GAINESVILLE — He can't remember exactly the first time he stood inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to cheer for the Gators because, well frankly, Tim Tebow's memory just doesn't go back that far.
The Florida quarterback's first memory of attending a Gators game dates to the days when he traveled from Jacksonville to Gainesville with his family to watch the Danny Wuerffel-led teams play from 1994 to 1996.
The first games Tebow remembers were when he was 7 or 8 years old. The Gators were his favorite team. And Wuerffel was his childhood sports idol and role model.
It didn't get any better than a Saturday afternoon at the Swamp back then.
"Just having an opportunity to watch Danny probably," Tebow said this week, talking about his favorite memory. "Danny Wuerffel was a big role model for me, someone I really liked. That was really fun."
Little did Tebow know then that he'd grow up and follow in Wuerffel's footsteps — become a star Florida quarterback, win a Heisman Trophy and lead his team to a national title.
Four years after he arrived in Gainesville to begin what has been an unprecedented career with the Gators, this afternoon, with more than 90,000 fans in attendance, Tebow will run out onto Florida Field and play his final game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Thousands of fans are expected to wear the quarterback's trademark eye black with a biblical scripture written on it to honor Tebow's legacy. And everyone, from coach Urban Meyer to Tebow's teammates, expects the senior's farewell game against rival Florida State to be extremely emotional.
"There are going to be a lot of tears in the stands seeing No. 15 run off the field the last time," senior receiver David Nelson said. "I'm sure Coach Meyer will be a little teared up for that. It's going to be an emotional day, just for everything he's worked for and everything he's done since he's been here. It all kind of wraps up with his last home game in the Swamp."
Actually there's more. The Gators still have an SEC Championship Game next week, then a bowl game. But there's no denying that today's game will mark the end of an era like Florida fans have never seen. And possibly won't again.
He is the first sophomore to win a Heisman Trophy and a two-time recipient of the Maxwell Award for the nation's best all-around player. He holds four NCAA, 12 SEC and 24 school records. None of which has surprised teammate Ryan Stamper.
Tebow and Stamper met in 2005. Tebow was Jacksonville's Florida Times-Union offensive player of the year; Stamper earned that honor on defense. When Stamper learned that Tebow had signed with the Gators in 2006, he knew success was on the way.
"Just talking to him and seeing the kind of person he was let me know we're going to win a lot of football games when he gets here," Stamper said.
While Tebow's accomplishments on the field have been history-making, his community service and Christian missionary work has become legendary, particularly among Florida fans.
"It's great to see somebody have the level of success that he's had on the football field, and then also be this incredible role model for a lot of young kids," Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan said. "And be the competitor that he is and do it in a classy way. I don't know all the history of college football, but it would be hard to argue that there has been a player or players that have had a more illustrious career as he's had. The thing that makes it such an even better story is the type of kid he is, too. There are not of lot of guys like that walking around."
Tebow will play his final game in the stadium where he once looked up to other Gators players in awe.
"(I remember) just as a little kid, being able to see the Gators, how big they were, how fast they were," he said. "I still have the football and a hat from a fan day that I came to to get all those guys to sign. I remember standing next to Donnie Young and Jeff Mitchell. The picture's still in my room, how small I was standing next to those guys. That was the coolest thing, just being a Gator fan and being able to be part of them, cheering them on and hearing how loud the Swamp was, just singing the chants, all of it. Just the environment, how cool it was. That's what made it so special."
Today, he'll get an opportunity to create one final, special memory in the stadium where he first dreamed of wearing orange and blue more than a decade ago.
"I'll try to prepare myself," Tebow said. "I'm going to try not to think about it, to be honest with you, too much. It'll just probably happen. It'll just probably be pretty emotional, pretty exciting, overwhelming to say the least.
"I'm excited about it. Kind of sad it's my last opportunity, but also excited that it'll be that special moment, too."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3389. Check her blog at blogs.tampabay.com/gators.