REGGIE HAYES: Love for Tim Tebow expected to pack Memorial Coliseum

Columbia Fireflies outfielder Tim Tebow looks out from the dugout before the team's minor league baseball game against the Augusta GreenJackets last April. (Photo by the Associated Press)

Columbia Fireflies outfielder Tim Tebow looks out from the dugout before the team's minor league baseball game against the Augusta GreenJackets last April. (Photo by the Associated Press)

I’ll never again underestimate the drawing power of Tim Tebow.

There will be 10,000 seats for people to hear Tebow speak at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ “Night of Hope” on Feb. 15 at the Memorial Coliseum, and it likely won’t be enough.

Coliseum personnel expect those 10,000 spots to be filled, based on FCA’s advanced tickets distributed, so the FCA has added a “stand-by” line and arranged for overflow seating in the coliseum’s conference center. If some expected attendees are no-shows, those in the stand-by line will be allowed in. If not, they can watch a live stream of Tebow’s talk in the conference center. The Tebow charisma presumably will still shine through via video.

“It’s been overwhelming,” FCA Indiana State Director Kraig Cabe said. “If we had an arena that could seat 20,000 people, we could have filled it.”

Here’s the obvious question: Why is Tebow so popular?

Why will 10,000-plus people from at least 20 different states come out to hear from a former NFL quarterback who has 17 career touchdown passes, which is a mere 522 fewer than record-holder Peyton Manning? Why will 10,000-plus come out to see a fledgling baseball player who spent last season in Class A?

First of all, the tickets are free. But tickets to the Night of Hope are always free. The event usually produces solid, but not overwhelming interest. Previous events have included well-known sports figures such as Pro Football Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Tony Dungy, former Butler University coach and current Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, women’s basketball great Tamika Catchings and Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Kelly’s appearance, along with his wife Jill, was the most popular one prior to Tebow. The FCA added a second night to meet the Kelly demand. However, that event was at the Embassy Theatre, which seats about 2,500. Cabe estimated about 4,000 attended over two nights of Kelly.

Tebow interest is two to four times as great as any previous FCA speaker.

The reason is not his sports celebrity. It’s his cultural celebrity.

Tebow’s open Christian faith, combined with his athletic background and good looks makes him a person who reaches an interested audience far beyond the sports world. He even had a phrase named for him, “Tebowing,” which refers to kneeling in prayer in an athletic event.

In the sports arena, he’s had some huge successes, including winning two national titles and the Heisman Trophy at the University of Florida. He led the Denver Broncos to an unexpected win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2011 playoffs. Known for his Bible-based “John 3:16” eye black at various points in his career, Tebow noted later the recurring numbers of 3:16 during the win over the Steelers: He threw for 31.6 yards per game, passed for 316 yards, the peak Nielsen ratings were 31.6 and “John 3:16” was the top Google search the next day.

But just as Tebow looked charmed, his stock fell. The Broncos were whipped 45-10 by the New England Patriots the next week. Tebow was traded to the New York Jets the next season after the Broncos signed Peyton Manning. Tebow was out of the NFL by 2015.

After spending time as an ESPN analyst, Tebow then earned much derision for a decision to pursue professional baseball, a sport he last played 10 years earlier in high school.

The consensus of the critics seemed to be: Who does Tebow think he is?

Tebow signed with the New York Mets, went to the instructional league and hit a home run on the first pitch he faced. He also hit a home run in his first at-bat in the minors (with the Class A Columbia Fireflies) and hit a home run in his first day with the Class A-Advanced St. Lucie Mets. These aren’t miracles, but they play into the idea that Tebow’s experiences have an otherworldly quality to them at times. He will be part of the Mets’ Major League spring training camp this month.

As is often the case with outspoken people of faith, Tebow has his share of skeptics questioning the authenticity of his life. He seems too good to be true, and some believe his persona is manufactured for attention. Cabe sees no reason for doubt.

“He is unique in that, some of (his popularity) comes in his unwavering stance that he’s had now for a decade,” Cabe said. “He’s lived it out, and that’s unique in our world.”

There are tangible ways Tebow’s actions match his words. According to Tebow’s website, the Tim Tebow Foundation is involved in building playgrounds for children’s hospitals, providing surgeries for children in the Philippines via the Tebow CURE Hospital, sponsoring “Night to Shine,” a prom for special-needs people, providing care for orphans and helping people looking to adopt international children.

Christians appreciate Tebow’s willingness to speak out about his faith, and to use his platform to share his beliefs. He might seem too good to be true, but to many his goodness brings out the truth.

Many Christians treat Tebow as others would treat a pop star. Those who admire him want to see him up close, or even from the upper deck. In Fort Wayne, the devoted number is at least 10,000. Never doubt Tebow Time.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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