HOOVER, Ala. — In Tim Tebow's eyes, his greatest victories will never be won on the football field.
"Taking my platform as a football player and using it for good, using it to be an influence and change people's lives, that's more important to me than football," Tebow said Wednesday afternoon in front of a hotel ballroom filled with reporters.
That devotion has had a profound effect on many, including his coach, Urban Meyer. Tebow's willingness to dedicate his spare time participating in missionary work was part of the Florida coach's decision to do the same this year.
"Tim has had an impact on me," Meyer said of his 20-year-old quarterback after a 45-minute address at the SEC Media Days. "He has done a lot of things to open my eyes and that's one of them. To hear what he does on his time off, and we're sitting on a cruise or sitting on a beach. My kids live in a very nice home, so my wife and I both felt it was something we wanted to do."
Meyer, who became more interested in the idea after a close family friend returned with pictures from a similar trip last summer, decided this was the year to do it. Meyer, wife Shelley and children Nikki (18), Gigi (15) and Nathan (9) spent time last month in the Dominican Republic on a missionary trip.
"It was a life-changing experience," Meyer, 44, said. "It's something we're going to, if possible, do every year. In your own little way you made an impact on some people."
For Tebow, the offseason included just three breaks, and he spent them all on mission trips in Croatia, Thailand and the Philippines.
"All three of those places, I got to do a lot of very neat things, preaching in prisons, in schools, in hospitals, in market places," said the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner. "I'm sure I'll get asked about the circumcisions and helping perform surgeries (in the Philippines), but it (mission work) was a great experience for me. It's something I enjoyed doing, I love doing. It's something I'm very passionate about."
During the Meyers' trip, they helped feed about 100 families daily, assisted in the construction of a medical center and visited an all girls orphanage and a leper colony.
"Pictures are different than actually going," Meyer said. "And the one thing I'll tell you that I didn't understand: When we came back from three or four villages that we went to, people were very happy. I mean, they didn't have a dime and they had struggled putting food on the table. And there wasn't a whole lot of MTV going on, and certainly no video games. But all the families were pretty much intact, mother, father, children. We fed families and I actually went out to the stores, bought the food with my kids. It was unbelievable, for an hour we went shopping, grabbing rice, beans and oil. I could do it all in my head because we did it so much. Our family walked away saying it was unbelievable to be able to help them. … But it's not like they are not happy, that was what I didn't expect. I expected extreme poverty and unhappy people. That wasn't the case."
Although Tebow was influential, Meyer said what he wanted most was a unique experience to remind his children how blessed they are. It worked.
"I've never been more proud of my children," he said. "To see them for four hours carry buckets of cement, in real hot weather, and they are covered in it and just going and going. And then they were praying with some young person who was not doing real well healthwise, I've just never been more proud of them."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.