Gainesville on the Rockies
The prophet Jeremiah interpreted God’s will for the Jews this way: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” We, too, are exiles from the Heavenly City. Even in the fullest flowering of Christendom’s great and varied cities, ours is an exilic patriotism.
Our cities today, though not untouched by Christendom’s spired grandeur, are also, alas, gritty and squalid places. Their inhabitants are cynical of seeking anyone’s welfare but their own. Frequently they are oppressed by crime and vice.
Yet there is no indication that the force of the prophet’s directive has abated. Perhaps it applies all the more emphatically to those who know in greater fullness the Lord’s revelation concerning man. We have the example of our Incarnate Lord, who was Himself exiled to this vale of tears, in a particular city at a particular time.
But even leaving aside that tremendous fact, we need only consider that Jeremiah was speaking to a people who had been defeated, enslaved, and carried off to an alien land in chains, to see the weight of this directive to seek the welfare of your city.
Exilic patriotism, then, is no mere modern curse, anymore than “by the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread” is a modern curse. It is, rather, patriotism that partakes of sin and tragedy.
Patriotism in our day is attenuated not only by the sins of man, but by the errors of modernity. Our civilization is peripatetic like few before it. The wanderer with no home is hardly the interesting exception anymore: he is the very type of the modern man. From city to city he rambles, pursuing economic opportunity, romantic whim, self-regarding fancy; or fleeing the ennui he feels at the secret deprivation of being a man without a home.
One curiosity of this circumstance is that we rarely have the occasion to observe robust patriotism of any kind. We have only the publicist’s simulacrum, the scoundrel’s contrivance, or the emasculated superficiality of saccharine sentiment. These pitiful substitutes are wanting in precisely those elements which exilic patriotism emphasizes: the drama of man’s aspiration, the tragedy of his weakness, the triumph of virtue even in defeat.
One field of modern endeavor still partakes of that robust patriotism now fading from the scene. Its triviality may be taken as an indicator of how rootless we have become. Nevertheless, it is true to say that men still evidence a hearty patriotism—one that participates in both triumph and tragedy—in their passion for competitive sports.
And therein, if the reader will excuse some very personal and even partisan dilations, lies a recent tale which surpasses the usual trivia and hucksterism of sports to disclose those deeper puzzles of triumph, tragedy, and weakness, which compose the true lineaments of the story of man. The following summary is about the game of football, as it is played in America at the highest level of talent, spectacle and profit, and it makes no pretense to detachment or objectivity. It is a patriot’s tale.
For a Denver Broncos fan the football year 2011 comprised an extraordinary adventure cut short by insensate force.
I have been a Broncos fan since my earliest days of watching football, which is to say my earliest days of watching anything. Some of my oldest personal memories involve an event related to a Denver Broncos game. The Drive. The Drive II. The Helicopter Run.
Denver, Colorado, is among the fairest cities in this fair country. In my own aesthetic judgment few views exceed in sublimity the vast vivid horizon of a sunset over the Rocky Mountains with downtown Denver in the foreground. All sons and daughters of Denver—indeed all Coloradans—are united in a love of the Denver Broncos National Football Club. The Mile High City is foremost a football town.
Denver was the home of one of football’s greatest competitors, John Elway, who played quarterback (QB) for the Denver Broncos from the mid-80s until his retirement in 1999. Elway, an extraordinary athlete in a league teeming with athletic specimens, became in short order an icon of the city. His arm was unimaginably strong. He ran well. His instincts were sound. He was a born winner. Elway is still near the top of NFL record-books in late-game comebacks, and it is frequently argued that his coach in his early career fettered his talents with an overly-conservative approach to offense.
For nearly ten years, from the late 80s through the mid-90s, the Broncos staggered under the weight of the title Losers. The pain of blow-out losses in Super Bowls and disappointing seasons was excruciating.
But it all turned around. Elway retired as two-time Super Bowl Champion. Joy and relief echoed off the Western Slope from Colorado Springs to the Wyoming line. With assistance from a cast of overachievers, Elway won the big game for the 1997 season and again for the 1998 season, the latter going out as Super Bowl MVP. He was king of Queen City of the West. Denver was a winner at last.
Since Elway’s retirement, the Broncos have usually struggled. They have tried a variety of QBs, succeeded moderately with some, failed with most, but in general never even approached the old Elway glory.
The 2011 season would be different. Once the inept 1-4 Broncos, in despair, turned the team over to Tim Tebow at QB against the Chargers in October, Denver became enthralled by a drama I know well. Though a native son of Denver I have made Georgia my home for over a decade. And Georgia being SEC country, I could not possibly avoid the phenomenon of Tim Tebow, arguably the most successful quarterback in college football history.
Folks out West are often astonished to learn how decisively college football exceeds the NFL in the esteem of Southern football fans. “Pro football is just something to watch when we’re hungover” is the boast I’ve occasionally heard.
Similarly, only a transplant to the South can gain anything approaching objectivity as regards the Southeastern Conference in college football. I tend to favor Georgia out of home state sentiment, but it is a mere lark compared to the intensity of real Bulldog fans—or Roll Tide fans, or War Eagle fans, or wild crazy Cajun Geaux Tigers fans—or Florida Gator fans.
Thus the Tebow drama a few years back during his outstanding career as quarterback of the Florida Gators kind of washed over me without disrupting the deeper emotions. I admired the kid’s competitive spirit, his earnest Christianity, his athletic quality; but it was a detached admiration. I could still appreciate the animus reserved for him by a Georgia or LSU or Alabama fan.
And of a sudden there I was, deeply invested emotionally in the improbable success of young Tim Tebow, whose fate would entwine with the QB hero of my own youth in Denver, all the way to the final tragedy.
John Elway became the head of Football Operations for the Broncos about 18 months ago. To say that he was not yet persuaded by the prospect of Tebow as an NFL starter would be something of an understatement. The team began with another starter at the helm, looked awful, and only relented to local public pressure at halftime of the sixth game of the season, whereupon Tebow, starting from a big deficit in the 3rd quarter, nearly captained a huge comeback, falling short on the last play. It was like Gainesville on the Rockies.
So after absolutely awful play for 5 ½ games, from all positions but prominently from the QB position, the Denver Broncos pulled their starter and sent out the kid. They did not expect much. 24-year-old Tebow was said to be a poor passer, whose mechanics left him bereft of the indispensable tools to win in the NFL. All through the summer and early fall we heard about how plainly Tebow had earned the backup position, never having even threatened to convince the coaches to start him.
With Tim Tebow at quarterback the Denver Broncos became electrifying. They won 8 out of 13 games. They won four games in overtime. In several Tebow led riveting late-game comebacks: true football heroics, worthy of Elway. In all of the games (even the very ugly losses) he demonstrated toughness, agility, strength, and leadership. In several of them he endured miserable pass protection and got tossed around like a ragdoll. He threw the ball rarely. Instead, he dinked around for several quarters with gadget plays, inside running, and safe throws deep down the field; and then, late in the game, he put his talents to work brilliantly. He crowned evasiveness with a taste for judicious contact. And he passed better.
The wild swings of these Bronco victories are difficult to describe if you did not watch them. In the course of single games, they converted total offensive impotence into remarkable passing efficiency; and puzzling ineptitude into impressive dominance. Tebow guided the Broncos through several of the best NFL games of the year, culminating in an astounding achievement in winning his first playoff game.
His passing across the games was indeed below average. But he decisively improved when operating the hurry-up style: late-game offense which runs much faster and chaotically. According to ESPN, in the 4th quarter with the game on the line, Tebow averages nearly 15 yards per pass and over 6 per run.
In most of the Broncos wins, Tebow was a solid quarterback in addition to being among the best running-backs on the field.
Through all this Tim Tebow aroused a noticeable sneer and dismissal from an intransigent portion of the football commentariat, whose judgment seemed frequently impaired by personal bias. Football is a funny game. You can win it with elegant brilliance, as with Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers; or you can win it bruising and ugly-like, by just sort of grinding the opponent to exhaustion. The Broncos usually did it the latter way. Their defense was formidable. They have numerous playmakers and they put good pressure on the opposing QB. Tebow naturally thrives in the chaotic finales of football games. He’s better unscripted; ugly plays very frequently turn out in his favor. In this context his lack of bad mistakes (interceptions) is a telling quality. He prospers in unpretty games in part because he doesn’t add to the ugliness with bad decisions. He’s a very unorthodox QB, big and tough as nails but raw. But he’s inexperienced and susceptible to being rattled by the sheer speed of defenses. Not a few times it appeared that luck carried him to victory, not skill.
Late in the Broncos season, sharp adversity set in. Bad losses at Buffalo and at home against Kansas City induced everyone, fan and opponent alike, to wonder if Tebow really was a flash in the pan. The Broncos had backed into the playoffs and looked ugly doing it. The mighty Pittsburgh Steelers arrived in Denver for a playoff game that many were expecting to degrade quickly into a blowout.
Instead, in a game which became an instant Denver classic, Tebow exposed a defense that clearly did not respect him as a passer, completing 10 passes for 316 yards and leading the Broncos to a big lead. The lead was not sufficient. The game went to overtime after a furious rally from the Steelers. The Broncos won the toss and chose to receive the ball. On the first play from scrimmage, Tebow faked a handoff, baiting a Steeler defensive-back out of position, and then threw a bullet across the middle, which hit wide receiver Dmaryius Thomas right in stride. Broncos fans, overjoyed, watched him stave off tacklers in a thrilling 80-yard pass play that gave the team a victory for the ages.
In the course of this extraordinary run of football excellence, Tebow’s stature (always secure in the South) spread like wildfire to the wider American culture. Tebow is a homeschooled Christian of warm and unabashed Evangelical faith who evidences in his very public life all of the cardinal virtues. His temperance, in the form of a professed virginity, has been bitterly mocked by his detractors. His public bearing, despite extreme and squalid scrutiny from a pop-culture in the hands of which every virtue is denigrated, reposed on manifest prudence. He never spoke a harsh word in public against anyone, despite abundant provocation. He remembered justice to his teammates—“they make me seem better than I am”—at every press conference or interview. The respect he earned even from skeptics on the team was written all over the face of veteran All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey when, right after that astonishing playoff win, his voice thick with emotion and Georgia twang, he praised the superb play of “numba fifteen.”
Meanwhile, Tim Tebow’s charities live up to the fullness of that tremendous word. He visited prisoners while still in college. He visited the sick, and funded a children’s hospital in the Philippines; but also provided for them to visit him—at field-level seats to watch his games. Always, he gave glory to Our Lord. His public prayers before and during games (you can scarcely pray in private when you’re an NFL quarterback) somehow achieved a renown that American culture only too rarely extends such things. If imitation is flattery then Tebow was flattered most of all for being a praying man.
The wisdom of his coaches in entrusting him with leadership of the team has been repeatedly questioned. But even those who doubt that he will ever succeed consistently at quarterback do not doubt his fortitude. It was reported several days after the eventual Broncos loss in the divisional playoffs that Tebow had played the bulk of the second half of the game with serious torso damage, including lungs filling with fluid. He was briefly hospitalized by the injuries.
The loss hurt, but hope had returned to the old cowtown of Denver. I hope that even in so rough a rough sketch as this, the reader can observe the lineaments of a high-class human drama. This drama emphatically partakes of a sordid culture—there is no denying that. Professional sports in America are sunk in it. But I submit that even in these last dying dregs of Western civilization, sports—good athletic competition—are capable of producing drama that is not wholly squalid. At times it is noble. As the Apostle counseled, though the days are evil, we can redeem the time. Tim Tebow’s run with the Denver Broncos in 2011 is an unmistakable example of it.
And then the story took a tragic turn. It went the way of all patriotism: betrayal, decay and loss. Thou art dust. The squalid grasping of the world reasserted itself. To be a patriot—even the attenuated sort we see in the sports fan—is to love fleeting things. To dust and ash they shall return.
John Elway’s toothy grins and affected fondness for Tebow were rather abruptly exposed as mere media pretense. He was always an executive in a business enterprise, the sole purpose of which is to win football games and thereby sell tickets and merchandise for profit. He backed Tebow when the kid was winning, but it soon developed that his support was assiduously conditional. It would evaporate the moment a superior prospect appeared.
By early March a superior prospect appeared. Presently it became clear that the Broncos were committed to the pursuit of the veteran quarterback, 4-time league MVP, Super Bowl champion and very much available free agent Peyton Manning, recently departed from an enormously successful career with the Indianapolis Colts. The pursuit proved successful: Manning signed a huge five-year deal with the Broncos and Elway at last had the kind of traditional QB he always wanted. Supposing he is healthy, Manning is the better QB; even the Tebowmaniac has to admit that.
But in the course of this pursuit by Elway, Tebow was basically kicked to the curb: traded away for a late-round draft pick after ten days of very public and supine courtship of another player to take his position. As usual, he handled this latest twist of fate with dignity and aplomb. Broncos fans wrestled with deep and mixed emotions, agonized by the cruelty of decision; but in the end their desire for success eclipsed their Tebowmania. Manning, too, is a man of high character and established quality: Denver has already embraced him. If the Broncos are only a business enterprise, and all this patriotism talk is rubbish, then Elway’s bold stratagem may gain him latter-day glory in Denver. But the Machiavellian edge rankles.
Churchill was turned out for Socialists after national triumph; Tebow’s last game in Denver was the best game of his career, a stupendous victory in the playoffs as a huge underdog, against a storied franchise with more championships than any other.
Partisan that I am and must remain, I’ll be cheering for Peyton Manning next year. A different sort of hope prevails now: a more mercenary one. Cold steely business carried the day. Elway can stand at the podium, flash his gargantuan pearly teeth, and proclaim that he did what was best for the team.
From another partisan angle, it is all explicable only as pride and pigheadedness. Elway and Fox never wanted Tebowmania, felt they’d had their lives overturned by the circus, and never really believed in Tebow. So he had to go. Likewise, there is a brute sense in which, after all this, Tebow deserved a shot somewhere else. The kid merited a chance be a successful starting QB in the NFL. The Broncos didn’t deserve Tebow after their courtship of Manning.
The spurned patriot is frequently the most inveterate. And this patriot of Denver, Colorado, Queen City of the West, tips his hat to Timothy Richard Tebow, thanks him for an extraordinary run, and prays for him that “the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep” would equip him “with everything good that you may do his will”—even while employed by the New York Jets; but this partisan Bronco fan hangs his head, ashamed at how his team treated so noble and magnanimous a Christian athlete.
Thus with the patriotism of exiles. To dust and ash they shall return; but “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”