GAINESVILLE — Antonio "Tony" Dowels makes his way around the practice field with the ease and familiarity of an assistant coach.
It's clear he's not just another spectator because of the access he's given. He stakes out a good spot, then watches intently as the Gators participate in spring football drills.
When practice is over, Dowels makes his way to a spot near the front gate, where he's greeted over and over by players and coaches as they leave the field.
They grab at his hand. They pat him on the back.
And although quarterback Tim Tebow is surrounded by a small group, when he spots Dowels, he breaks free and makes his way over to chat.
Three things stand out about the 19-year-old freshman from Riverview High: his ever-present smile, his easy camaraderie with the players and his wheelchair.
But for Tebow and other Florida players, it's Dowels' always-positive outlook that draws them near any time he's around.
"It's just a blessing for other people to see him because of what he's gone through, yet he's still so happy and joyful and upbeat," Tebow said.
Said linebacker Dustin Doe: "If you talked to him on the phone, you would never know what his situation is."
That spirit has most endeared Dowels to Tebow, who met him in January. The two struck an instant friendship that includes lunches, often several times a week.
"I met him and just saw him and his energy and his passion for life, and I just loved it," Tebow said. "I see him at (the dining hall), and we just hang out. He's just got a great attitude. You wish more people were thankful for what they have, because here's a kid who has so much passion and joy for life because he knows what it's all about."
A place of comfort
There's a reason Dowels is drawn to Sanders Practice Field on the UF campus, a reason he feels such comfort among the players. He used to be one of them.
Dowels was a starting cornerback and track star at Riverview in east Hillsborough County who had aspirations of playing college ball when his life was changed forever on April 27, 2007. On his way home from a region track meet, during which he had qualified for state competition, Dowels was in a car accident.
"I fell asleep (while driving), and a semitruck was turning, and I ran underneath the semitruck, and the wheel was on top of my head," Dowels said after practice last week.
The 5-foot-9 Dowels, who once ran the 100 meters in 10.5 seconds, was pinned under the semitrailer truck on U.S. 301 for two hours. His neck was broken, and he was paralyzed from the waist down, with limited use of his hands.
After months of rehabilitation, he graduated with honors, earned an academic scholarship and enrolled at Florida in the fall, determined to make it on his own.
It hasn't been easy. But being around the football team, and helping with the men's and women's basketball squads, has helped ease his transition. His positive attitude can be attributed to his faith, he said.
"It's just all God," he said.
Dowels lives in the dorm where many freshman athletes reside, and they offer their help when needed, he said.
Everybody seems to know Dowels. And he knows everybody.
"We see him in the dining room, we see him around in classes. He's kind of, to some extent, become like a coach," said Doe, who is Dowels' cousin (their grandmothers are sisters). "He sees us, and he's like, 'Make sure you go to class,' or 'Make sure you practice hard today,' or he'll let us know what the weather is going to be like for practice and just things like that. For a guy to be in his situation, you would just never know."
Coach Urban Meyer has seen the effect Dowels has on the team, acknowledging he's an inspiration.
"I love him," Meyer said. "He's an unbelievable guy, too. I love that kid."
A source of inspiration
Generally, it's Tebow, the 21-year-old senior, who is called upon to inspire and lift the spirits of others, whether it's at a prison, a children's hospital or his father's orphanage in the Philippines.
That is why his friendship with Dowels is so special. Their lunch conversations cover a range of topics, but the central theme is appreciating what you have, no matter the circumstances.
"You know, in everything I've done, I've seen a lot of people go through some tough times, and I have the opportunity to help encourage them," Tebow said. "(Dowels is) just someone that really doesn't need all that encouragement. He's just excited about life, loves life. He's just great for people to be around, great for our team to be around."
Dowels has a slightly different take. "I wouldn't say I was inspirational," he said. "I just look at it as being guided by God."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.