Florida's Tebow is well-versed in winning
GAINESVILLE - University of Florida senior quarterback Tim Tebow - who resides somewhere near the vortex of celebrity, pop culture and sports mythology - values his quiet time. Not that he has much of it. After all, he's the most recognizable figure in college football. Long ago, he gave up trying to sneak into a restaurant or movie theater without being surrounded by autograph seekers and cell phone cameras. It can be a suffocating existence for a 22-year-old. Not to mention the highly entertaining blog dedicated to his every move (www.Tim Teblog.com), the 7½-foot sculpture likeness created from a dead oak tree ("Tim Treebow") by a chain saw artist along University Avenue or the Gator Nation zealots who expect him to walk across Lake Alice each weekend."I love football and work extremely hard at it, but it's not my God," said Tebow, whose No. 1-ranked Gators begin defense of their national championship Saturday night against Charleston Southern. "I think I have a sense of purpose to know what's really important." It starts with that quiet time, when Tebow studies the Bible. "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." - Luke 12:48. It's the verse that continually helps him to understand. "I'm a people pleaser," said Tebow, the son of an evangelical minister. "I want to do the right thing. But sometimes people aren't going to see it for that. They're going to say, 'Oh, you're faking.' That's just human nature. You know there are always people who want to bring you down. But you stay true to what you're all about." The person What is Tim Tebow all about? There are his revolutionary football skills, of course, which could make him the only person with three national titles and two Heisman Trophies. In the minds of many, that would validate Tebow as the greatest college football player of all time. There's his legendary competitiveness and his determined words from last season - "The Promise" - that are displayed on a plaque outside the UF football complex. There's his growing prison ministry and his annual pilgrimage to help the poor in foreign countries, particularly the Philippines, where his father's evangelical association runs an orphanage and has established thousands of churches. There's the polarizing public reaction to his squeaky-clean image, which reached critical mass at last month's SEC Media Days. Someone asked Tebow if he was saving himself for marriage. Tebow, unblinking: "Yes, I am." A roomful of reporters nervously chuckled or gasped. "I think y'all are stunned right now. ... I was ready for the question. I don't think y'all were, though," he said. "Tim Tebow is everything you think he is - and a whole lot more," said first-year Gators quarterbacks coach Scott Loeffler, who once tried to recruit Tebow for Michigan. "Your daughter would want to marry him. I would want my daughter to marry him. "We need good role models. He's someone for young kids to listen to and follow. I think he has been given a platform and he uses it for the good. What's wrong with that?" A life of promise Bob and Pam Tebow, beginning their mission work in the Philippines, had four children, but they prayed for another. They would name him Timothy (which means "honoring God") and raise him to be a preacher. It was a difficult pregnancy. The placenta was never properly attached. Pam had frequent bleeding and cramping. She contracted amebic dysentery, and doctors feared their medications had damaged the fetus. They recommended an abortion. She refused, relying on faith. Timothy Richard Tebow was born Aug. 14, 1987. "We have called him our miracle baby," said Tebow's mother, the former Pam Pemberton, a South Tampa native and 1967 graduate of Plant High School. "We prayed for a preacher. Now he has a platform, a different sort of pulpit. The gift he has is the ability to speak and influence people." At no time was that more evident than last season. The Gators suffered a devastating 31-30 home loss against Ole Miss, seemingly crushing their hopes for a national championship. Tebow was stuffed on a late fourth-down play, assuring the shocking outcome. Afterward, he answered questions from reporters. Before leaving, though, he had some emotional words of his own. "To the fans and everybody in Gator Nation, I'm sorry. I'm extremely sorry. We were hoping for an undefeated season. That was my goal, something Florida has never done here. I promise you one thing. A lot of good will come out of this. You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season. You will never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of the season. You will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season. God bless." The Gators went on an eight-game winning streak, outscoring their opponents 414-97, to reach the SEC Championship game. And there, with Tebow leading a fourth-quarter rally, the Gators topped unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Alabama. At that point, Tebow's "Promise" speech reached mythic proportions. Nobody knew that Tebow's words initially caused Gators coach Urban Meyer to cringe. "That's when he cut his chest open, took his heart out and laid it on the table," Meyer said. "I didn't see it live, but when I got home that night and watched it on television, I was so angry and horrified that he did that. I was like, 'Don't do that, Tim. Don't do it.' Now it's on the plaque outside the stadium." (That was Meyer's idea.) "I think it's going to help some people. Some high school kids, maybe some kids below high school, they read it and get inspired. It just adds to Tim and what he represents." It also adds to the growing Tebow legend. Legend? Tebow cringes. "I don't think I'm better than anybody else just because I play football," he said. "I've been places where people are trying to fight for their next meal. That's the real world, not a football game. That gives you perspective." Sometimes, Tebow's words give a different perspective to grown men. "His passion for competition and being the best he can be, that's real," UF athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "The way he treats people, that's real. The way he lives his life, that's real. He's genuine." "He taught me a very valuable lesson in life - if you can make an impact on someone's life, it's your obligation to do it," said former Gators offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, now the first-year head coach at Mississippi State University. "He's just one of the most unique people in the world." The final season Meyer and his family, inspired by Tebow, made two mission trips to the Dominican Republic. So when the coach says Tebow's career has been a "life-changing experience" for him, he means it. "When my daughter went off to college, she gave me a book she put together with some pictures, and she had a section that she said was really important," Meyer said. "It was our mission trip, our visits to hospitals. That was never really a big part of who we were. Tim and his family have had a major impact on me. He changed my daughter's life. How could you envision something like that happening?" After his senior season in high school, Tebow's life was the subject of a one-hour ESPN documentary titled, "The Chosen One." Meyer estimates he has watched it with his son about 40 times. His reasoning: What else on television would provide such inspiration and exposure to wholesome values? "I have talked about cherishing every minute" of his senior season, Meyer said. "At the end of the day, if his college experience is everything I dreamed it would be, it's going to be tough to say goodbye. But it's going to be a very proud moment for everyone." The countdown has begun. Taking a cue from Meyer, many fans recognize the potential history at stake during Tebow's final season. That was the inspiration for Dan Shanoff, whose work also appears in The Sporting News, to start www.TimTeblog.com. It slices and dices every ounce of Tebow coverage from the mainstream media and beyond. It's scheduled to operate through the 2010 NFL draft. "This is not a fawning fanboy blog - although I am nominally recognized as a huge Tebow fan - but clear-eyed, credible, reliable and comprehensive coverage of a 'beat' that happens to be a single athlete: Florida quarterback Tim Tebow," Shanoff wrote in explaining his motivation to launch the blog. "Can't deny the news value: Tebow is THE biggest name in college football - if not all of sports this fall. Not only does he lead the defending national champs but Florida is the plurality pick to win this year's title, too. Add the Heisman intrigue to the championship potential and it makes for the fall's best debate: Greatest college player of all time?" It's a lot to absorb. Which brings us back to Tebow, who understands his quiet time is about to get more scarce. "The time has just flown by," Tebow said. "It seems like I just got here at Florida and now it's almost time to leave. I will try to embrace it and remember it. I want to enjoy all the memories." He wants the final chapter to be the best memory of all.
Keyword: Gators, for college football coverage. Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7353.