Tebow Makes Best of His Life in the Spotlight
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - A humorless sun hoists itself above the crowd standing outside the football stadium. It's unseasonably muggy and people have been standing for hours, melting into the hot concrete beneath them. They couldn't be happier. They're waiting for the Florida Gators, and based on the No. 15 jerseys many wear, they're especially waiting for Tim Tebow.
The higher the sun rises, the more restless the crowd becomes. Not because it's getting warmer, but because it's getting closer to Gator Walk, when the Florida football team journeys from buses to the stadium through a tunnel of frenzied fans.
Nathan and Heather Spann arrived early enough to get a front-row spot along Gator Walk. Both wear No. 15 jerseys - hers white, his blue. It set them back $140, a considerable expense for a young couple, but they say it's worth it.
"He doesn't bash anybody," said Heather, 20, holding a borrowed Kodak camera. "He's just a humble football player," added Nathan, 19. "He respects everybody no matter what. When he celebrates, he celebrates with his teammates. It's not about him. It's not about being a star quarterback."
Even though he is.
No player in college football history has been more scrutinized, more written about, more filmed, more photographed, more celebrated, or had more glaring spotlights shined his way than Tim Tebow has. The fact that it's 2009 - with all the TV networks, the Internet, the blogs and Web sites - guarantees that.
Google Tim Tebow's name and in a tenth of a second, 519,000 results load. YouTube.com has thousands of videos of him.
Two ESPN clips call him a "hero" and "the chosen one." He's shown speaking to prison inmates, and performing circumcisions in the Philippines.
At the Southeastern Conference's Football Media Days, he's asked if he's "saving himself for marriage." Tebow laughs, smiles, and says, "Yes, I am." He laughs again, adding, "I think y'all are stunned."
Web sites list Tebowisms.
"Superman wears Tim Tebow pajamas."
"When Tim Tebow wants popcorn, he breathes on Nebraska."
A GQ magazine headline asks, "Does God Have a Tim Tebow Complex?"
Several states are pushing legislation called "Tim Tebow Bills," which would allow home-schooled children to play sports at public schools. Though home-schooled, Tebow played sports at Ponte Vedra's (Fla.) Nease High School.
No wonder, then, that Pete Thamel of The New York Times calls Tebow, "The rare athlete who becomes part of popular culture."
With that, though, is a dark side.
Scores of Web sites make money off Tebow. There are Web sites devoted to his playing career. Web sites devoted to rumors about who his girlfriend is. Web sites devoted to what Bible scriptures he puts on his eye black.
UF monthly sends about a half-dozen cease-and-desist letters to people who profit off Tebow, or use his image and likeness improperly. Perhaps the most egregious incident is a company that sells "Teebows" - orange-and-blue panties with a bow. When the company put the number 15 and the Gator logo on the panties, it got UF's attention.
It gets worse. Women have approached Tebow, asking for a picture with him. Then, at the last moment, they try to expose their breasts, attempting to time their flash with the camera's flash.
Through it all, though, Tebow's image never takes a hit. Even if he were caught in such a photo, you sense nobody would believe he willingly participated. Still, he acknowledges the intense attention isn't all good.
"Being scrutinized and being someone who gets some attention, you realize there's going to be pros and cons," he said. "The pros are that I can go into Shands Hospital and I can visit practically any kid I want to and make them smile. The pros are that I can go into prisons and share with inmates and actually have them listen to me because I play for the Gators. The pros are having opportunities to go around this country and speak to people and have an influence on their lives. So I think the pros far outweigh the cons."
UF head coach Urban Meyer talks about "living and experiencing" the Tim Tebow phenomena for five years, going back to when he recruited him. ESPN shadowed Tebow his high school senior year, filming a documentary it titled, "The Chosen One." That might've swelled an 18-year-old's head, but not Tebow's.
Coaches, though, are inherent worriers. Meyer is no different.
"I do worry," he admits. "But then I simply have to think about it for a minute. I mean, you have to worry because it's that big. But I've never seen a guy handle it like Tim does. He does all the right things for all the right reasons."
UF offensive coordinator Steve Addazio says people can still forget that Tebow is human. "It's hard for him to have a normal college existence. Everything is magnified. You do worry for him. Tim's the type of guy who wants to please everybody, and people like that tend to carry the weight of the world. To say there's not pressure and stress ... well, there is."
That pressure and stress surfaced just hours before last January's national championship game in Miami. UF wide receiver David Nelson got a text message from Tebow, asking him to come to his hotel room.
"When I got there, Tim was pale," Nelson said. "I thought he was sick. He had the team chaplain there and about five teammates."
"He was feeling nervous, and he wanted us with him," Nelson said. "He told us he was feeling a lot of pressure, that he felt the whole world was on him, that if we lost, Gator Nation was going to be mad at him."
Tebow shared with them a Bible scripture. Then they prayed.
"That's when I saw the color return to his face," Nelson said.
Hours later, Florida beat Oklahoma, 24-14, with Tebow named the game's offensive MVP.
Former Georgia head coach and athletic director Vince Dooley met Tebow twice - once in Atlanta and another time in New York City, when Tebow won the 2007 Heisman Trophy. Dooley was at that Heisman Trophy presentation because it was the 25-year anniversary of Herschel Walker winning the award, and Dooley was Walker's coach at Georgia. Dooley's perspective is unique, because when discussions turn to college football's most celebrated players ever, the names Herschel Walker and Tim Tebow arrive in the same sentence. He understands why.
"Both of them absolutely amaze me in almost every respect," said Dooley, 77. "Both command attention. Even today, Herschel is still so popular, and Tim Tebow will be that way for the rest of his life, too."
Then Dooley elevates the discussion.
"I would have to say, in all the athletes I've seen in my life, Herschel included, that Tim might be the best when you take everything into consideration. I'm talking about football, athleticism, competitiveness, character, student, self-discipline, spiritual, service, charity, role model. When you combine all those things, I don't think there's ever been anyone quite like Tim Tebow. Nor may there ever be anyone quite like him again. I really admire him."
So, obviously, do Gator fans.