Updated: Jul 10
With so much despair and bad news in sports–and for that matter the world—lately, Kassidy Hill wanted to take some time this week to look back on one of her favorite sports memories, with a favorite Florida Gator.
BY: KASSIDY HILL
They say to never meet your heroes.
It can only go badly and ruin the illusion.
As a sports reporter, we’re taught to be unbiased; to not be affected by meeting celebrities and athletes and never—under any circumstances—act like a fan.
I broke both of these rules simultaneously the first night I met Tim Tebow.
I had been in Gainesville for a little over a month and was already frustrated it had taken so long to meet the guy who had captured the hearts of a nation, mine included. I didn’t grow up a Florida Gators fan. I hail from an Auburn Tigers household. But in high school, Tebow caught my attention like he did so many others. I already had Florida on my short list of dream schools and couldn’t wait for the day to move to Gainesville and begin covering this exciting player and team.
Of course by the time I finally made it to the Sunshine State (thanks to an internship with WCJB TV20 Sports), Tebow was in the NFL. But when checking the New York Jets schedule and realizing he would be playing in his hometown of Jacksonville the first weekend of December, I convinced our sports director that we needed to go cover Timmy’s homecoming. It wasn’t a hard sell. Tebow could go through a drive-thru for lunch and it’d be the most popular story of the day for any Florida outlet.
Another sports reporter at the station—a recent UF graduate—asked to come with me, so the two of us hit the road early one Sunday. We had not really gotten to know each other before that day, but the adrenaline of meeting one of both of our heroes would prove to be a bonding moment that made us best friends still to this day.
Local TV can’t film regular season NFL matchups, so Zach and I had to spend the entire game in the press box. As the clock ticked by, the crowd called for Tebow. Residents who had never attended a Jaguars game before packed into the stadium to watch their favorite son. Tebow didn’t play a single snap. Yet still no one cared, because he was simply there.
That was the mood in the press box as well. This group of hardened, weathered and often cynical sports reporters were on edge. They were trying to stay professional and focused…but so many of them had covered Tebow in high school or college. Some covered him in both. And for as many times they might grumble about players, they can’t help but speak with awe when talking about Tebow.
The game concluded (I honestly don’t even remember who won; that wasn’t why we were there) and the press corps raced to the locker rooms. A few nobly went to the Jaguars locker room to, you know, do their job. But most went to the Jets doors.
Knowing that there was about to be a mad dash when the doors opened, Zach and I worked our way to the front. We stood in the way of the door. There was no way they could be opened all the way without us first stepping through. He shouldered the massive camera, I took the mic and we prepared ourselves…and waited. And waited. And waited.
Finally the doors swung open and we raced inside.
If you’ve never been in a locker room after a game, there are certain rules, especially for female reporters. Eyes up, head straight to where you need to go without lingering and, most importantly, ignore the smell. Lockers are typically arranged by position group, so adhering to the eyes up rule, I quickly worked my way through, weaving in and out players in various state of postgame rituals, dragging Zach along behind my, tethered together by the mic cord. Finally, at the very back of the locker room, we spotted him.
He was at the other end of the room so after jumping around some offensive linemen and tripping over their bags more than once, Zach and I arrived at Tebow’s locker with all the panache of a drunk giraffe. But we were smiling and excited and Tebow couldn’t help but laugh as we announced ourselves.
In retrospect, our exuberance caused us to barrel into the locker room too early. After composing his shock at this bumbling TV duo falling into his locker area, he politely excused himself to go shower. So again we waited. But again, we stayed at the front. When the man of the hour without a single stat to his name for the day came back, the gaggle had exploded into a crowd typically only reserved for quarterbacks after winning a National Championship…which technically Tebow was, just four years removed.
For the next twenty minutes, he held court, thoughtfully answering each question that circled around the one topic of being back home. Being the closest to him, I was able to get the most questions in and when the corps began to disperse, I turned to follow Zach out before Tebow stopped us to thank us for the “good questions.”
It was nothing more than a rope, a way for the guy who we idolized to pay us a compliment he sensed would matter. And he was right. The comment led to a short conversation in which we introduced ourselves and he asked about our lives. Zach, in a moment I still tease him about to this day, was nervous enough that the only conversation topic he could land on was the lunch fare both had eaten in one of the UF food courts. But Tebow rolled with it, laughing along.
If you remember from above, you’re not supposed to act like a fan. In that moment though, I didn’t care. I asked for a picture and a Jets PR rep came flying in, his eagle PR ears tuned to an improper request.
“You can’t do that in the locker room mam. You know that.”
“Ok,” I replied dejected, playing up the puppy dog look.
“It’s ok,” interjected Tebow. “Come back, it’s ok.”
The PR staff member tried again to say no. But Tebow took the phone out of my hand, gave it to Zach and said take the picture.
I’m not proposing you break the rules or overstep boundaries that are in place for a reason. But sometimes—to quote one of my favorite movies—you’ve gotta risk it to get the biscuit. I can look back at that picture now and remember a night I met a hero. I can see how far I’ve come as a reporter. And I can laugh at how far we’ve both come.
The next time I saw Tebow was a few weeks later at Florida’s Sugar Bowl appearance in New Orleans. He remembered me and our brief, honestly insignificant conversation from the locker room which at the time seemed like the greatest compliment in the world. I would come to realize over the next few years, that’s just who he is…which doesn’t negate the weightiness of his actions. If anything, it speaks to what sets Tim Tebow apart from other Florida legends, other athletes and for that matter, other people.
My father says if you’re on fire, people will come just to watch you burn. Tebow has always been on fire. As a result, others just want to be around him, looking to see what has him inspired and hoping to soak up his warmth. And each time, he manages to make that person feel special. He can remember names like no one I’ve ever seen, and each time I run into him now, it’s like running into an old friend. And I know that he makes every single person feel that way.
When Tebow was at Florida, he enraptured a fan base and a college football nation. As he went on to the NFL, baseball, SEC Nation, the Tim Tebow Foundation and life outside of this Gators bubble, he did the same with entire swaths of the population. His inherent goodness has led some to question it; no one can really be that good of a person can they? And meeting him—meeting your hero—would surely ruin the illusion, wouldn’t it?
Tim Tebow is that good of a person. He’s genuine, filled with the love of Christ he hopes to impart to others and truly enjoys the company of others.
There are many great Florida Gator representatives. Countless men and women who have come through the program and gone on to become a beacon for Gators in the outside world. In my eight years covering the Florida Gators program, I’ve gotten to meet many of them. I’m highly blessed and grateful. But for my vote, none will ever be more impressive than Tim Tebow. He’s the bar by which all other Gators will be and should be measured. And he’s the earned the title as the Gator’s most beloved alum. He could easily one day take on the title currently held by Steve Spurrier, Ambassador to UF. The school and program would be lucky to have him in such a role.
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know Tim Tebow him a lot better. I consider him a friend. I don’t trip over offensive lineman’s bags any longer to talk with him or his delightful wife Demi. But I do still think fondly about that night in Jacksonville.
As Zach and I left, we practically skipped through the parking lot. In fact, I think we did in actuality, skip. It was a high we rode for weeks.
Because we had met our hero. And he surpassed all expectations.