Tim Tebow boldly thrust himself back into professional sports last week by signing a minor-league contract with the New York Mets. In his hype-spinning return to competition, though, he may have made one crucial mistake: He picked the wrong sport.
Tebow should be playing handball.
A sport that rewards size, prizes speed and fetishizes lefties, handball was basically invented for Tebow. But it doesn’t attract many Heisman Trophy-winning NFL quarterbacks because it’s both obscure and European. Which is exactly why it should appeal to Tebow.
“That’s a fabulous idea,” said Randy Dean, the only NFL quarterback ever to play Olympic handball. “The raw skillsets he has are ideally suited for handball. I think it’s perfect.”
For someone in Tebow’s rare predicament—a gifted athlete who couldn’t cut it professionally in his first sport, but wants to try another sport at the same time he advances a broadcasting career—handball is all upside. It would give him the post-NFL career he craves. He could play well into his 30s and possibly beyond. And it could make Tebow a national hero on a stage he never imagined.
The chances of Team USA qualifying in handball for the 2020 Olympics may be about the same as Tebow starting for the New York Mets. Or the New York Jets. But he could be an Olympian yet: Los Angeles winning its bid for the 2024 Games could position Tebow as the extremely unlikely face of the automatically qualified U.S. handball squad.
It’s only slightly less crazy than it sounds. American handball experts say that if Tebow focused on the sport, even part-time, he could make Team USA within a year. That’s partly because the U.S., which hasn’t qualified for the Olympics through competition since 1988, is not good at handball. In fact, when one national team coach started a fundraising campaign earlier this year to advance his career, here’s what he called it: “The USA is not good at handball.”
But what if Tebow began playing? People around handball, which looks like a cross between soccer and basketball and features two teams of seven players attempting to throw a ball into a goal, say the bulldozing southpaw would be a dream right back. Tebow, now an SEC Network analyst, wouldn’t even have to leave college football’s heartland: Team USA holds tryouts next month in Auburn, Ala.
“If he comes knocking on the door and pays his $50,” said Team USA assistant Mark Ortega, “we’re here.”
To be sure, Tebow has shown zero interest in handball. And his advanced age—he is 29 now—make it more of a longshot. His agent did not respond to a request for comment about Tebow’s handball future.
Tebow at least had some experience in baseball before the Mets rewarded him with a $100,000 signing bonus. He has no such history with handball. A career in this sport wouldn’t be worth that much, at least not immediately and without moving to Europe. But it could pay off in Olympic endorsements and nearly eight more years of fame.
So it’s at least worth wondering: Instead of trying to be a mediocre baseball player, why shouldn’t Tebow be a handball legend?
There are several prerequisites to playing for Team USA, according to one of the organization’s recruiting manuals, but handball experience isn’t one of them. They want players with “short and powerful bursts.” Tebow rushed for 14 touchdowns his senior season at Florida. And players with “speed, quickness and jumping agility.” Tebow ran the 40-yard dash in 4.72 seconds and his signature play was a jump pass. And players with “aggressiveness, innovation, creativity, leadership and self-motivation,” among other qualities. Tebow has been associated with a few of those words in the past.
It also helps that almost everyone on Team USA came to handball in a strange way. But no one took a more peculiar road to handball than American high-performance director Dave Gascon. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the Los Angeles Police Department officer who announced to the world that O.J. Simpson had gone missing in 1994.
Handball is such a niche activity in the U.S. that the only way for Americans to compete is to identify talent in sports that translate—like football.
Dean, a former New York Giants quarterback who competed in the 1976 Games, remains the only U.S. handball player with NFL experience, said Olympic historian Bill Mallon, though that isn’t for lack of effort by American organizers. There was once talk of pitching handball to former NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens, Team USA officials said, while the current U.S. roster includes Ty Reed, a wide receiver who played at Alabama under Nick Saban, and Lewis Howes, who caught the handball bug while nursing an Arena Football League injury during the 2008 Olympics.
What he did next might as well be a playbook for Tebow. Howes realized he was one of the “big, strong, powerful people” that Team USA coach Javier Garcia Cuesta dreams about. He also decided handball, with its shallow talent pool, was his easiest road to becoming an Olympian.
“There was no other sport I could pick up right away that would get me on a national team quick enough,” Howes said. “Unless I did luging or something in Canada. And I’m not gonna be indoors freezing my butt off doing some boring sport.”
After a year of researching where he could play competitive handball in the U.S, Howes showed up at one elite team’s practice in New York unannounced. None of the players were Americans. They were all Europeans. “I said, ‘My name is Lewis Howes and I’m here to learn handball and make the USA team,’” he said. “They all laughed at me in their other languages.”
The best players in the U.S. were from Europe because that’s where the hotbeds of handball are. France is a five-time world champion, and Denmark won men’s Olympic gold in Rio last month. Still, when players and coaches there gaze across the Atlantic, one thing is plainly obvious to them: The country’s legion of super-athletes could make the U.S. a sleeping handball giant—if only they ever realized it.
“I’m quite sure that if you did it very, very seriously,” the Danish federation’s head of talent development Claus Hansen said of Americans, “we would never win a gold medal anymore.”
Jesper Houmark, the Danish handball coach in charge of the English national team, has never heard of Tebow. But he’s keenly aware of the connection between quarterbacks and handball. The tactical mindsets make the sports like long-lost cousins. The weight of a football is within one ounce of a regulation handball. The throwing motions are different, but it wouldn’t take much for Tebow to overhaul his already overhauled mechanics.
Handball even turns one of Tebow’s worst habits into an amazing skill. In football, a ball thrown into the ground is an incomplete pass. In handball, it’s a bounce shot.
All a grand Tebow handball experiment would take is a little imagination. If he blazed a trail into handball, Tebow could appeal to baseball, football and basketball players who are desperate to be Olympians, especially if Los Angeles 2024 becomes the target. And for all the people who’d been waiting for a return to Tebow-mania, handball might just scratch the itch.
Instead of watching him in “some developmental baseball league,” Howes said, “they can come watch him play handball and crush.”
Write to Ben Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org and Joshua Robinson email@example.com