The athlete speaks out on the faith and
strategies he relies on to define his own
sense of self when the going gets rough.
By Allan Richter
Tim Tebow was frustrated when the New England Patriots cut him from the team roster. As coaches Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels gave him the news, Tebow began doubting himself. He felt the two men were among his biggest supporters, and he wondered who would have confidence in him if they no longer did. Feelings of shame and regret began to flood in as he considered what seemed like missed opportunities and relics of a promising career—a lucrative endorsement deal he had turned down just months earlier and the admiration that kids across America had felt for him as he climbed the ranks of football superstardom.
Tebow had traveled this road before. The Heisman trophy winner felt a sense of betrayal when he was traded from the Denver Broncos to the New York Jets; a year later, the Jets let him go.
“This was a pattern I did not like,” Tebow writes in his recent memoir, Shaken: Discovering Your True Identity in the Midst of Life’s Storms (Waterbrook). As Tebow writes in his memoir, however, one’s sense of identity and self is not decided by coaches, fans or anyone else.
Central to Tebow’s steadfastness and perseverance is his Christian faith—he is known for kneeling in prayer on the field. With that faith internalized, he has a strong core on which to rely that filters out and offers a counterbalance to outside noise that doesn’t jibe with his
values. A case in point, Tebow offers the fairly standard dictionary definition of “identity,” then his own. He says identity comes not from who we are, “but from whose we are,” adding he is a “child of God.”
Despite being shaken, as the title of his book suggests, Tebow remains unbowed and firmly grounded. “Was my identity found in the highs when I won the Heisman and later when the Denver Broncos were making a playoff run? No,” he writes. “Was my identity found when, a year later, I was cut? No.”
When offers started coming in from football teams after Tebow’s New England stint, he turned them down because none offered him the cherished quarterback position to which he was accustomed and which was the stuff of his childhood dreams.
“Know this,” he writes, “my attitude wasn’t centered on arrogance. I wanted to continue to fight for what I was passionate about, for what I believed in. Since I was six years old, I didn’t just want to play football; I wanted to be a quarterback. I didn’t want to be in the NFL for the sake of being in it, or to make a lot of money, or to get famous. I wanted to pursue my passion of playing as a quarterback. To me, that was worth fighting for more than just making it in the NFL. I wanted to strive for my dream, not let others define me or my future.”
After he turned down those offers, his agent recommended that he keep a low profile to avoid being in the center of a media frenzy that other teams might see as a distraction and red flag.
So he decided to turn down any offers for appearances or endorsements, despite the income they would provide. In the meantime, however, he would train hard. “I knew I might not make it in the NFL as a quarterback,” he writes, “but no one in the world was ever going to outwork me.”
Despite the great temptation to stay angry, Tebow relied on his faith and says he decided “not to live in disappointment or regret.” That was a challenge given the barrage of unsolicited advice he received from the many people around him who told him to take time off. Even students and professors at the University of Southern California, where he trained, would look at him with pity or offer their opinions on how he should proceed with his life. But “I chose to work. I chose to train. I chose to keep going and fight tooth and nail for my dream,” he says.
While reflective, Tebow is neither shrill nor self-absorbed as he imparts the stories of his setbacks and the life lessons culled from them. He writes movingly about the inspiring stories of other public figures—among them, basketball great Michael Jordan, former singer Mark Stuart, and high school senior Chelsie Watts, who was diagnosed with a rare cancer but fought on until the end—and devotes the last three chapters of Shaken to ways to impart to others the life lessons you’ve learned.
Stuart was a founding member and lead singer of the Christian rock band Audio Adrenaline for 17 years when he had to leave the Grammy-winning band after he was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, an incurable disorder in which the voice box spasms, and he could no longer sing. Earlier, Stuart had been inspired by a Haitian children’s song while on a mission to the region: The band’s early hit, “Big House,” which imagined heaven, sprung from it. After he left the band, Stuart found a greater purpose by expanding his charitable work in Haiti and, as Tebow relates, was never embittered by the loss of his singing voice.
In Shaken, Tebow overcomes his fame and connects with readers by dissecting universal issues—fear, for instance. When he was a boy dreaming of football, he divulges, he never relished winning by wide margins. “I dreamed about being down six points, crushing it in the last few minutes of the game,” he says, “and then having a crazy celebration with my teammates about the unimaginable win.” Still, despite the motivational power of fear and pressure, he says he was more driven by love of the game and his teammates. “Fear can push or motivate you to do things, sometimes even good things,” he says, “but it will never take you as far as love can take you.”
And it is difficult not to have a healthy take on criticism after reading the public tarnishing Tebow has taken at the hands of reporters and other detractors. Criticism has been particularly tough on Tebow, a self-described “people pleaser.” “Whether a Facebook troll tells you you’re an idiot for wanting to write a book,” he says, “or a neighbor mentions that you’ve put on a lot of weight, or a coworker bashes the project report you’ve poured your heart and soul into, or someone tries to discourage you from opening a restaurant because you’ll probably fail, don’t lose hope. Keep pressing on.”
He takes aim at some of our biggest critics—ourselves, a particularly potent adversary in the age of perfectionism. To overcome that self-defeating inner voice, Tebow turns to his faith and suggests remembering that each of us was made with a unique purpose that trumps the limits we impose on ourselves. Avoiding comparing yourself to others can help rein in those self-critical impulses, he adds.
Successful people, too, have had their bouts with self-doubt and discouragement. The difference is they didn’t stay there, Tebow writes, acknowledging that growth is painful. “The best way to battle your inner critic is to grow, to change,” he says, “to show progress in your areas of struggle.”
Post-football, Tebow has defined himself as an all-around athlete—he is pursuing a Major League Baseball career with the New York Mets and is at the Mets’ minor-league camp in Port St. Lucie, Florida—as he continues his philanthropic work with his Tim Tebow Foundation, started in 2010 to aid children in need. The two-time national football champion can also be seen on “SEC Nation,” an ESPN entertainment show previewing college football games.
For all the importance he places on his faith, Tebow does not come off as preachy—he’s got the experiences and stories to back up his aphorisms. He’s also got a healthy arsenal of public figures, past and present, from whom he quotes, from Mark Twain to business guru John Maxwell. That is why, though Tebow makes liberal use of Bible verses with which he grew up and held onto, even nonbelievers will find enough material in Shaken to be inspired to find their own strong center. And such readers can see Tebow’s less secular references simply as a power higher than themselves. (His publisher has also released a more religion-centric version of Shaken.)
Remaining true to oneself is a difficult ideal—and even more difficult to achieve—for someone so public and successful a figure as Tebow, which makes Shaken all the more powerful a read. The takeaway from Shaken is that if Tebow can maintain the sense of self that he wants in those circumstances, anyone should be able to.
For him, the reward is apparently great. As he writes, “I know that when I’m settled in my identity, I live at my best.”