ATLANTA — In his final act, the legend became ordinary once again.
He struggled. He blundered. He grew impatient. He did all of those things we have seen so often in athletes of lesser standing. And when it became obvious the end was near, Tim Tebow began to weep on the University of Florida sideline.
The moment was captured on the video board at the Georgia Dome early Saturday evening, and the Alabama fans at the Southeastern Conference Championship Game roared their approval.
The reaction was natural, I suppose. Tebow had seemingly been too perfect for too long, and the time had come for another kind of story to be told. And so, as confetti fell on Alabama, Tebow walked red-eyed away from the greatest loss he has ever known.
"What you saw was the passion of Tim Tebow," Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "He has a passion for life. A passion for this game. That's just who he is. That's why he has been, and will continue to be, successful in life. He's a very special person."
He will have another game in a Gator uniform. Probably in the Sugar Bowl against Cincinnati. But that will be a ceremonial finish. An epilogue to an uncommon career.
The true end came here, in a game that ended the nation's longest winning streak, ended Florida's hopes for repeating as national champion, and probably ended Tebow's chances at winning a second Heisman Trophy.
His will still go down as having one of the finest careers college football has ever known, but this single afternoon kept Tebow from potentially reaching heights never seen before.
"We've had a good year," Tebow said in a near-empty Florida locker room. "But this one hurts a lot."
In the end, he was outplayed by a largely nondescript quarterback. Alabama's Greg McElroy was everything Tebow was not Saturday. McElroy was in control. He was accurate. He found the open receiver just about every time he dropped back in the pocket.
This game may have done more to undermine Tebow's NFL prospects than any he has played this season.
The Tide's strategy was to take the scramble away from Tebow and force him to be a dropback passer.
For whatever reason, Tebow did not respond well. Without the threat of the run and without NFL-quality receivers, Tebow looked like an ordinary quarterback. For the most part, he had time in the pocket. He just never found any rhythm with his receivers.
Tebow finished with 247 yards passing and another 63 rushing, but his statistics were largely meaningless. When it mattered most, he stumbled. And when Florida had a last shot at getting back in the game, he threw an interception in the end zone.
Not that this loss was all Tebow's doing.
Alabama was not just the better team Saturday; it was the smarter team. The Tide coaches had the better game plan. They orchestrated a more disciplined game. They made the Gators look ragged and confused.
And nearly an hour after the game was finished, Tebow still wore a look of disbelief. A gray suit hung from a hook in his locker, but instead he put on a T-shirt and sweat pants. On his wrists were nearly a dozen bracelets he has collected through his time at Florida.
The bracelets signify different organizations and ideals important to Tebow. One is for the Taylor Haugen Foundation, named after a Niceville 15-year-old who died last year after his liver was lacerated during a prep football game.
Tebow never met Haugen but was moved by the stories he heard from the teenager's friends, teammates and opponents. This year, Tebow presented an award in the young man's honor and spoke of how he hoped his own legacy could somehow match Haugen's. He said he hoped to be remembered not for his accomplishments on the field but for the lives he touched.
"Obviously I'm emotional, as you can see, after games. And this means a lot to me. But at the end of the day, it's not really what matters," Tebow said after Saturday's game. "Stories like that, and people like that, are what matters. That's why you can walk away holding your head high, because of things like that.
"We're playing a game. Although it's extremely important and it's fun, and we put hours and days and weeks into it, but it's still just a game."
Later, Tebow walked out of the locker room with a police escort by his side. A few steps down the hallway, he was stopped by a young boy who asked if he could have his picture taken with him.
Tebow nodded, stopped and dropped his gym bag on the floor. He leaned over and threw his arm around the boy's shoulder as he looked toward the camera.
And then Tim Tebow smiled.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]