NOTE: The writer of this commentary, Fran Tarkenton, is one of football’s greatest passing quarterbacks, he established lifetime records (all surpassed by Dan Marino in 1995) for most completions (3,686), most yards gained passing (47,003), and most touchdown passes (342) during his career with the Minnesota Vikings (1961-66, 1972-78) and New York Giants (1967-71).
(by Fran Tarkenton, The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com) – On Sunday [Jan. 8], when Denver Bronco wide receiver Demaryius Thomas caught a pass from Tim Tebow on the first play of overtime and ran it all the way for a game-winning touchdown, the stadium erupted. At once, people cried that it was a miracle, and Mr. Tebow went down to pray on one knee in his signature pose. Millions of viewers already knew the first words he would say whenever a reporter caught up to him for a postgame interview: “First of all, I want to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!”
Tim Tebow is not unique. Even on his own team, there are notably devout players like safety Brian Dawkins. In fact, the NFL has had a number of players who were outspoken in their faith. Think of quarterback Kurt Warner, who famously went from stocking shelves at a grocery store to a pair of league most-valuable-player awards and three Super Bowl appearances. Or Reggie White, one of the greatest defensive linemen of all time, who was also an ordained minister, nicknamed the “Minister of Defense.” The list goes on.
Religion certainly played a role in the game when I played. I grew up the son of a Pentecostal Holiness minister—we were charismatic before charismatic was cool. I was in church Wednesday night, Friday night, Sunday morning and Sunday night—every week of my childhood. I was there at the first-ever national camp for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, in Estes Park, Co., in 1956, along with everyone from legendary NFL quarterback Otto Graham to a young Don Meredith (although fellow quarterback Don and I didn’t make it to many of the meetings). When I went to the NFL, I needed special dispensation from the church to play on Sundays.
As a player, though, I never understood why God would care who won a game between my team and another. It seemed like there were many far more important things going on in the world. There were religious guys on both teams. If God gets credit for the win, does he also take blame for defeat?
For what it’s worth, my forays into hoping for divine intervention didn’t work out. I prayed fervently before each of the three Super Bowls we Minnesota Vikings played in. We played against the Dolphins, the Steelers and the Raiders. I don’t know about the first two games, but I was sure God would be on our side for the game against the Raiders! After all, they were the villains of the league, and it was hard to believe they had more Christians on their team than on our saintly Vikings. We lost.
Faith had a place in every locker room I was in. When I played for the New York Giants, team owner Wellington Mara, a devout Catholic, invited half the priests in New York City into the locker room before games. Sometimes it was hard to find my teammates among all the priests. I’m sure Mara hoped it would somehow help the team win, but it was never enough to get us into the playoffs.
Before every game, no matter what team I was on at the time, the coach would always ask the most devout player to say a prayer. This would happen after we’d already been out warming up—so we’d all seen the crowd, we were in full uniform…, and the intensity of the week had built up to a near frenzy in the locker room.
The prayer was always pretty much for the same thing: Let there not be any injuries, let everybody play a good game—anything except to win the game. No one ever asked to win the game, probably for fear that God would punish us for asking. After this moment of devotion, the team would all shout in unison, “Now let’s go kill those [guys]!”
We often attribute supernatural origins to football success, from Roger Staubach’s 1975 “Hail Mary” pass to Franco Harris’s “Immaculate Reception” in 1972, and we enshrine plays with names like the “Holy Roller” in 1978 and the “Music City Miracle” in 2000.
Although faith has been a part of football so long, a player like Mr. Tebow can still be extremely controversial among fans and pundits. But seriously, isn’t it refreshing that the chatter around the NFL is about a great athlete with great character who says and does all the right things and is a relentless leader for his team—and not about more arrests and bad behavior from our presumptive “heroes”?
Tim Tebow is the story of this football season, and a great story it is.
Mr. Tarkenton, an NFL quarterback from 1961-1978, is the chairman and founder of OneMoreCustomer.com.
Published January 12, 2012 at The Wall Street Journal. Reprinted here January 19, 2012 for educational purposes only. Visit the website at wsj.com.