Already a Florida Legend, Tebow Aiming Higher
But in Tim Tebow's case, the routine isn't . . . well, so routine.
A week ago, his coach at Florida was moved to tears as the senior quarterback approached his final game at home, against Florida State. Countless cameras and cellphones flashed as Tebow ran through his final series of plays at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. He and the Gators won big, preserving their No. 1 Bowl Championship Series ranking. Now there are but two games left.
Beat the BCS' second-ranked Alabama in Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game in Atlanta - no gimme in a clash of unbeaten heavyweights - and Florida will play for a national title Jan. 7 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The loser heads to the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year's night.
Tebow has won a Heisman Trophy. Depending in part on how he performs Saturday, he could become the second player in the award's 75-year history to collect a second. He owns two national championship rings, and beckoning in Pasadena is a shot at a remarkable third in four seasons.
That would seem a fitting denouement for a rare 22-year-old whose talent, virtue and timing - emerging in an ESPN- and Internet-saturated age - have rendered him perhaps the most exalted college athlete of all time.
Vince Dooley has seen Tebow pile up nine passing and rushing touchdowns in two lopsided wins in the last two years against Georgia, a rival SEC program that Dooley once coached for 25 Hall of Fame seasons. "Football. Athleticism. Leadership. Charity work. His faith. You name it. I've never seen anybody who had all that in one package," he says.
"That's what puts him in a class by himself."
Making selflessness cool
The son of missionaries, Tebow inherited his mother's and father's religious devotion and social conscience. He goes on missions, himself. He has spoken and prayed in prisons, in an orphanage, in a leper colony. He's a frequent hospital volunteer.
Taking his cue, Florida coach Urban Meyer and his family took their own mission trip two summers ago, and Tebow's teammates have joined him in a charity fundraiser the last two years in which they compete in tire-flipping and other strongman events.
"It's almost like selflessness is now a cool thing," Meyer says of Tebow's impact on those around him.
Package that decency into the 6-3, 240-pound body of an elite athlete. Add instinct, natural leadership, an inextinguishable will to win - and not only the will but a knack for winning.
Tebow's record as a starter at Florida is 34-5. He and the Gators (12-0) carry a two-year, 22-game winning streak into their showdown with Alabama (12-0).
He has no modern reference points. History offers the likes of Iowa's Nile Kinnick, the similarly principled 1939 Heisman winner who passed into legend when he chose law school over pro football, volunteered for service in World War II and was killed during a flight training mission in 1943. Roger Staubach was everybody's all-American in the early 1960s, a Naval Academy midshipman who passed and ran his way to the 1963 Heisman, then served in Vietnam before going on to NFL stardom.
In basketball, Bill Bradley led Princeton to its only appearance in the NCAA's Final Four in 1965 and went on to become a Rhodes Scholar and NBA great.
Others have worked their way into the nation's consciousness as collegians: Illinois' Red Grange, Army's Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, Ohio State's Archie Griffin and Georgia's Herschel Walker among them in football; Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson, UCLA's Lew Alcindor and LSU's Pete Maravich in basketball; Ohio State's Jesse Owens and Kansas' Jim Ryun in track.
For many, however, reverence was born of their uncommon playing skill.
None, of course, was followed by the array of 21st-century media - 24-hour television networks, all-sports radio talkfests, bloggers, tweeters - that spreads the word and amplifies the reputation of Tebow.
He doesn't duck the attention. "There are a lot of athletes out there with a lot of platforms and a lot of opportunities to influence a lot of people and, unfortunately, there aren't many who take advantage of it and use it in a positive manner," Tebow says. "That's very disappointing. They could have huge impact on kids' lives and people's lives and even on communities and states and countries."
He concedes, "There've been moments, there've been days, when you get tired, you get frustrated, you get exhausted. You want people to believe you're doing things for the right reason, but sometimes people just look at the negative. It's fake. Or it's this or that. . . .
"That's when my faith really encourages me that everything happens for a reason and God has a plan."
Fire and devotion
ESPN was apt in entitling a documentary of his 2005 senior season of football at Nease High School in Ponte Vedra, Fla., Tim Tebow: The Chosen One.
Tebow's presence has grown significantly since then. A Google search of his name delivers more than 600,000 entries. You can choose from nearly 2,500 Tebow-related links on YouTube. He has graced more Sports Illustrated covers - six in the last 16 months, sharing a seventh with two other players - than any other college athlete.
With advertisers showing increasing interest, the company that computes popularity-measuring Q scores took stock of Tebow last spring. He was recognized by 49% of sports fans ages 12-64, equaling their familiarity with the Boston Celtics' Paul Pierce, the Tampa Bay Rays' Evan Longoria and Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson. Baseball's Chase Utley and Johan Santana, among others, scored a tick lower.
Tebow's Q score of 21, the percentage who identified him as one of their favorite athletes, ranked with that of NFL mastermind Bill Parcells and NBA stars Kevin Garnett, Chris Paul and Steve Nash. And it was well above the average score of 14 for sports personalities.
"It's a pretty good likability score for someone being measured for the first time," says Henry Schafer, executive vice president of New York-based The Q Scores Co., which has compiled the ratings since 1963.
Last Saturday, after Tebow took the field against FSU and continued his tradition of inscribing a Bible verse on the glare-reducing black patches beneath his eyes, his chosen "Hebrews 12:1-2" was Google's third-most popular search term. When he cited "John 3:16" during the national championship game against Oklahoma last January, it was the day's No. 1 searched-for term.
He resonates nationally in a sport in which public interest tends to be regional. And his appeal transcends football.
When Tebow and Florida ran through their final practice of the past spring, Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean was seen scribbling notes to the side. He was in the area to recruit, he said, but he also wanted to see how the Gators coaches ran things. And he was fascinated with their quarterback.
"We used Tim in different video hits this year," Crean explained, "to show just toughness personified, doing whatever it takes, great leadership, never flinching in the pocket."
At Tennessee, budding women's basketball star Taber Spani points to Tebow as her role model. She was home-schooled as he was. Her Christian beliefs run deep, too, and the freshman guard from Lee's Summit, Mo., says Tebow's mission work inspires her to do the same.
Plus, "I love the fire he plays with," says Spani, the daughter of former Kansas State and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Gary Spani. "It reminds me a lot of my dad when he played football. I think his spirit is contagious, and it spreads throughout the entire team as well as the fans. The way he leads his team is something I aspire to do here."
When he was a freshman and a backup to Chris Leak on the Florida team that won the 2006 national championship, Tebow commonly saw the field in short-yardage and goal-line situations, running for eight touchdowns and throwing for five more. By the time the Gators won it all again in 2008, Tebow was their centerpiece.
With a 66% completion rate, 84 TD passes and 15 interceptions in 53 career games, the left-hander is on pace to be the highest-rated passer in major-college history - his mathematical efficiency rating of 170.4 now bettering the record 168.9 set by Boise State's Ryan Dinwiddie from 2000 to 2003. Tebow also has piled up more total yardage (11,389) and been responsible for more touchdowns (140 passing and rushing) than any other player in SEC history.
Even if he doesn't join Griffin as the only two-time Heisman winner, he's a decent bet to finish among the top three vote-getters for the third consecutive year. Only three players have done that, and they're icons: Army's Davis in the mid-1940s, Southern Methodist halfback Doak Walker in the late 1940s and Herschel Walker in the early 1980s.
What about the NFL?
Looming, though, is a great debate: Is Tebow built for the NFL?
Evaluators love his size, athleticism, arm strength and off-the-chart intangibles, but they fret about his slow passing delivery and imperfect footwork. There are suggestions he'd make a better H-back, a power-running cross between a fullback and tight end.
ESPN analyst Todd McShay rates him as a second-round pick in the NFL's April draft. But in a nod to Tebow's appeal, he says, "It will not be a surprise if a team takes a chance on him in the first."
Tebow makes it clear he wants to play in the NFL. That's partly the competitor speaking and partly the bigger-picture guy. For him, sports and stardom are vehicles.
"In terms of what he has accomplished and the character he's shown and the things he's done to make the world a better place and live up to his values, it's very impressive," says basketball's Bradley, now 66, whose post-playing career took him to the U.S. Senate.
"Like (with) everybody, the real question is going to be: So what does he do next? I assume the answer is he turns pro. What does he do then? Will he change in five or 10 years? Will he be satisfied being a role model for the rest of his life? . . . You have to figure out how you get from being a role model to the larger world, where you would have a bigger impact."
Tebow's too-good-to-be-true sheen has worn thin on some, who complain of "Tebow fatigue." It might have been reflected in last year's Heisman balloting, when he captured the most first-place votes but carried just one of six voting regions and finished third behind Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Texas' Colt McCoy.
But the eye-rolling has remained minimal.
As the once-impeccable image of the planet's most popular athlete, Tiger Woods, takes on some tarnish, Tebow has stayed beyond reproach. "If you purport to be something or you stand for something, you'd better make sure you're living up to the message," says Staubach, now 67 and 4 1/2 decades removed from being the Tebow of his time. "I think with Tim, that's just who he is."