Sweeney to Tebow: 'Lead by example'

Sweeney to Tebow: 'Lead by example'

Published Jan. 20, 2012 11:25 a.m. ET

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Depending on which poll you believe, Denver quarterback Tim Tebow is the most popular athlete in sports today, the most over-rated athlete in sports today, the most polarizing athlete in sports today, the most... well, the list goes on and on.

But you don't need a poll to recognize this: Mention the name Tim Tebow and almost everyone, sports fan or not, has an opinion.

The reason Tebow has captured our fascination so profoundly seems quite obvious: Because Tebow wears his Christian faith so openly on his sleeve, he has stirred up a timeless argument in America: What exactly is the appropriate role of religion in sports?

If anyone knows a thing or two about this debate it is former Royals slugger Mike Sweeney, a devout Christian who never hid his faith during his 13 seasons in Kansas City.

"To be honest, I applaud Tim," Sweeney told me by phone. "I think what he is doing shows a lot of courage. It's easy to profess your faith when everything is going well. But he has stood there tall through all the criticism and never wavered. I applaud that."

Sweeney also admits he couldn't help but get caught up in "Tebow-mania" this season.

"I definitely did," Sweeney said. "I was rooting for him the whole way. I think all of us Christian athletes were. It was one of those things where you couldn't take your eyes off of it."

But, Sweeney also said, he understands why some people might view Tebow's relentless references to the scripture and to Jesus Christ as a bit over the top.

"We all have different styles," Sweeney said. "That's definitely not my style. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with Tim's style. It's just not me."

Tebow, as any reporter covering him knows, begins virtually every interview with, "First, I'd like to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ." Tebow even wrote Biblical passages on his eye black in college. And he's also been observed singing hymns on the sidelines.

Royals announcer Ryan Lefebvre, a devout Christian as well, suggested that pounding home those religious tones over and over might eventually dilute the message.

"After awhile, people just tune you out," Lefebvre said. "It's like telling your wife every single day before you go to work, 'Honey, I love you.' It's a great message, don't get me wrong. You should be saying things like that. But you can't just say the same exact thing over and over. You have to mix it up a little to make sure the message doesn't get redundant or lost.

"That's what I really respected about Mike during his time in Kansas City. He didn't hit you over the head with his faith. Now, if you came to him and started to ask him questions about it, he'd be more than happy to talk about his faith and the joy it brings him. The same with me. But you don't have to initiate every conversation with it."

Even Kurt Warner, former Rams great, said in an interview with The Arizona Repbulic last fall that he advised Tebow to tone it down because he had learned that religious cliches make "walls go up" between people.

"There's nothing wrong with giving the glory to Jesus Christ," Lefebvre said. "Tim Tebow certainly isn't the first or last athlete to do that. Aaron Rodgers points to the sky after a touchdown or a big play. A lot of guys do. But there's probably a point where you can go too far."

Both Sweeney, who will work this season as a special assistant to Royals general manager Dayton Moore, and Lefebvre say they are guided by the words of St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words."

"What that means to me," Sweeney said, "is that you should lead by example. Conduct your life a certain way and you won't necessarily need words. Leading by example can have more impact."

Former Green Bay Packers great Bart Starr said as much over 30 years ago when he was playing.

"We can be much stronger and have a greater impact on people around us if we simply live the life and walk the walk," Starr said. "We really don't need to talk about it."

But, Sweeney said, he is more than willing to discuss his faith if he is approached.

"I can remember a couple of times during my career," Sweeney said, "when other players came up to me and asked me 'Hey, I want what you got.' And I had never spoke about my faith to these guys, not once. But here they were, approaching me and wanting to learn about the faith I have. At that point, I was thrilled to share with them the joy of my faith. It was very exciting tome.

"But I never openly went out and recruited in the locker room, so to speak."

Yet Sweeney understands why Tebow's style is so much more open and so much more evangelical.

"He grew up with parents who were missionaries," Sweeney said. "They went all around the world spreading the word. I'm a Roman Catholic. It's a different approach. But I'm not saying one is right and the other is wrong. To each his own.

"But I'm sure that Tim grew up wanting to be just like his Dad, just like a lot of kids want to be like their dads. My father drove a beer truck and my two brothers drive beer trucks. It's just the way you are as humans. You want to be like your father or your mother. I understand that completely."

And despite their differences in religious styles from Tebow, neither Sweeney nor Lefebvre can fathom why anyone can possibly resent him.

"You may not agree with his approach," Lefebvre said, "but it's not like Tim is a hypocrite or anything. He seems like a good, moral person. He walks the walk. He devotes a lot of time to charity and for good causes. He helps people. He seems like a great teammate.

"My theory for why some people resent him is that perhaps Tim is such a good person and such a moral person, he's almost threatening to some fans because of their own shortcomings. They enjoy following someone like Manny Ramirez or Milton Bradley much more because that makes them feel better about themselves. It's hard for them to live up to someone like Tim Tebow."

Sweeney has plenty of empathy for Tebow because he knows first-hand, too, how hard it is to live the Christian lifestyle in today's sports world.

"Your faith can get tested a lot," Sweeney said. "You get called a lot of names like 'Jesus Freak' or 'God Squader.' It can be tough. I know from my experience that before I got married, I didn't date for years and I got accused of being gay. It was really ridiculous. And then I got accused of being a hypocrite because I charged the mound against Jeff Weaver.

"I also got accused of being a bad teammate because I didn't go out drinking with the guys or go out to booby bars. But that wasn't the lifestyle that I chose. But as a Christian, you have to stand up strong for what you believe in, and in the sports world, that can be a challenge. That's what I really respect about Tim Tebow – that no matter what anyone thinks or says about him, he stands for what he believes in. I really do applaud him for that."