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?

[pagebreak] In December 2005, Tebow committed to Florida in a live press conference on ESPN. Later that night the cable sports network televised a one-hour documentary about Tebow’s life, high school career, and his agonizing decision of choosing between Alabama and Florida. The title of the documentary: The Chosen One. Before his freshman season, Tebow performed Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” onstage at a small Gainesville club, with Chesney, at the singer’s request. Add in the requisite All- America football star good looks, sew some sequins and rhinestones on his No. 15 jersey, and you’ve got Elvis in pads. Don’t laugh. The reaction he gets among co-eds is similar.

THE RIGHT STUFF Why UF’s strength coach stopped Tebow’s big gain. When Tim Tebow enrolled at Florida in January 2006, he pretty much started living in the football facility’s weight room. The problem was that he wasn’t living right. He was just lifting . . . and lifting . . . and lifting. If the linemen were maxing out on the leg press, he was, too. Pretty soon he started to look like a defensive end instead of a quarterback. That’s when Mickey Marotti, UF’s director of strength and conditioning, stepped in. “He was kind of getting away from being a better quar- terback,” says Marotti. “All his focus was lifting more weights, and I’m like, ‘Tim you can’t do that.’” Marotti got Tebow to understand that how he worked out was much more important than how much he lifted. Now, Tebow’s two-hour off-season workout focuses on endurance and position-specific exercises. Tebow’s Game Plan: Upper Body— Shoulder work, bench presses, core exercises Lower Body— Squats, lunges, speed and agility drills Resistance Running— Tow a tire or medicine balls, perform QB motions (option pitches, spin moves) while contained by elastic bands Passing drills— Perform every possible throw he might make in a game (run left and throw short or long, throw while running out of bounds, etc.). Practice drop-back throws, throws while standing still and throws from his knees “I try to be more metabolic with him,” Marotti says. “During a game he not only uses his power, but also his endurance. He may run 50 yards on one play and come back and do it again.” After all that, Tebow hit the field for a voluntary workout of passing drills—one for every possible throw he might make in a game. All that scales down during the season because the Gators practice five days a week in preparation for Saturday’s game. Tebow works out voluntarily for an hour on Sundays and has mandatory one-hour sessions on Wednesdays. The Sunday workouts are a little harder, but each consists of core work, flexibility work, and strength work. Tebow said he still pushes himself harder than he probably needs to but not as much as he did when he first got to UF. “I’ve got to be smart,” he said. “I don’t have to be the strongest guy on the team.”

“People walk by and go, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Tim Tebow!’” says senior tight end Cornelius Ingram. “People act like they’re about to faint.” To his credit, even amid the hype, Tebow didn’t shirk from the high ex- pectations that preceded him. In fact, he went right about the work of living up to them. During the first set of an off- season conditioning competition inside Florida’s gym in spring 2006, he nearly finished first. Mickey Marotti, UF’s director of strength and conditioning, says Tebow’s effort and performance in those early drills helped him win over his teammates, some of whom may have been skeptical of a young man with such hyped credentials. In fact, soon thereafter, Marotti asked the offense and defense to select the two best guys for a tug-of-war contest. The losing unit would run suicides. The defense picked 6'2'', 275-pound defensive end Joe Cohen and 6'3'', 239-pound middle line- backer Brandon Siler. The offense picked 6'5'', 312-pound offensive lineman Carlton Medder and Tebow, the quarterback. It was not close. “The offensive guys beat their ass,” Marotti says. “That was kind of the beginning of, ‘Oh, my God. This guy, what is his deal? Wow.’ ” Tebow’s strength and competitiveness extend to the weight room (see box), so much so that Florida’s coaches had to stop him from lifting too much. “He was trying to outlift the linemen,” Marotti recalls. If Tebow’s freshman season was just a preview, his sophomore season was a showcase of all Tebow can do. In lead- ing Florida to a 9–4 record and an appearance in the Capital One Bowl, he completed 66.9% of his passes and became the first player in Bowl Sub- division (formerly Division I) history to rush and pass for at least 20 touch- downs. The 23 rushing touchdowns were the most in one season by any player in SEC history—five more than Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker had in 1981—and the 55 total touchdowns were the most by any player in one season in SEC history. Those are just two of the 15 single- game, single-season or career school or SEC records Tebow broke in 2007 en route to joining Steve Spurrier (1966) and Danny Wuerffel (1996) as Florida’s Heisman Trophy winners. This fall, he can become just the second person to win the award twice (Ohio State’s Archie Griffin won it in 1974 and 1975). Four other Heisman winners who returned to school the following season—Oklahoma’s Billy Sims and Jason White, BYU’s Ty Detmer, and Southern California’s Matt Leinart—did not cop the back-to-back, but Tebow is al- most salivating at the opportunity. “I like the challenge, always something new,” he says. “If anything, it will just motivate me to work that much harder.” Tebow is also hoping to earn a sec- ond national championship. He calls last season’s record “unacceptable.” In a quick speech during halftime of a Florida- Kentucky basketball game on Jan. 19, Tebow told the 12,000 fans that they deserved better and he was going to make sure they got it. During the final six games of last season, Tebow was playing with a badly bruised right (nonthrowing) shoulder. He took painkilling injections before each game but only grudgingly admitted this summer that maybe—maybe—he should have missed a game or two. One of those contests was the regular-season finale versus rival Florida State. Several days before the game, Seminoles linebacker Geno Hayes vowed that Tebow was “going to go down.” Hayes, FSU’s second-leading tackler entering the game, finished with one tackle as Tebow ran past him at the goal line on one of his two touchdown runs. Tebow, already dealing with the injured shoulder, suffered a broken bone in his right hand early in the second half of that game. He didn’t come out and finds it crazy that anyone would suggest he should have. “It’s not what you do when you’re up. It’s what you do when you’re down,” Tebow says. “That’s what guys look at you for—how you handle it when something goes wrong. That’s everything. That’s playing through adversity, that’s perse- verance, that’s determination. That’s all the character qualities you want. Coming back from those hard times, that’s what makes you who you are.”