In his left hand, the little guy on stage wearing the white T-shirt and the two-sizes-too-big University of Florida football helmet holds a red plastic cup — the kind you’d find at any decent keg party or backyard barbecue. With his right hand, he grabs the microphone.
“This should be interesting,” Kenny Chesney says, as his guitar player strums the first few licks of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.” As the axman reaches the part where Jimi would sing “I’m standing next to a mountain,” the 5-foot-nothing Chesney is standing next to a mountain. A 6'3", 234-pound hunk of granite emerges from stage left, Gator chomping in time to the music. The Chesney fans of Gainesville, Fla., needed only eight minutes to snap up all 400 tickets available for their man’s show at Common Grounds Coffee House this night in March, but at this moment, an artist who has sold 25 million albums is a mere supporting player in yet another Totally True Tale of Tim Tebow.
You heard this one, right? Chesney called Tebow, Florida’s sophomore quarterback, on stage, looked at the crowd and said, “OK. We’re going to sing something. I think we should let Tim do an a capella song for everybody.” And the crowd chanted “Te-Bow! Te-Bow! Te-Bow!” Then, Chesney huddled with Tebow and Butch Rowley, the versatile walk-on who holds for the Gators’ field goals and extra points. And the trio turned around, and Chesney spoke. “He says he wants to sing ‘Tractor,’” Chesney said to deafening applause.
And the band played, Chesney raised the microphone toward Tebow, who confirmed that, yes, indeed, “She thinks my tractor’s sexy.” After the show, Tebow and Rowley and a couple of other football players hopped on Chesney’s tour bus, and the group partied all the way to Key West. You heard that last part, right? It was on the Internet. It must be true. All the way to Key West.
According to Tebow, the truth ends at “sexy.”
That’s the problem with becoming a superhero before your 19th birthday. The True Tales become tall tales in a hurry. Here’s another whopper that’s been circulating since Tebow committed to Florida in December 2005. He can’t throw. Sure, he can stiffarm a linebacker clear out of Florida Field, but he fires every pass at 100 mph and couldn’t throw a fade if his life depended on it.
Funny, but that sure looked like a fade that dropped over the shoulder of cornerback Markihe Anderson and into the hands of receiver Louis Murphy for a touchdown during Florida’s spring game in April. That would be the game in which Tebow completed 15-of-22 first-half passes for 203 yards, led his team to four touchdowns in its first five possessions and delivered zero stiffarms. The performance prompted Gators coach Urban Meyer to issue the following declaration:
“He’s ready to go,” Meyer said after the spring game. “Tim Tebow is ready to go play quarterback at Florida.”
Still, every Tebow throw from now until he graduates will be dissected like the Zapruder film. Tebow was a cult hero before he arrived on campus in January 2006. When he crashed through the left side of the line to gain two yards on fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter at Tennessee on Sept. 16, he morphed into a genuine cultural phenomenon. Fans launched Web sites and printed T-shirts (Tim Tebow is My Homeboy) to praise the home-schooled evangelist’s son who would help deliver the Gators back to college football’s Promised Land. But that was when Tebow was the backup to Chris Leak, who, with considerable help from Tebow, did lead the Gators back to college football’s Promised Land.
Even after Florida won the national title, the pressure on the young southpaw mounted. Wait until Tim Tebow starts, fans said. He’ll be the greatest ever. Against Western Kentucky on Sept. 1, Tebow will emerge from the tunnel at Florida Field as the Gators’ starter. He’ll carry with him the hopes and dreams of a fan base that believes he can do anything.
Have you heard the Tim Tebow Facts? Tebow has. “I’ve heard that one about ‘Chuck Norris wears Superman pajamas.’ They changed it to Tim Tebow,” Tebow says. “Some people printed them out and brought them to the training room one day.” Not exactly, Timmy. According to TimTebowFacts.com, which borrows shamelessly from a Web site devoted to action star Norris, “Superman wears Tim Tebow pajamas.” Also, “When it rains in The Swamp, Tim Tebow doesn’t get wet. The rain gets Tim Tebow’d.”
Tebowmania is easy to understand. The guy doesn’t look like a home-schooler. He looks as if he graduated summa cum laude from Central Casting High. He’s got the blue eyes, the buzz cut, the rock jaw. His faith is unshakable, but he doesn’t flaunt it. He peppers his sentences with the word “awesome,” he says “yes sir” and “no ma’am” and he genuinely doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. On the field, he never backs down from a tackler.
Mothers pray their daughters will bring him home for pot roast night. Fathers pray their sons will grow up to be like him. Linebackers pray he won’t connect with that stiffarm.
Tebow can laugh off all this. It takes him five times as long as his teammates to get from the practice field to the locker room because of all the autograph seekers, but he signs nearly every football, T-shirt or hat thrust at him. He poses for every picture, even though he knows that if he takes a picture with a pretty girl, the blogosphere will rate his “new girlfriend” and the photo will circle the planet in a matter of hours. Tebow considers the pressure and the adulation parts of the package he signed up for when he chose Florida.
“I know how much I like Danny Wuerffel and a lot of the other quarterbacks that have been here. Of course, I’m not on that level like that yet,” Tebow says. “You’re still the Gator quarterback, and people look up to you just because of your position. That makes you feel good, but you’ve still got to go out there and prove it.”
Maybe Tebow was born to play quarterback at Florida, even though he sometimes plays like a nose tackle who has been handed the football. That brings up another Totally True Tale. Surely you’ve heard it. As a senior playing for Ponta Vedra Beach Nease High in the Class 4A state title game against Seffner Armwood, Tebow successfully begged his coach to let him play nose tackle on a late fourth-down play with Nease up a touchdown.
Forget the Web sites. Forget the T-shirts. Forget the duet with Kenny Chesney. That particular Tebow tale explains why Florida offensive tackle Jason Watkins said this of Tebow in October 2006: “I haven’t seen anybody like that. That’s not a regular person. Something is wrong with him. It’s something in his genes.” Watkins, of course, means “wrong” in the nicest possible way, but he’s dead on about the genes. Tebow’s father, Bob, confirms that basketball games involving Tim and his two brothers typically devolve into wrestling matches. “There are no fouls in our family games,” says the man who runs a mission that annually exports Americans to preach the gospel in the Philippines.
Because he earned their respect with his competitive streak, Tebow’s teammates don’t mind that women swoon and men punch each other in the arms every time Tebow walks past. Tebow’s teammates believe in him as fervently as Florida’s fans. If they didn’t know him so well, they might even believe he hopped on Chesney’s tour bus and partied his way down to Key West. Sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint where the Totally True Tales of Tim Tebow stop and where the tall tales begin. That’s how it goes for living legends — even the ones who have yet to take their first snap as a starter.
This piece originally appeared in our 2007 SEC annual. Each week we'll take a look back at some features from the Athlon Archive.