When Pam Tebow was counseled to abort her baby to save her own life, the doctor referred to him as a "mass of fetal tissue."
"(M)aybe she just called me that to toughen us up for the names I would be called the first time I played at LSU," Tim Tebow, who became the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback for the University of Florida, writes in his 2011 book "Through My Eyes."
Now that Tebow is a Denver Bronco and under intense scrutiny in the role of starting quarterback, his congenital instinct to push through adversity and ignore the naysayers is again at work.
"Polarizing" is the sports commentariat's typical term to describe national reaction to Tebow since he went pro. The negativity flows in part from his initially rocky performance. But much more seems to be reaction to Tebow's Christian faith. Critics want him to keep it to himself, a pattern that is increasingly common in American public life.
Of course, there's already plenty of God-talk in professional football. (Type "Green Bay Packers" into Twitter and see how many players give God a shout out in their profiles.)
Talking is one thing. Walking the talk is another. That's where Tim Tebow stands out. Born in the Philippines to missionary parents, he not only is outspoken about his faith, referencing it frequently in word and symbol - such as biblical citations in his eye black. He's also as intense about living out his faith as he is about playing football - and winning.
And he's done a good bit of winning. For a 24-year-old who's been, in his words, "the center of so much spilled ink" since his high school days (before graduating he was the subject of a documentary), it's amazing he's full of anything other than himself. Instead, he brims over about his faith, family, football and teammates.
While the attention hasn't gone to his head, it does seem to have gone to his heart.
Tebow takes seriously the burden of his "platform" - a word he uses frequently in his book to refer to his opportunity to influence others for good. Such disciplined, purposeful stewardship of a leadership role is rare in anyone, but particularly someone so young in a field rampant with narcissism and bad behavior.
Even for observers who consider the eye-black evangelism corny or juvenile, it's simply no comparison to the "youthful indiscretions" that haunt so many public figures for years. And even through jaded eyes, the trademark Tebow kneel to give gratitude to God after a great play hardly can be as obnoxious as others' on-field (not to mention off-field) antics and outbursts.
"Tebow is just a guy with the good sense to say thanks. Instead of taking his cue, we mock his faith. And that says more about us, none of it good," writes Jennifer Floyd Engel at Fox Sports.
What the mockery of Tebow's faith "has revealed about religious discourse in America is ugly," she says. "And this defense that Tebow invites such scrutiny with his willingness to publicly live as he privately believes calls into question what exactly it is we value."
Public expression of religious belief is an essential aspect of what has been called America's first freedom. This nation is founded on the principle that religious individuals and institutions would have the freedom to live out their faith. But in recent decades, policy and social pressures have suggested that faith should be pushed into a private sphere.
Tim Tebow runs right through that line, surprising its defenders - just like he did to the New York Jets on his game-winning, fourth-quarter touchdown.
Did Tebow "ever sit back, smile and admire" the events of November, a reporter asked on the last day of the month? With Tebow starting, the Broncos jumped to 7-5 from a losing record.
"Well, I sit back and smile a lot just 'cuz ... I smile," Tebow responded, with his reflexive grin. "I continually try to smile a lot."
It's true. He's kept smiling while showing remarkable magnanimity toward critics. One, former Broncos QB Jake Plummer, suggested toning down the religious rhetoric. Tebow responded that if it's a good idea for a husband to tell his wife he loves her as often as he can, then wouldn't it be appropriate to do the same when it comes to the most important relationship in his own life?
"If people want to bash me for that, that's OK. It really won't bother me. At least they know what I believe."
Americans express appropriate indignation when a public figure is discovered to lack integrity. How ironic that one who shows consistent virtue should meet with consternation.
Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation and author of the book "Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century."
First moved on the McClatchy Tribune News Service