saying that the ones he hopes to reach and the ones who want to believe. The others, he says, he ignores.
"I try not to look at the negative," he says, "and look at the positive and always see it half-full."
He finishes his thoughts.
"Thank y'all," he says before the call ends. "God bless y'all."