If Not For Timmy
No matter the temperature, Robyn Clarke’s days in Newnan, Georgia, were spent in jeans.
The constant fear of judgement engulfed her and insecurities wrapped around her – just like the plastic braces that supported her legs.
Clarke believed that if she concealed the supports with denim, they wouldn’t be the first thing everyone noticed about her.
“For months, I had always wore jeans to hide my braces because I didn’t want anyone to see them,” Clarke said. “And that day, it was the first time that I had worn shorts in months.”
But that day in March of 2015 proved to be different.
Heading south to Jacksonville would mean warmer weather. But that never deterred Clarke from wearing jeans in the past. And on that spring day, it wasn’t even the warm temperatures that encouraged her… it was the oncoming warm reception.
“I wasn’t nervous about wearing (shorts) because I knew he wouldn’t care about my braces,” Clarke said.
And Clarke’s gut instinct was absolutely correct.
In a sea of spectators, Tim Tebow found Clarke clutching on to her metal walker – which had become another source of insecurity through the years.
Looking past the walker and plastic orthotics, the former Florida Gator Heisman winner wrapped Clarke in a hug. “I’m so glad you’re here,” he told her.
“He made me feel so comfortable,” Clarke says. “It’s like, if he doesn’t see my walker, then maybe not everyone does.”
Naturally, the brief interaction was one Clarke and her family would never forget. But expecting Tebow, who signed countless autographs that day, to remember her was a lot to ask.
Nonetheless, he remembered.
“I caught sight of a blond-haired young lady. She was leaning on a walker. Even through the crowd I could see metal braces that covered her legs,” Tebow wrote in his book “Shaken”. “She seemed peaceful, content, oblivious to the people behind and in front of her who were trying to push their way toward the front of the line.”
Months later, Tim Tebow’s W15H Foundation granted Clarke an entire weekend to cultivate the friendship she and Tebow had started in March.
Alabama was visiting Georgia in Athens, Georgia, and SEC Nation was on-site for the top-10 matchup.
Prior to the game, Clarke and her family were treated to dinner with Tebow, a trip to the spa and a tour of the College Football Hall of Fame – with plenty of attention paid to Clarke’s admiration of the Florida Gators.
“They made me and my family feel like we were the celebrities,” Clarke told GatorBait. “And going home and having to go back to real life was kind of like having to come out of some sort of dream sequence.”
With more time to get to know one another, Tebow learned more about what Clarke had gone through in her 15 years of living with Cerebral Palsy. But specifically one run-in with a seventh-grade classmate of hers.
Clarke will tell you that the first time she realized orthopedics and weekly physical therapy wasn’t something everyone went through, was when one of her classmates commented on the way she walked.
In their conversations during her W15H weekend, Clarke revealed that these types of insecurities were becoming overwhelming:
“The constant stares at her walker reminded her in a painful way that she wasn’t normal,” Tebow writes in “Shaken”. “I tried my best to encourage her. ‘Robyn, normal is average. Being different is what makes you special and can give you the courage to treat others special,’ I said, as her eyes brimmed with tears. ‘God loves you, and you don’t have to worry about anything else.’.”
On that day, Tebow helped Clarke move forward – the same way he helped Boomer Hornbeck move forward on September 5, 2009.
Chances are, you’ve seen Hornbeck. But it’s time you get to know the young, wheelchair bound boy in the widely-circulated picture.
The Gators were hosting Charleston Southern. It was Tebow’s last season-opener in The Swamp. And waiting for him on the field was seven-year-old Boomer.
The two had met briefly before pregame warmups had gotten underway when Urban Meyer introduced Hornbeck to the entire team.
Months prior, Hornbeck met Meyer at a speaking engagement in Naples.
“Tell Tim I said hi,” Hornbeck told Meyer in May of 2009.
“Why don’t you tell him yourself?,” Meyer replied.
Except, when Hornbeck did finally meet Florida’s Heisman winner, he had a lot more on his mind than just saying hi.
When Meyer extended an invitation to Hornbeck to meet Tebow at the season opener, Hornbeck offered something in return:
“Next time I see you, you’re gonna see me walk,” Hornbeck told Meyer.
Like Clarke, Hornbeck was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy.
“He will never be able to live independently,” doctors told Hornbeck’s mother. Some doctors even went as far as to say that he wouldn’t live past the age of five.
Surgery No. 1 of 23 took place when Hornbeck was five. Two years later, the improbable followed.
On that September afternoon, while eager fans filed into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to see their first glimpse of the Gators since the 2008 National Championship, Hornbeck was eager to keep his promise.
Unlike most kids, Hornbeck didn’t take his first steps towards a cooing parent with a video camera.
Hornbeck took his first steps toward Urban Meyer, leaving No. 15 clutching his wheelchair behind him.
“I had a blast wheeling this incredible kid (and huge Gator fan) around the field for warmups before the game and in between the maze of benches in the locker room,” Tebow writes of Boomer in “Shaken”. “We stayed in touch after that, sending each other encouraging texts. Boomer came to almost every home game that season. And this cool dude was there when I played my last game in college. I gave him the football as a keepsake as well as my last hug as a Gator on the field during the Sugar Bowl.”
Those encouraging texts still happen… regularly.
When Hornbeck spoke with GatorBait, he had heard from Tebow two days prior.
Twenty-three surgeries and countless texts from Tebow and Meyer have helped motivate Hornbeck to unthinkable heights.
In the last two or three years, Hornbeck has spent much of his free time in the weight room. Through weight training, he hopes to eliminate his limp all together.
“I have a vision of walking completely perfect,” Hornbeck told GatorBait. “To put it into perspective, my vision of walking perfect and completely taking out my Cerebral Palsy, for me personally, I’ve never seen it done before.”
But the challenge excites Hornbeck, who entered his freshman year of college at Florida Gulf Coast this year.
“One thing Robyn and I both have in common with our Cerebral Palsy is that we were born to work hard,” Hornbeck told GatorBait. “Every day is a challenge to do certain things. It’s extremely difficult, but we’re forced to work hard by it. I’m blessed to have Cerebral Palsy… I truly am blessed to have it because it’s made me who I am today. It’s taught me how to work hard. It’s taught me how to be resilient and how to go through adversity.”
Rest assured, Hornbeck agrees. And that's why he has started on a journey of motivational speaking.
But, working hard isn't the only thing Hornbeck and Clarke have in common.
Despite two completely independent interviews, both said:
“If not for Cerebral Palsy, I wouldn’t have met Timmy.”
And if not for Timmy, Clarke might still spend most of her days in denim. And if not for Timmy, Hornbeck might still be under the impression that walking perfectly with Cerebral Palsy is all but possible.