He was big man on campus pretty much from the moment he arrived in Gainesville. Six months before playing his first down for the Florida Gators, Tim Tebow was already signing autographs. Visiting a local elementary school with his new teammates in the spring of 2006, the prized freshman quarterback—he enrolled a semester early—received a unique request from one of the mothers in the crowd: sign her infant daughter’s head. “I was laughing so hard,” Tebow recalls. “This lady was like, ‘Will you sign my baby?’ I was like, ‘Sure ma’am.’ I signed [the baby’s] forehead. The lady was so ecstatic, too.”
Already such requests were just part of being Tim Tebow, whose legend was honed at Ponte Vedra Beach (Fla.) Nease High School, just 74 miles from Florida’s Gainesville campus. And he has delivered. He is one of the most unique play- ers to ever step on the college gridiron. At 6'3'', 235 pounds, he is as much battering ram as QB, and that’s just how Gators coach Urban Meyer utilized him during his freshman season when Tebow backed up starter Chris Leak, who guided the team to the national championship.
Last season, college football got the whole package. Capitalizing on his strong left arm (he can throw the ball more than 70 yards), speed (he runs the 40 in 4.5), and a linebacker’s mentality, Tebow, in his first season as a starter, passed for 3,286 yards and 32 touch- downs, ran for 895 yards and 23 TDs, and became the first sophomore ever to win the Heisman Trophy.
Along the way, Tebow left crushed de- fenders scattered all over the SEC and op- posing coaches wondering just how to defend the prolific—and huge—signal- caller. “He’s different from anybody I’ve ever seen,” says Georgia head coach Mark Richt, who spent 14 seasons tutoring quarterbacks at Florida State, including two Heisman winners, before taking the Bulldogs job in 2001. “He stands apart like Michael Vick did at Virginia Tech, like Vince Young did [at Texas], like Charlie Ward did when I was at Florida State. Some guys stand apart, and they’re just different from everybody else.”
But the story gets even better. In an age when athletes at all levels are stained by the misdeeds of a few, Tebow appears to be as “good” off the field as he is on it. He speaks openly about his Christian faith and the missionary work he and his fam- ily do in the Philippines. The Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association—named after Tim’s father—runs an orphanage in the island chain, and Tim, the youngest of five kids, has spent time there every year since he was 15.
On his most recent trip last March, the missionaries went into remote areas to provide much-needed medical and den- tal treatment. Tebow assisted doctors in minor surgical procedures, including circumcisions and cyst removals. “After a while, doctors get tired,” Tebow said. “It’s tiring, over and over again, and we’re doing the same thing, the same problem with so many people. You can do only so much. They were teaching us how to do things, so I really was performing surgeries. I couldn’t do that here, but I really did it there.”
Those are the kinds of stories Tebow tells when he speaks to various groups. He is in high demand, too, from church groups to team banquets to prisons. Florida officials received 1,000 speaking requests from the time Tebow won the Heisman in early December until late May. “After a while it can start wearing on you,” Tebow says. “But you have to go and say, ‘I’m making a lot of people happy by doing this, and that should give me joy.’ And it does give me joy. I think that’s how you go about handling it.”
Tebow, though just 21, has been making the locals happy for years and, in turn, building a legend the nation discovered only when he arrived in Gainesville. But the home folks already knew, and each of them has a story. Here are just a couple:
- As a high school sophomore, Tebow played with a broken leg for three quar- ters against nearby Pedro Menendez High School—and scored on a 29-yard touchdown run to tie the game in the fourth quarter.
- Two years later, in the Class 4A state title game against Seffner Armwood, Tebow’s Panthers were protecting a seven- point lead late in the fourth quarter when Tebow successfully begged head coach Craig Howard to let him line up at defensive tackle on Armwood’s final drive. Do we need to tell you that the Panthers won?