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Thursday, May 23, 2024

He dives head-first into concrete, bowls over linebackers and stiff-arms pesky cornerbacks to the ground.

He also cradles babies, uses the word "giggles" in press conferences and plays video games.

Gator fans adore him for all of that.

In short, Tim Tebow is The Chosen One, like the title of an ESPN documentary on his playing career at Ponte Vedra Beach Nease High.

The Chosen One will lead the Gators in defense of their title this season, as he replaces the departed one, Chris Leak, as the team's starting quarterback.

Tebow begins his sophomore year facing more scrutiny than any other quarterback in the Southeastern Conference and perhaps - save Nick Saban - more than any other player or coach in the nation's toughest college football league.

Tebow is used to that, and he has spent his first three semesters in college successfully dealing with the autograph requests, speaking engagements and campus stalkers.

In a world where followers go the distance to find flaws in sports heroes, Tebow's public image remains unblemished. He has gone to great lengths to keep it squeaky clean.

"It's your responsibility to go out there and do what's right because so many people today think, 'I can get away, nobody's watching me,' but there really are a lot of people watching you," Tebow said. "Every move you make, people are going to see. You are going to influence people whether you like it or not."

Wide receiver Cornelius Ingram, UF coach Urban Meyer's selection for this year's Face of Florida Football, says Tebow shines like a rock star.

"Tebow's the kind of guy that when he walks on campus, everybody recognizes him," Ingram said. "There was one time I saw a girl - a couple times - a girl fainted because he walked by or gave her a hug."

The Birth of a Legend

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Tebow's grand arrival at UF occurred at 2:30 in the morning on Jan. 9, 2006, with little fanfare.

Tebow had just flown in to Jacksonville from San Antonio, where he dazzled crowds playing in the All-American Bowl.

Still hampered by a bum hamstring from pre-game practices, he mustered up the strength to drive through the nation's most notorious speed trap, Waldo, in the middle of the night and made it to Gainesville for a meeting at 6:45 a.m.

Tebow received more than 30 media requests in his first two days on campus but was not made available for comment until spring practice.

But he nearly would have been ineligible to enroll early thanks to waiting until the last minute before forgoing his final season of high school baseball at Nease.

"The last day he could have made the decision to get the paperwork in on time, we cleared it with the NCAA and got the paperwork in," his mom and home-school teacher, Pam, said at the time.

Tebow announced his arrival at the Orange and Blue Game four months later, completing 15 of 21 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown.

Like a prizefighter, he even entered UF's "Circle of Life" drill before the game, looking to wrestle a teammate to the ground.

Meyer would have none of that and pulled Tebow by his red non-contact jersey out of the middle of the pit before things got ugly.

Tebow's strong performance forced Meyer to say, "there is no quarterback controversy" after the game in which Tebow shined brighter than Leak.

Tebow entered the season as the veteran's backup but with a promise from Meyer that if he performed well in practice, he would see time during games.

Tebow played in every one.

He made his season debut in UF's opener against Southern Miss, relieving Leak at the start of the fourth quarter.

He scored on his second play and had The Swamp shaking.

It would continue to shake all season, from a pair of 25-yard runs against Kentucky to a 10-for-12 passing performance against lowly Western Carolina.

In week three, he saved the Gators' season with a gutsy two-yard gain on a fourth-and-one against Tennessee.

He could not keep UF from losing at Auburn, but he did score a touchdown to put the Gators up 17-8.

Still, the team would go undefeated at home, and Tebow didn't hear a single boo, something neither Leak nor Meyer can attest to.

A 26-7 win against Kentucky provided a slice of the controversy that Meyer and the media had been so quick to dismiss.

During the fourth quarter, Meyer put Leak in for Tebow in the red zone, prompting a chorus of vocal disapproval from thousands of fans.

"My main focus during the game is what goes on in the huddle," Leak said after the game. "I'm really not into hearing crowds."

On the field, Tebow was untouchable.

Just ask the opposing defenders who tried to get in his way, like Kentucky cornerback Trevard Lindley, whom he famously stiff-armed to the ground out of bounds.

Off the field, everybody wanted a piece of Tebow.

"Once he started making plays on the field - he was high profile coming out of high school - but once he started making plays, it got a little more intense," said wide receiver Riley Cooper.

The Public Tebow

UF long snapper Butch Rowley points to one bathroom inside The Swamp and then points to another one 20 yards away.

"If he wants to walk from that bathroom to that bathroom, it will take him an hour," said Rowley, one of Tebow's close friends on the football team. "They'll scream his name, and all of a sudden the camera starts flying, and they want to see his ring on his finger. They want to take pictures with him. They want him to hold their baby and take pictures. They want him to sign their shirt and sign their hat.

"That's the way it always is with him. Always."

Ever since he arrived on campus as an early enrollee- eight long months before his first game - Tebow has garnered celebrity status.

Teammates who risk going out with him usually turn into photographers as adoring fans hand them cameras to take snapshots that will end up on Facebook or as someone's cell phone background Sometimes they act as his off-the-field blockers, helping him find the back door or avoiding hazardous situations.

For some teammates, it's too much. Center Drew Miller will not go out with Tebow anymore.

"We give him a hard time sometimes," Miller said. "He wants to go to dinner or something, and I'm like, 'I'm not going with you. You'll be signing autographs, and I'll be taking pictures for you the whole time while we're eating.'"

Wide receiver Riley Cooper, another member of Tebow's entourage, calls Miller crazy. Rowley, too, only sees positives from hanging around Tebow.

"If it bothers people to hang around him when there's a lot of fans around or a lot of people want his autograph, they're missing out on the fans' appreciation," Rowley said.

The Tebow effect rubs off on his posse. Rowley, once a little-known transfer from Utah, pauses during an interview as two gorgeous women pass by, smile at him and exchange greetings.

Then he went on talking about Tebow, seemingly the only topic reporters ask him about.

"He's electric," Rowley said.

The Private Tebow

Tebow repeatedly says he never likes to turn away fans asking for his time. He remembers asking former UF quarterback Danny Wuerffel for his signature on church bulletins and a Gators hat and how much it would have devastated him if Wuerffel had declined.

But there's only so much Tebow to go around, so he has found ways to avoid throngs of fans in the past, safety Tony Joiner said.

Joiner, the outspoken leader of UF's defense, moved into an apartment with Tebow this summer at the urging of coaches. Joiner came in with a goal of opening up Tebow.

"He's closed in so much, like how he likes to be around himself or in a small group of people," Joiner said. "I understand he does that because he's Tim Tebow, but just to get out a little bit, be a little more outgoing and talk to people a little bit more."

A lot has changed in three months.

"He's willing to go through the front door instead of just going through the back door all the time," Joiner said. "He's willing to embrace fans all the time now."

Joiner witnessed the transformation while frequenting malls and even a local Wal-Mart with Tebow.

At the Wal-Mart last week, Tebow said a 13-year-old kid came up to him and said, "I'll run over you."

Earlier this summer, Tebow accepted a small role from his hometown church, First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, in a children's performance of David and Goliath.

Guess what part Tebow played.

"It was no lines, just acting," Tebow said. "I mean, it's Goliath. He doesn't really say anything anyway."

After taking part in a Gators strong man competition that Saturday afternoon - an event Tebow humbly said he "possibly" won - he drove up to Jacksonville for a dress rehearsal.

Word spread and the congregation showed up in droves the next night to watch as the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Tebow fell with a thud after being hit with a slingshot. An elementary school student slayed the mighty quarterback and stood over him in victory.

Then David broke into the Gator chomp.

"It was pretty funny after David killed Goliath, when he put his foot on me, standing on me like a little kid, doing the Gator chomp," Tebow said. "It was pretty funny. Everybody was laughing."

It's no secret that religion plays a big role in Tebow's lifestyle. It should also come as no surprise that he started a Sunday Bible study a few months ago in his apartment for teammates and their friends.

"It was just an idea a few of us came up with," Tebow said. "We were just going to have Bible study, and then guys came, and then we just made it a church service."

Tebow prepares notes, but he also takes requests from teammates to discuss topics relevant to them.

Joiner wakes up, grabs a glass of orange juice, and sits in on the 45-minute session most weeks.

"He talks about whatever is in the Bible," Joiner said. "Anything that can relate to life, anything that can help guys out. Sometimes he asks people who they want him to pray for, what topics do they want him to touch."

Tebow said some visitors have dedicated their lives to Jesus Christ at the service. You get the feeling that means much more to him than any touchdown ever could.

"As religious as he is, doing God's work, that's everything to him," Joiner said.

Tebow on the Field

Tebow gets asked about it. Meyer gets asked about it. Even running back Kestahn Moore gets asked about it.

Can Tebow throw?

They all answer yes resoundingly, as if to shut everyone up.

"[The coaches] seem to get asked that question quite often, and it is probably our fault because we did what we had to do to throw the ball last year," Meyer said. "But he can throw fine."

Meyer is referring to Tebow's use as a battering ram in games last year.

As a freshman, Meyer inserted Tebow into games, usually on short-yardage plays, to do the dirty work on quarterback sneaks.

After a couple plays, Tebow grabbed his headset, Leak returned to the field and the offense opened up again.

He finished the year with 89 rushing attempts and 33 passing attempts.

His highlight pass - a flick-of-the-wrist "jump pass" against LSU - worked because he faked a sneak and drew the Tigers defense into thinking he would run.

The routine worked pretty well - the Gators did win a national title - but it led to doubts as to whether Tebow could consistently throw the ball.

Forget that Tebow's name is associated with nearly every Florida High School passing record. He had not proven a thing in college.

"(I have been asked) more than I can count," Tebow said. "Everybody's going to always have doubts and critique you in a lot of different ways."

Tebow spent the better part of the off-season fixing the kinks in his throwing motion, and the finished product is a more compact delivery with less stress on his shoulder and more lower-body movement.

A visit to UF's Biomechanics and Motion Analysis Laboratory gave Tebow a scientific answer to everyone else's throwing questions.

He morphed his arm motion to reduce soreness, and the results were obvious.

"I feel like I'm a lot more consistent passer, especially on underneath routes, crossing routes, different things like that. A lot more consistent and just being accurate every time, over and over again," he said.

Tebow also added the word "sliding" to his vocabulary in the off-season. That means giving up before somebody hits you, Tim.

With two true freshmen backing him up, Tebow, who has a detailed history of injuries, cannot risk his body for an extra yard anymore.

Meyer said Tebow looked at him with "six heads" when the coach tried to introduce the concept of sliding to him.

"I think we're going to work on that a little bit, work on sliding," Tebow said. "Even in baseball, I always slid in head first."

Tebow will show off his new skills beginning Saturday afternoon against Western Kentucky in his first game as the Gators' starting quarterback. He will throw, he will run and he will probably only play two or three quarters.

"I bet we will have to calm him down. That is a concern," Meyer said. "Ever since he was a little boy he wanted to be the starting quarterback at the University of Florida and now it is here."

His first big tests come against Tennessee on Sept. 15 and an Oct. 6 trip to LSU's Death Valley. A home date with Auburn is sandwiched between those games, and to prove how far the Tebow legend reaches, just ask Auburn's stud defensive end, Quentin Groves.

"I'm cool with a lot of quarterbacks around the league," Groves said. "One guy I really want to meet is Tebow. I won't get to meet him until like the fifth game of the season, face to face or back to face."

Judging by the way he has handled constant scrutiny since the day he arrived on campus, Tebow is prepared.

"He has this one saying," Joiner said, "'Shake hands, kiss babies and make people smile.'"

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