Tim Tebow in the CFL: A memoir

It is the year 2024, and Tim Tebow has spent the last decade playing in the CFL. Here, in his personal memoirs, he reflects upon the start of a journey as strange as it was beautiful.

July 22nd, 2024.

Harbaugh brought me in to throw some balls, see what a 36-year-old Tim Tebow can accomplish in big-boy football. My first throw sailed 10 yards over the target. The ball's so damn light.

I try to compensate, put a little more downspin on the ball. It doesn't work. The tip of my index finger is gone; years ago, an owl bit it off while I was sleeping. An owl! I swear to God, an owl. The ball sort of wobbles like a 4-year-old's drawing of a spiral, and spikes the ground two yards in front of the target.

I have a book to write.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

August 17th, 2013.

June Jones was a good coach who just couldn't piece it all together in the NFL. That's not a big deal, few coaches can. I didn't really understand that until after I met with Coach June at that Toronto bistro. A few minutes after I signed the contract the check arrived. "No, no, Timmy, put your cage away. I buy for my players." He twisted open his change-cage and tenderly cupped his hand until a gerbil walked into it, then set the little guy on the table.

American football fans think of the CFL as a joke, a necessarily lesser league, a sort of sawdust bin where the has-beens and busts of the NFL end up. It's not lesser. It's just ... a fundamentally different league. (They only have three downs, did you know that?) Getting used to how Canada did things was more of an adjustment for me. They use mammals how we use paper money. A horse is $1,000, a donkey $500, a dog $200. Hamsters are 20 bucks, gerbils are 10 bucks. I stared as $40 of June Jones' money scurried and sniffed around the table.

"Aren't they gonna get lost?" I asked.

"Nah. They know to stay put. Now listen, Timmy." Coach June removed his glasses, leaning forward on the table with his forearms, occasionally offering his money a finger to sniff. "We move really fast up here. That's how the CFL works. Straight into the fire. You'll sort of need to learn the system as you go, and this system is nothing like what you're used to. Are you good with that?"

"Yeah."

"Good. The game starts in 45 minutes Celsius. C'mon."

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

That was about two hours Fahrenheit, I later learned, and that's apparently all the time they needed to get the word out. See, Canada does have phones and the Internet and all that. Of course they do. They just don't secure TV or radio deals with their CFL franchises. Instead, they have shouties.

A shoutie is commonly eight to 12 years old. A long copper pipe, perhaps a hundred or two hundred feet long, protrudes from the Rogers Centre wall. Someone inside the stadium shouts play-by-play results into the pipe: "Two-meter rush up the left side! Second an' eight!" The shoutie cups his ear to listen, turns around, and shouts the same into the next pipe, and another shoutie listens and shouts it into some more pipes. Et cetera, et cetera, until the play-by-play reaches a hushed gathering of football fans, each cocking their heads to catch every syllabic echo. This network is made up of thousands of shouties and untold lengths of piping, and sprawls to cover nearly half of Southern Ontario. Out in Windsor, they gather on Monday to hear Saturday's game.

Of all the lovely things I miss about Ontario, I might miss the ambient yells of the shouties and the rattling of pipes the very most. As I walked through the streets toward the Rogers Centre, I heard them: "Timmy Tebow's buttoning up for the Argos today! He's come straight from Florida! He's won the Heisman! We's got us another Raghib Ismael! We's gonna knock 'em dead!" When you rely on a shoutie network to get your news, you have to temper your expectations of objectivity.

As I entered the stadium, I walked beneath a massive Jumbotron. I craned my neck and stopped for a moment to take it in.

Poster_medium

It wouldn't have been as charming, I don't think, if the Photoshop hadn't looked like such a rush job. There's something warm and genuine in a jagged edge, a crack, a little lost shine. It lets me know humans were involved here. I humored my old coaches back in the League, working on my "mechanics," but I hated the concept. I didn't want to be a machine. I didn't want to spit neat little bite-size passes out on a conveyor belt. I wanted to plant each one in a field of sun, watch it grow, let it become what it will become. Don't tell them this, reader, because I love them, but the decision-makers of the NFL are too worried and conformed to ever understand such a thing.

It was a weekend game, and that meant taking the field in the Argonauts' dress blues, with their special red cufflinks and chevrons. Coach June would trot around the field on horseback, as CFL coaches always did, but today his steed wore a gilded saddle and harness. "You ready, Timmy?" he asked me with a smile. "Just have fun. You've been on the big stage plenty of times before. Just do what you do."

"We have a playbook or anything I should take a look at?"

"Not with you we don't, kid. Not with you. You're a wizard. Do what's in your heart. Hyah!" His horse whinnied, and he continued his inspection of the field.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

They did use a coin for one thing in this country -- determining possession -- because who would ever want to toss a mouse? We won the toss, and as the Stampeders set up to kick, Dante Hall jogged out to the five to receive. Dante was 34 years old -- ancient for an NFL kick returner, but about right for the CFL. Lots of guys end up returning kicks and punts because they're one-dimensional; maybe they have plenty of speed, but they don't have the tools to hack it as a corner or wideout. And maybe that was true of Dante. But even if it wasn't, even if he was built like Calvin Johnson, he would have stayed a kick returner all his life. It's what he was put on Earth to do, no matter the latitude.

Dante's knees bent as the kick met him in the insides of his elbows, and he sprang forth. Lord, he could accelerate, even at that age. He moved the ball to our 43, and we trotted to the field. Everything seemed familiar enough.

Our offensive line was halfway lined up when the Stampeders' defensive end -- Keenan McCardell, if you believe me, reader -- took his hands off his knees and stood upright. "We gotta meet."

"First play from scrimmage!" Bam exclaimed. "You shittin' me?" (Bam Morris was my center. Since his last NFL rush in 1999, he'd put on a hundred more pounds, and was one of the more dependable centers north of the border.)

"First time we've seen y'all Argos in two years Celsius. Lot's happened since then. C'mon, don't turn me into an asshole here."

I got a nudge in the side from Garrison Hearst, my running back. "We're gonna negotiate. Little early for that if you ask me, but that's just how they do up in Calgary. Hold tight. We'll take care of it."

And then it stopped being the football I knew. "NEGOTIATION" flashed on the Jumbotron. The crowd of 86,000 roared.

The line of scrimmage burst into a flurry of negotiations. Freddie Mitchell, my No. 1 wideout, put a hand on my shoulder. "OK, you know what you do now, is you stand here and look pretty, you got it? Don't pick up the ball. It'll make 'em jittery, you standin' over here lookin' like you might throw it any second. It's a good-faith thing. You got it?" I didn't answer. Men in long-tail tuxedos sprang off the sidelines and brought out folding tables and set them along the line of scrimmage; another draped white tablecloths over them, and another set out pens and stationery and bottles of water. I turned my head to the sound of cracking plastic. A man with white gloves pulled the lid off a snack tray, the sort with the grape tomatoes and ranch dressing and crackers you'd buy at $8 at the Kroger, offered a slight bow in my direction, and walked off, heel-to-toe, gloved hands clasped behind his back.

Freddie stopped me before I could reach for the tray. "Don't touch it. Don't take nobody on their word. Let one of the ponters eat it first. Make sure he don't get the shits in an hour, then you can eat you some. OK?" That was another thing. They weren't "punters." They did roughly the same job as a punter, but they wore these clear Plexiglass globes on their heads instead of helmets. And they were called "ponters."

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The negotiations carried on for eight, nine hours. Mostly I watched their hands; their fat, taped, dirtied fingers would point and drag across the table, outlining routes and blocking patterns. Occasionally they would lift off the table and point at the guy across the table: "No chance in Hell. You ain't pullin' off my block unless Timmy leaves the pocket. That's the deal. Else, these dozen Tootsie rolls got someone else's name on it." (At the time I'd assumed that was code language. It wasn't.)

I heard once, I forgot where, that no matter how animated a conversation is, no matter how fun, no matter how many people are involved, there's always a lull in the conversation every 20 minutes. That's often true, I've found, but it wasn't here. The wideouts traded smokes and told each other jokes, mostly. Garrison Hearst, my running back, paced behind our guys at the table, occasionally reaching in and reviewing a handwritten contract with licked fingers. "Hold up, hold up. Don't sign that," he said. "This whole graf, throw it out. You sign this, we got a four-second, 20-foot gap on the right side. See? Look. Write it again." He was a kind of advisor. The linemen made all the calls, though. They struck the bargains. They were doing this to protect me, to make sure their little American tourist behind center wouldn't lose his luggage. (That was code, and it unsettled me.)

Around midnight an assistant brought me a big, scratchy blanket, the sort U-Haul will fine you for if they don't count it in the truck. I wrapped it up and caught some sleep on the turf. Hearst shook me awake.

"We got a deal. C'mon, up."

"What time is it?"

"Right up on 7:70."

"What?"

"I don't know what it is Fahrenheit."

The last of the conference tables were being carried away. I staggered to my feet, but Bam didn't wait for me to finish waking up. "Here's what we got. These are the terms we outlined for you, alright?"

Scrimmage_medium

"It's not all good," said Bam. "We don't like the line cutting down like that on the left side, but you're a rook, you know? You don't give us a ton of leverage. Plus we finished 9-5-3-1-65-3 in the standings last year. This was the best we could get."

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The ball was heavy when I picked it up. It must have weighed three pounds. I gestured to Hearst, but didn't know which question to ask first. "Is it ... I mean, it's heavy."

"Huh? Oh. Here." Hearst took the ball from me and unscrewed a nickel-sized rubber cork from the end, then pulled a ribbon out of the nose of the ball that looked like a bookmark from a family Bible. Out came a long, telescoping alloy pole, further and further, that stretched to nearly three feet. Hearst set the ball on the ground, pole up, holding the opposite nose steady with his feet, and then pulled taut four nylon, fold-out fins from the end of the pole.

"It's first down. I mean, Hell. You're the quarterback and all. But this is standard setup for a first-down ball."

I can't know for sure, but I think I was grimacing like I was pulling moldy bread out of a kitchen sink, holding that damn thing.

Ball_medium

Was it a javelin or a ball? How was I even supposed to hold it? I didn't know. The play clock was down to eight, so I handed the ball to Bam, took a few steps back, and gave myself four seconds to wonder what the Hell was going on, how I could possibly know so little about this game and this land, and whether I was in a dream. Most of my dreams, the ones I remember anyway, feature my old youth group pastor pushing a lawnmower across gym carpet, and yelling over the engine that "prayer is a two-way conversation."

I looked around. He wasn't here. The ball hit me in the hands, and I turned it around, placing a hand on the laces for a moment before shifting it down to the middle of the pole. Carl Pickens, my No. 2 wideout, put it upon himself to run a shallow slant across the middle. I chucked it, and its nose took a sharp dive, hitting Pickens in the foot.

Second down. There are only three downs per possession in CFL football; I knew at least that much. That, reader, was the last time I would ever throw a football with that damn telescopic antenna extended. I clicked the spring at the base of the ball, folded in the fins, and shoved it all back in until I was once again left with a three-pound football.

"That setup's just for ponts and handoffs," Hearst said. "You gonna give it to me on second and 10?"

"No. I'm gonna run it myself. I'm sweeping left. Block for me."

Hearst smiled. "What the Hell. Let's get stupid." I would later learn that the last time a CFL quarterback had attempted to run with the ball, in 2004, he was leveled for a loss of four, and the Premier of Alberta unsuccessfully attempted to have him jailed.

The next half-minute or so, in my memory, is just ... colors, really. If you were to walk on air across the lips of the Grand Canyon, you would probably remember as many details as I did. I recall that I swept left, and upon realizing I had open space ahead of me, I cut up the field. Maybe you've seen the end of Raising Arizona? It was like that. But I looked ahead. I squinted. The stands in front of me, past the end zone, were coming apart. Teams of oxen, a dozen on each side, were pulling away the concrete walls on their big wheeled tracks, with their keepers taking turns whipping them into service, and staring wide-eyed at me: "is he going to do it?" I thought I was dreaming now. The walls cracked further and further apart, and I passed the goal line and stopped, and before me, there were the streets of Toronto.

The crowd was either loud or quiet, one of the two. It was either day or night. I stood flat-footed in the end zone. I heard Freddie shout: "RUN, MOTHER****ER! KEEP RUNNING!" What? I began to turn around, caught a 235-pound Stampeder in the side, and hit the ground.

I turned my head. Past the sideline, a shoutie hopped on one foot, struggling to pull off his boot, and once he did, he banged it furiously against the shout-pipe. "AY! AY LISTEN! TIMMY TEBOW DID IT! THE ARGOS IS BOUND-FOR-STREET!" Clang, clang, clang.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

I was the first player to cross a CFL goal line since 1986. They only really got one decent photo of the last one.

Touchdown_medium

You'll run into statues of this all over Canada, if you're lucky enough to visit. One of them, in Vancouver, has everyone in this photo cast in bronze, exactly like this, and fountains spitting up from the ground. Kids play in it when it's hot out. Others just show the Lions' Mervyn Fernandez, forever frozen with one leg on the turf and the other kicking away, head swiveled to survey the chaos he created. An offense advanced the ball more than 50 yards: chaos.

That's another thing I guess I should've been told: prior to my arrival, nobody had passed the goalpost since a year before I was born. Just look at all the Grey Cup finals: 6-3, 18-12, 24-6, 39-36. All permutations of three, all field goals.

No, reader, I didn't call it a touchdown. In the CFL, there aren't any.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Play was stopped for an hour. The commissioner of the CFL placed a wreath around my neck and handed me a single rose. I paused for photographs, and answered a few questions through the pipes. I put my ear to the end, and heard a 10-year-old: "'Ello, this is Diane from the Little Italy neighborhood. I have two questions for you. First is, can you hear me okay?"

"Yes, ma'am. I can hear you fine." I chuckled. "What's your second question?" I figured I had a few minutes to wait, so I got comfortable. Coach June rode up and dismounted his horse.

"Doin' well so far, kid."

"Why didn't you tell me about any of this? Like the ball, or how there aren't any touchdowns?"

"Figured you knew. I mean, I knew."

"You're a coach, though."

"Huh?" June sneezed.

(That's what they call a "transition sneeze" up north: when you want to shift the conversation to something new, you sneeze. Everyone understands this, and everyone respects it. It sounds silly, but it's a remarkable custom. As a consequence, Canadian conversations tend to be far more interesting than American conversations -- which, since my return home, have struck me as agonizingly dull and rambling.)

"Now, you know what's next for you?" June continued. "For us? We're just gonna keep goin' forward. When play starts back up again, you'll take the snap from the end zone, and you'll lead us out of the stadium and into the street. We got our folks packin' the wagons right now. Ask them for some Sambas, you don't wanna be wearin' spikes on the asphalt. Any time you need food, clothes, a band-aid, you talk to them, OK?"

"Which direction are we going?"

"Same way the field's pointing. About north-northeast. Now, obviously there ain't any sidelines up ahead. Y'all can change course if you want, if it makes sense strategically. But your goal is north. And you still got the same three downs, remember. They can still stop you. It's still football. If you think you're going down, for the love of God, try to get to some grass or something before they tackle you, you know?"

I cursed for the first time in a long time. It ... wasn't out of frustration, or madness, or confusion. Well, it was a little bit, but it was this strange sort of delight. "I've never heard of any of this shit in my life."

Coach June doffed his officer's cap and wiped his forehead. "Me either. I've never seen it. Me and Hearst have been thinking on it, though. We think we'll be OK."

For years, June Jones and Garrison Hearst, the chief architects of the Toronto Argonauts, would stay up into the hours of the morning, in dim light, staring at maps. Maps of downtown Toronto, of the suburbs, the Kawartha Lakes, and beyond, into the furthest reaches of Southern Ontario. Which roads had medians, and which country roads were little more than gravel trails? Was this office building sympathetic to the Argos; would they put us up for the night? Would the folks in this suburban ranch house fix us some abominable casserole straight out of a 1970s cookbook that, nonetheless, we would appreciate?

Hearst knew the answers to all of these things. In his pack he carried volumes of annotated maps and handwritten notes. He was presently sitting cross-legged, thumbing through them, pages neatly set on the turf around him, in accordance with an organizational system only he knew. Iron and copper clanged as the men in tuxedos helped the shouties build impromptu networks of pipes, stretching out where perhaps our offense might advance. Fans yanked the detachable stadium seats from their bases and relocated along the streets of downtown Toronto, their eyes as bugged-out in wild-eyed wonder as mine surely were.

First snap out of the end zone: a run, across the sidewalk that ran along the northwest wall of the Rogers Centre, first down. The second, a bomb: with strength the fibers of my muscles had surely been nesting away all my life, I threw that three-pound football 40 yards into the arms of Freddie Mitchell. He ran to the foot of the CN Tower before falling over a hot dog cart. The vendor threw up his arms in disgust; Freddie flipped him the bird. Another first down. I sprinted to the line of scrimmage. Ahead of me lay the great adventure of my life. I had, at last, found out what I was for.

The story continues with Chapter 2 of the Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles, which you can read here.

Toronto_medium

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