A freshman's knack for spectacular plays has made him an instant legend in Gainesville
Posted: Thursday January 11, 2007 11:04AM; Updated: Thursday January 11, 2007 11:04AM
Tebow's skills should make him an offensive force as a starter.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
By Andrew Lawrence
If it's true that the most popular player on any football team is the backup quarterback, then Tim Tebow has the Internet to thank for making him into a cult figure. You'd be hard-pressed to find another college freshman who could inspire so many YouTube tributes (more than 20), boast as many MySpace friends (some 4,100) or beget as extensive a collection of hyperbole touting his toughness, attitude and masculinity (think Chuck Norris). An example: You can lead a horse to water. Tim Tebow can make him drink. Another: When the bogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks the closet for Tim Tebow. That the 6'3", 229-pound freshman quarterback continues to abide the punch lines -- often retold on placards around the Swamp -- is either a credit to his good humor ... or a testament to his mercy. Because, well, you shouldn't let his Colgate grin and easygoing demeanor fool you, says linebacker Brandon Spikes. "He's got a screw loose."
Like the bogeyman, opposing defensive coordinators have also had trouble getting sleep since Tebow touched down in Gainesville. Tebow's threat to pass or run (a style one coach described as "rock 'em, sock 'em") has made him an absolute nightmare to game-plan against in short-yardage situations and in the red zone, where he is most often deployed. Not only did his eight rushing touchdowns lead the team this season but also his 469 yards trailed only starting tailback DeShawn Wynn's 699 -- remarkable for a 19-year-old true freshman meted an average of just 10 snaps a game. What's more, Tebow's rushing total came on 89 carries at a Gators-best 5.3 yards per. His penchant for stiff-arming through would-be tacklers calls to mind another Tebowism: You don't hit Tim Tebow. Tim Tebow hits you. "He's one of the toughest human beings I've ever been around," says Gators coach Urban Meyer, and "probably the best runner we've got."
Tebow can toss it too. The southpaw passer completed 66.7% of his throws for 358 yards and five touchdowns -- none of them more memorable than the one-yard, double-clutch, alley-oop pass he chucked to tight end Tate Casey in the first half of a 23-10 victory over LSU. Afterward even Meyer had trouble remembering the last time he'd seen such a play. "Did they have video back in 1913?" he joked. "I think that's where we got that play from."
Tebow's flair for the spectacular never failed to leave Gators fans wanting more -- never mind if it meant seeing a little less of Chris Leak. Florida's alltime leading passer, Leak found himself making room for Tebow in the game plan in a senior season in which many expected he'd be making room on his mantel for the Heisman. (He wasn't even a finalist.) Florida only benefited from his sacrifice as the double threat of Leak and Tebow set the table for a 13-1 record, an SEC championship and Florida's first national title since 1996. "It's all about winning," Leak says -- which is why Meyer was so quick to dismiss any talk of a quarterback controversy as tall tales. "I've actually been around some people where it wouldn't have worked," says Meyer, but "they're both high-character people." And each player understands his role. "Chris has never stormed into my office and said, 'O.K., on fourth-and-one I need to run the [isolation] play right up the middle,'" says offensive coordinator and QB coach Dan Mullen. "He'll look at me and say, 'It looks pretty good for Tim.'"
When you consider Tebow's age, command of Meyer's spread offense and the promising young cast that surrounds him, it's no wonder fans are giddy about the Gators' prospects of a repeat. Credit modesty for keeping Tebow from getting ahead of himself, as ego has never been part of the Tebow ethos. A devout Christian, he grew up on a farm in west Jacksonville, the youngest of five siblings. He spent his high school summers on family missions in the Philippines working alongside his father, Bob, an evangelist, to care for orphans -- an experience Tim describes as life-changing. "You'd see people in Dad's orphanage who had nothing, no material things at all, yet they were so happy to see you," he says. "That'll keep you humble."
It's enough to make more recent notions like Superman wearing Tim Tebow pajamas not seem all that far-fetched.