WHEN YOU listen to Tim Tebow talk about his love for the game of football, it is hard not to feel like a soulless wretch for all of those years you rooted against him. When he looks into your eyes, you reflexively shrink away, as if he is peering into the darkest part of you. It feels as if he knows, as if the snark still echoes in his ears, as if he can still hear the cry of your cold heart as it begs the Steelers to win the toss in overtime. You want him to hug you and tell you that he knows you meant nothing by it.
He smiles at you, and his blue eyes twinkle with a remarkable lightness of being. Your mind screams at you both to turn away and throw yourself at his mercy.

True, it was never personal. You always held a healthy respect for Tebow the man, and Tebow the competitor, even Tebow the football player. It was Tebowmania you despied: Tebow the narrative, Tebow the ideal, Tebow the abstraction. You were insulted by the notion that somebody could turn himself into a starting-caliber NFL quarterback through the sheer force of his will, that all of the quarterbacks who had failed before him simply did not want it badly enough. They did not have the requisite level of grit. They were not natural-born winners.

The suggestion that the Tebow we saw at Florida could play quarterback in the NFL was a suggestion that playing quarterback in the NFL was not as hard as it looked, that it did not require the level of instincts, intelligence and grace that we perceived. It said that there was some kind of innate superiority within the man, that he could play the toughest position in sports just because he was him. It devalued the guys who played the position at the highest level.

Even Sunday, on a day when he played in a football game for the first time in two years, when you could hear in his voice how genuinely grateful he was for the opportunity, when even the most miserable of sorts had to feel happy for the kid as he laid out his plans to spend a few celebratory moments with his family and then return to the film room, you couldn't help but look at his chief competitor and think, "Sure sucks to be him."

Matt Barkley had just finished playing a darn good football game when Tebow replaced him midway through the third quarter of the Eagles' 36-10 preseason win over the Colts yesterday afternoon. Barkley displayed the kind of poise and accuracy that prognosticators once deemed worthy of a first-round pick. He completed 12 of 20 passes for 192 yards, while taking no sacks and throwing one tipped interception. Yet when Barkley left the game, the stadium swelled with excitement, not because he had helped guide the Eagles to a 26-3 lead, but because his replacement was warming on the sideline. When Tebow ran onto the field with a ragtag ensemble of third- and fourth-stringers, the crowd roared, many among them slapping their arms together in the University of Florida's Gator chomp.

When he marched them into the red zone on his first drive, they started a rhythmic chant: Tee-bow! Tee-bow! Tee-bow!

If Barkley was offended or threatened by the rebirth of Tebowmania, he did an admirable job of disguising it.

"It's pretty funny to see their reaction," Barkley said. "He's loved everywhere he goes, as he should be. He's a great person and teammate. It doesn't bother me."

A few moments later, you listened to Tebow talk, and you understood the importance of separating the man from the mania. Throughout his 1-1/2 quarters of action, he reminded us why even his most fervent detractors would, if pressed, afford him proper respect. He ran around the field as if it was his long-lost lover, gesturing madly to the crowd, lowering his shoulder into a defender to throw a gratuitous block, tucking the football to his chest and rumbling 7 yards for a touchdown.

"Sometimes it's nice not having the red jersey on," said the quarterback, who experienced his first live contact since the 2013 preseason, when he tried out for the Patriots.

His final numbers did not sparkle: six completions, six incompletions, 69 yards, three sacks. But his first four passes went for first downs, and he led the Eagles to 10 points in the fourth quarter, despite glaring protection problems and some hiccups by his wide receivers. The long hours of work he has put in to improve his throwing mechanics have clearly paid dividends. He might not have outplayed Barkley, or taken a significant step forward in his quest to fulfill the hopes so many had for him when he broke into the league five years ago. Sunday, though, that wasn't important.

"When you care about something, you want to go perform," Tebow said. "It's a blessing to put in work for something and to be able to get to a point where you are back, you are playing ball, you are having fun. It's a blessing. It's something I'm very thankful for."

Aw, what the hell.




On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy