NEW ORLEANS — On the final night of his college football career, Tim Tebow was a handful of passes from perfection. And for some, that will be a fitting way to remember the most celebrated Gator of all.
Twelve consecutive completions to begin the night against Cincinnati. Touchdown passes to three receivers in the first half. A career-high 31 completions, and a Sugar Bowl record 482 passing yards Friday.
So for those who believed Tebow could do no wrong, here, then, was a lasting affirmation.
But in a way, that's missing the point. Tebow's career was never about gaudy statistics, though he had his share. And it was never about setting records, though he finished with a chapter full of those, too.
Tebow's appeal was something altogether different. It was visceral. It was emotional. It was based on a feeling that cannot be weighed, measured or tabulated. Tebow played the game with a craving you wished every player understood.
If you think about it, that was the Tebow who guaranteed Florida would be the hardest-working team in the nation after the Mississippi loss in 2008. That was the Tebow who showed up larger than the Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma in the national championship game later that season. And that was the Tebow who wept on the sideline when UF lost to Alabama last month to end a 22-game winning streak.
"I couldn't be happier for Tim Tebow tonight," said receiver David Nelson. "That's the real Tim Tebow you saw. He's gone through a lot this year, and I'm so proud that he could end his career this way."
By now, fewer people are talking about Tebow as the greatest college football player in history. The second Heisman never materialized. The back-to-back national championships didn't, either. The statistics leveled off after his sophomore season.
Not that you couldn't still make a case on Tebow's behalf, one worth arguing in any era. But you could probably say the same about Red Grange, Herschel Walker, Jim Thorpe and Tony Dorsett and a dozen or so other greats.
The problem is the game has changed so much through the years that statistics cannot be the ultimate measure of a player's impact. Instead, you must consider his dominance of an era. The memories he created. And the impression he left behind.
Ultimately, this is where Tebow can match his legacy against anyone's. He did not overwhelm opponents the way Barry Sanders or Earl Campbell or Walker might have. And his career passing yardage wasn't even as grand as four of UF's past five quarterbacks.
But Tebow brought something to the field beyond numbers. He brought a sense of joy. A feeling that he would get to the first-down marker if it meant leaving a limb behind. He was a leader in a day when the role-fillers are more scarce than you would imagine.
"Tim Tebow will go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, players in college football," UF coach Urban Meyer said after the game.
Meyer kept Tebow in long enough for him to break the Sugar Bowl record of 444 total yards, set by LSU's Rohan Davey. With a new record of 533 in hand, Tebow came out for UF's final series and was pulled after one play.
He hugged backup quarterback John Brantley on his way off the field and pumped fists with Meyer. Before the next play began, the fans behind the Florida bench began a sing-song chant: Thank-you-Tebow, Thank-you-Tebow.
He sheepishly raised his right hand in acknowledgement and then put on a headset to talk to coaches in the press box.
More than any other position, a quarterback is measured by his team's winning percentage. And that makes Tebow as essential as anyone in recent years.
He has talked often of his respect for Danny Wuerffel. Growing up, Tebow was infatuated with the UF star that Steve Spurrier once called the greatest quarterback in the history of college football. All these years later, Tebow's legacy stands proudly beside Wuerffel's.
During his time in Gainesville, Tebow won two SEC titles, two national championships and one Heisman Trophy. Wuerffel won four SEC titles, one national championship and one Heisman. Tebow had a 35-6 record as a starter. Wuerffel was 34-5-1.
Tebow's place in college football is now a question for those who enjoy debate. He has records, trophies and championships, and few can claim to have accomplished quite as much.
So was he the greatest player to step on a college football field? No, probably not. But I'd say the way he played was pretty close to perfection.