TAMPA — His name ignites uncommon passion, both good and bad, while a mere mention of his appearance prompts people to pause and look around.
"He's going to be here?" asked Ashley Walls, a server at the Press Box, a South Tampa sports bar. "Where?"
Tim Tebow — Heisman Trophy winner, national champion, NFL comeback quarterback, Jockey spokesman, prolife promoter, America's most desired celebrity neighbor and rumored Katy Perry and Taylor Swift crush — will be in Tampa on Saturday. His appearance will be limited to about 250 members of the D1 Sports Training and Therapy center in Citrus Park, a personal training fitness center he co-owns, with membership fees of between $150 and $200 monthly.
Entire families are planning to attend, such as James Wood, 42, Casey Wood, 39, and their three kids, including 16-year-old Tristan. He's been preparing for Tebow by devouring his recent autobiography and quoting passages around the house.
"He's popular because he's real," his mother, Casey Wood, said. "Whether you agree with his beliefs or not, he stands for them and he doesn't waver. That's a rarity today."
"He brings character to the building, to the team," added Tampa Bay Buccaneers legend Derrick Brooks, also a co-owner of the training center.
Tebow was the big draw Thursday at Southeastern University's sixth annual National Leadership Forum — overshadowing former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Tickets for the Lakeland event cost between $650 and $1,500 and were nearly sold out on the morning of the event.
Later that evening, Tebow served as keynote speaker at a university fundraising dinner. Tables cost between $2,000 and $10,000. The dinner has been sold out for several months. Such is the power of Tebow.
What makes the former University of Florida star such a marketable asset and celebrity?
Experts point to strong faith, good looks, charitable endeavors and an indefatigable and infectious optimism. But something often overlooked or understated is Tebow's accessibility, said Dan Shanoff, a former ESPN writer responsible for timteblog.com.
Tebow stopped for graduation photos with students while coming back from a sweaty practice. He takes special-needs fans to dinner after every game. He circled the stadium high-fiving Denver fans after the Broncos' stunning playoff win over Pittsburgh in January.
His consistency and availability make people think they know him.
"So many different people can project themselves through him," Shanoff said. "Love winners? Love underdogs? Love leaders? Love people who work hard? Love strong displays of faith? Love humble, team-first service? He embodies it all."
Success and humility are qualities that make celebrities seem real, Shanoff said. But Tebow also captivates with the seemingly surreal. He's had a seven-touchdown game, made an inspiring, impassioned speech that was inscribed on a UF building, wept openly on camera and led a struggling Denver team to a series of dramatic come-from-behind wins.
Love him or hate him, people pay attention.
"It drives his critics nuts, but it is not hyperbole to say the public can't get enough of Tim Tebow," Shanoff said.
Justin George can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3368.