Welcome to Waldo, Fla., home of a giant flea market (NORTH CENTRAL FLORIDA'S LARGEST!), a superb antiques village (OPEN 7 DAYS) and one of the most devious speed traps in the world. Over the course of a quarter mile on the way into town, the speed limit plunges from 65 mph to 35. Word is, Waldo's finest aren't real big on giving out warnings.
There, just north of the antiques village, a southbound semi sat on the shoulder on a recent July evening, its driver a picture of surliness as an officer wrote him up. Cruising past in the opposite direction in his customized white GMC van, Jim Williams issued this instruction to one of his seven passengers: "Tim, duck your head."
"Yes, sir," replied Florida quarterback Tim Tebow from his uncomfortable—and illegal—position on the floor of the vehicle. When the traveling party turned out to have one more member than the van had seats, the most valuable player on the defending national champions had insisted on being the one to ride without a seat belt.
Williams is an electrical contractor who has volunteered in the state's Department of Corrections for 35 years. He was ferrying Tebow and three other Gators to the Lawtey Correctional Institution, one of Florida's four "faith-and-character-based" prisons. There would be prayers and singing, and gospel music from the prison's own band. But the highlight of the night would be a 25-minute oration by Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, who would stress the importance of "finishing strong" and conclude with an invitation for inmates to come down from the bleachers to be his "brothers in Christ" and be born again.
"It's one of my favorite things to do," Tebow said during the drive, making it sound as if he were bound for Walt Disney World rather than this razor-wire-ribboned stalag 35 miles northeast of Gainesville. "You're talking to guys who have no hope, no support, who have been totally written off by the world."
Watching Tebow zip passes into the seams of opposing defenses, lower his shoulder in short yardage and exhort his teammates like King Henry V on St. Crispin's Day, one might think that he was put on this earth just to run coach Urban Meyer's spread offense. Watching him pace the floor of a gymnasium packed with 660 wayward men hanging on his every syllable is to realize that regardless of what position Tebow eventually plays in the NFL, and for how long, the football phase of his life is merely a means to a greater end.
The man on the other end of the line is calling from the Philippines. He has taken time from his missionary work to reply to a reporter's e-mailed questions. Now Bob Tebow has a question of his own: "Have you heard the story of Timmy's birth?"
Even if you have, it's worth hearing from the mouth of his father: "When I was out in the mountains in Mindanao, back in '86, I was showing a film and preaching that night. I was weeping over the millions of babies being [aborted] in America, and I prayed, 'God, if you give me a son, if you give me Timmy, I'll raise him to be a preacher.'" Not long after, Bob and Pam Tebow conceived their fifth child. It was a very difficult pregnancy. "The placenta was never properly attached, and there was bleeding from the get-go," Bob recalls. "We thought we'd lost him several times." Early in the pregnancy Pam contracted amebic dysentery, which briefly put her in a coma. Her doctors, fearful that medications they had given her had damaged the fetus, advised her to abort it. She refused, and on Aug. 14, 1987, Pam delivered a healthy if somewhat scrawny Timothy Richard Tebow.
"All his life, from the moment he could understand, I told him, 'You're a miracle baby,'" Bob recalls. "'God's got a purpose for you, and at some point I think He's going to call you to preach.'
"I asked God for a preacher, and he gave me a quarterback."