It's a good line, and a welcome injection of levity from a man who takes his religion very seriously. But it's fast becoming obsolete. Having covered Tim for three years, I would say he's the most effective ambassador-warrior for his faith I've come across in 25 years at SI.
Why? A big reason, Tebow believes, is his style of play. A lot of otherwise jaded inmates "respect the way I play the game," he speculates, "so they'll keep an open mind, give me a chance." As Florida State coach Bobby Bowden noted after watching number 15 carry half his defense into the end zone on a touchdown run last season, Tebow "brings a little Bronko Nagurski to the quarterback position."
But while Tebow will happily discuss his religion, he has no use for the hard sell. That's not his style. "He's not going to come up and force anything on you," says David Nelson, the Florida senior wideout who accompanied Tebow to Lawtey along with Gators cornerbacks Adrian Bushell, a freshman, and sophomore Janoris Jenkins, and who introduced Tebow to the prisoners. "He wants people to see what he believes through his actions. He wants them to say, 'I see the way you live your life, the passion you have, the fun you have, and I want what you've got.'"
It helps that Tebow does not resemble the dour ascetics of Grant Wood's iconic painting American Gothic. When he wasn't saving souls or signing autographs at Lawtey, Tebow was chatting up prison officials and their wives and children or cracking wise with Nelson. (The wideout's passion for spreading the word rivals Tebow's, while Bushell and Jenkins were making their first prison visit at the strong urging of their quarterback.)
At a time when Americans are leaving organized religion in large numbers, according to a 2008 Pew Research poll, Tebow is leading his own personal counterinsurgency. "Every Sunday we have a service for our players and their families," says Meyer, who remembers when "three or four kids would show up. Now the room's full." Since Tebow's arrival on campus, and in large part because of him, Florida has launched a series of community-service initiatives. Even as the football program has suffered an embarrassing string of arrests, the number of hours players devote to charitable causes has dramatically increased. "Our community service hours are completely off the charts," says Meyer, who describes his quarterback's influence on the team as "phenomenal."
Only slightly less remarkable was the decision by Meyer and his family last summer to take a Tebow-inspired missionary trip to the Dominican Republic. It had begun to prey on Meyer's conscience that he luxuriated on a cruise ship or sat on a beach while his starting quarterback spent his vacation working in a Filipino slum. Thus did the Meyer clan sign on for six days of servitude in the Dominican—and end up loving it. "Tim has done a lot of things to open my eyes," says the coach, "and that's one of them."
Even Meyer would admit, however, that the Tebow Effect can be disruptive. Various Gators assistants were approaching DefCon 1 in the hours before last January's BCS title game against Oklahoma: Fifteen or so players were not in their rooms at the team hotel and couldn't be found. It turned out they'd been summoned to Tebow's room, where the quarterback admitted that the immense pressure of the looming title game had begun to distract him, wear him down. Thumbing through his Bible (the one with timmy inscribed on the cover), he'd chanced upon a passage in Matthew that gave him a measure of calm and that he wanted to share with them: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
The verses had the desired effect, relaxing the assembled Gators so much that a kind of impromptu revival meeting broke out. Soon the entire group had broken into song. Casting his mind back to that day, Tebow recalls informing his teammates that they would beat the Sooners "not because we're the better team or because we've worked harder," although he believed those things were true. "We're going to win because we're going to handle it the right way, we're going to be humble with it, with God leading us."
So it struck a discordant note to see this Christian warrior flagged for a penalty following a 13-yard run late in the fourth quarter. Rather than turn away after a fusillade of profanity from Oklahoma safety Nic Harris, Tebow says, "I let the Gator speak for me." His theatrical Gator chomp in the direction of Harris drew what is believed to be the first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty of his life. It isn't always the Almighty speaking through Tebow, it turns out. Sometimes it's an oversize reptile.
The Tebows moved from the Philippines to Florida when Tim was three. He grew up country strong, doing chores on the family's 44-acre spread outside Jacksonville. All five of the Tebow children were homeschooled by Pam, the daughter of an Army colonel. To meet Pam is to understand where Tim gets much of his mental toughness. Pam emphasized selflessness and compassion—lessons underscored during the kids' annual summer visits to the Philippines, where they worked in their father's ministry. Founded in 1985, the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association boasts a staff of 45 Filipino pastors who have preached the Gospel to more than 15 million. The ministry has also helped start 10,000 churches and opened an orphanage that houses more than 50 children.