It may seem like just yesterday or 20 years ago depending on your feelings about quarterback Tim Tebow, but four years after he arrived as one of the most heralded recruits in the class of 2005, Tebow will play his final game in a Florida uniform tonight. His impact on the football field speaks for itself. He was part of two SEC and BCS title teams. He has an SEC-record 56 career rushing touchdowns and won the 2007 Heisman Trophy, the first sophomore to do so. But what Tebow wants to be remembered for most is what he stood for off the field. His Christian missionary work, his devotion to local charities, prison ministry, an orphanage in the Philippines, and the countless untold stories of children and families he embraced and inspired have made Tebow legendary.
"Everything that happened to me here has been very special," Tebow said. "It's everything, from teammates, coaches, fans, special games, opportunities to do really cool things and make a difference in kids' lives and do all those Make-A-Wish things, visit hospitals, everything. It's hard to just pick one thing. I have lots of great memories."
A red carpet moment
When 20-year-old Kelly Faughnan was diagnosed with a brain tumor in November 2008, she prepared to have surgery one month later at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and had one wish she hoped to fulfill.
"On the morning of Kelly's surgery, Katie (her sister) suggested to Kelly that she could ask Mom and Dad for anything right now, because they would likely agree to anything," Jim Faughnan said. "Recognizing a good idea when she heard it, Kelly asked whether we could all go to Disney World when the surgery was behind us. Kelly also asked whether we could go in December during the college football awards, so we could see Tim Tebow."
Jim and Janet Faughnan agreed, but they cautioned Kelly that it would most likely be impossible to see Tebow, let alone meet him.
As Kelly Faughnan stood outside a VIP area for athletes who were nominees for the Home Depot College Football Awards at a reception, an ESPN producer saw her sign saying, "I love Tim Tebow" and invited her to come into the room, assuming Tebow would sign an autograph, pose for a picture and move on. Instead, he spent about 45 minutes talking with her and her family. Then Tebow invited her to walk the red carpet with him at the awards ceremony — which was aired on live television.
"He truly is making a great impact on many people's lives," Jim Faughnan said.
For the past year, Florida assistant director of communications Denver Parler has had the primary responsibility of handling Tebow's media and charitable obligations. When Parler arrived, he says he was curious about Tebow — having heard so much about him.
"It's really unbelievable," Parler said. "For me being on the outside the first few years (of Tebow's career at Florida), I was probably like a lot of people and saying, 'Is this guy really for real?' All you hear about it, there's always a little bit of skepticism. But then I got here, and I spent a lot of time around him this year, and it's staggering how real he is. For someone who does a job like me, you're dealing with some difficult personalities sometimes. With him, I was almost like, 'Snap at me, be late, don't show up for something.' He's so reliable, so respectful, so patient all the time. He's everything as advertised."
Others before self
Before Tebow came into his life, Florida coach Urban Meyer says that the idea of a mission trip was just that — an idea. With Tebow's encouragement, Meyer and his family have participated in a summer mission trip, and the coach said Tebow's lasting impact on the Florida program — and college football — will be that he made sacrifice and service to others important for 18- to 22-year-olds.
"I think he's had the same impact on me he's had on college football, I know he's had (an impact) on my children," Meyer said. "The one thing about Tim is his unselfishness, and his mission outside of college football is unparalleled as far as I'm concerned. The impact that he's made, it's almost like selflessness is now a cool thing. Kids realizing to give back. And if you can brighten someone's day, you do it. The impact that he's made on this team is phenomenal. … It's very noticeable behind closed doors, more than probably what you guys see. It's a significant impact."
A tireless worker
You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who has spent more time with Tebow over the past four years than Mickey Marotti, Florida's director of strength and conditioning. When the coaching staff isn't allowed to hang around players, Marotti is. He's available year-around, and players take advantage of that. In 23 years in the business, Marotti has worked with a lot of players. None, he said, compares with Tim Tebow.
"You've heard all the stories about the off-the-field stuff, going overseas, and that one spring break when he was helping kids at the hospital. But the thing about Tim that keeps amazing me is no matter where he goes and what he does, he's always training to be a better player. At the Heisman, we went up there and he immediately grabbed me, and he was like, 'Coach Mic, I was working out with (Alabama running back Mark) Ingram and all the boys. It was great.' That's what he was fired up about. And when he went over to the Philippines or wherever he was going, he was always in a hotel or an airport training. He's just always trying to get better. That's the thing that impresses me the most about him."
From the moment he arrived on the college scene, Tebow made his mark, one many believe will remain indelible.
"In my lifetime, not to make this an overdramatic comment, but I don't know if I've ever seen a guy have as big an impact on a powerhouse program as I've seen from Tim Tebow from Day 1," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "I think GameDay was down at LSU-Florida his first year, as a freshman and you hear about Tim Tebow, but you hear about a lot of guys. I remember when he took the field for a third and short with Chris Leak as the starting quarterback, and he pushed that entire defense back 5 yards. I had never seen a stadium react to a player like that. I said to (Chris) Fowler it's like he's Roy Hobbs from the movie The Natural. It's been a love affair from that point on."