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UF's success is Tebow's mission

The sophomore has to lead while keeping perspective amid a flurry of preseason hype. Oh, and he hasn't even started a game yet.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
Published August 12, 2007


GAINESVILLE — Faith, family, academics, football.

When Tim Tebow is asked to list his priorities, that's the order in which they fall.

The son of missionaries who repeatedly took their five children to a Third World country so they would gain empathy for those less fortunate and an appreciation for what they have, the crux of Tebow is this: No one on the Florida football team wants to win more than he does, and no one will work harder to make that a reality, but Tebow understands there is more to life than Saturday afternoons in the Swamp.

Which makes the situation he now finds himself immersed in all the more interesting. Blessed with a 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame and a left arm so strong teammates have to tell him to back off, the sophomore quarterback already is a legend at Florida, where football is a close second to religion. Maybe first, for some fans.

He is on magazine covers, award watch lists, posters, T-shirts, Web sites ... and the list goes on. Even his teammates are stunned by the phenomenon Tebow has become.

All without starting a game.

"He does a really good job handling all the attention, but I think he gets a little too much attention for somebody who ain't did nothing yet," senior preseason All-SEC receiver Andre Caldwell said, partially poking fun at the attention. "Girls act like they can't stand next to him. I've been doing my thing all these years and I don't get none of that. But it's all good because he knows how to handle it. He takes it good. He doesn't let it get to his head, and he stays focused all the time."

As he prepares for the season opener, questions abound: How will Tebow adjust from the backup role to leader on a defending national championship team in arguably the most competitive conference in the nation? How will he handle the demands, public scrutiny and criticism that come with being one of the most visible players in the country?

Those who know him well say he'll be just fine. To understand why, you have to understand what makes Tebow who he is.

You can start with the poster on his wall.

 

Watch, word

The poster is adorned with a poem, which includes the line: "Little eyes are watching you."

"The gist of it is that little boys are watching every move he makes because they want to grow up like him," said Pam Tebow, Tim's mother. "He takes that very seriously. He's a college student, but he has it on his wall. He wants to be a faithful role model for them."

Tebow, who turns 20 on Tuesday, has patterned his behavior after that of his longtime role model, Florida Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel, also a prominent Christian athlete. Pam and husband Bob encouraged their three sons to use Wuerffel as an example of how they should live.

"Tim still has so much respect and admiration for Danny," she said. "He would really like to be that role model and hero for others that Danny was for him. That's a serious responsibility."

It's the reason he won't leave the practice field without signing autographs for anyone who asks. It's the reason he has become such a strong team presence - "You have no choice but to follow his lead," sophomore receiver Percy Harvin said. It's the reason "Tim just can't say no," coach Urban Meyer said.

Through it all, Tebow remains unchanged.

"With all the hype that's around him, he's probably the most humble guy I've ever seen, he and Percy Harvin," junior tight end Cornelius Ingram said. "Tebow is the kind of guy if you walk on campus, everybody recognizes him. One time, a couple of times, I've seen girls acting like they fainted because he walked by or either he hugged them. But the thing about Tim, he's humble. I've never seen anything go to his head."

 

Staying the course

The Bible says, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it."

The Tebows of Ponte Vedra Beach took that verse to heart with all their children. Each was home-schooled and spent many summers in the Philippines (where Tim was born and lived until he was 3) working at an orphanage. It was there that Tim learned what many fans forget four months out of the year: Football is just a game.

"It keeps you in reality," he said of his missionary trips. "Every time I go over there all the stories of those kids and the struggles they go through. You go over and spend time with them and then come back and it gives you a different perspective on how you approach everything."

Tebow believes that attitude will serve him well in places such as LSU's Death Valley in October.

"You get asked, 'How do you deal with the pressure?' " he said, "You think about it like football isn't the most important thing in the world. There are things more important every day. Going to the Philippines with my dad and being at the orphanage and hanging out with the kids and thinking if you could get your whole life wrapped up in what's going to happen on fourth down instead of thinking it is a blessing you have the athletic ability to go out there and play football, that takes a lot of pressure off. It lets you go out there and enjoy playing and having fun."

His highly competitive nature stems from being the youngest of five - all of whom are competitive, as is his father, Pam Tebow said. Tebow talks almost daily with his parents, his father tries to attend at least one practice per week. He's in contact with his siblings and brothers-in-law often. When he and his mother talk, football is rarely the subject. Pam wants to know if he's getting enough rest, about his friends and what's going on with his classes and his Bible study.

"If life was just about football, you would just go up and down, up and down," she said. "If we were as caught up in football as well, that would be hard for him. We love football and love him, but all of us realize there's more to life than football, and hopefully you have life after football."

It's that type of support system that ensures he remains just plain "Timmy."

"If he didn't have that, my job would be a lot harder trying to control the personality," offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said.

Tebow is a regular participant in the Goodwill Gators program in which student athletes make public appearances in various service projects such as reading to elementary school children and visiting sick patients at Shands. The moment Bryan Patterson met Tebow, he knew there was something special about him.

"Our athletes are put on a pedestal, and being a quarterback there's no more visible person on the team, but he stepped right in with the respect and humility second to none," said Patterson, career counselor and the Life Skills Coordinator in the Office of Student Life. "He has a genuine connection with people."

 

Rock star status

His teammates joke that Tebow is like a rock star. He reluctantly admits he can't go anywhere without being noticed. At the practice field. The airport in Manila. The restaurant or grocery store. He insists it's not a burden.

"I take it as an honor that people want to talk to you," he said. "There are not a lot of places you can go that there are not Gator fans. I'm thankful. I remember when I was young and looking up to guys. I don't want to ever treat anyone like I am better than them. If it can put a smile on someone's face, I would be willing to do that."

 

Faith and football

Faith is defined in the Bible as being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

Even without having played full time, Florida fans seem certain of what they have not seen.

Don't be surprised if their faith in Tebow is rewarded.

"He's getting all this attention, but there's a reason," Harvin said. "He's going to be a great football player, he's going to be a great leader for this team, and he's going to do great things here. Just keep watching."

Apparently, everybody already is.

 

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.