Updated: May 16, 2020
BY: BUDDY MARTIN
GATORBAIT COLUMNIST AND EDITOR IN CHIEF
There was fire and rain in the eyes of Tim Tebow as he stood at the lectern. The Promise was part Apology, part Covenant and part Call to Action. Perhaps The Promise proved even more inspiring than Knute Rockne’s famous 1928 “Win One for the Gipper” speech at Notre Dame. At least it produced a better result.
Following the perfunctory press conference after lowly Mississippi’s shocking 31-30 upset of the No. 4 ranked Gators on Sept. 27, 2008, Tebow proceeded to take all the blame for what had just happened on Florida Field -- vowing it would never occur again on his watch.
The indignation of such a powerful offense sputtering out on what would surely have been the drive for the winning field goal with such a powerful runner falling short of one yard for a first down had overwhelmed Tebow emotionally. You could feel the anger clanging loudly in a quiet room. Maybe it was that anger which incited perhaps the greatest non-coach pep talk in football history.
Even the media was stunned and many got ambushed by the emotion.
“I was there covering it as a media member,” said Florida grad Laura Rutledge, now one of the stars of ESPN. “I was a student in love with the Gators as a sophomore. Obviously I'm a fan and I was dealing with that at the time. But I was so annoyed that I couldn't even show how mad I was because I was trying to be professional.
“Just the gravity of the silence almost hit all of us as it ended,” said Rutledge, then a sophomore intern at GatorCountry.com. “And you just didn't even know what to do.”
Tim Casey, then of Gator Country, was one of only two photographers in the room. His colleague Brenden Martin was also taking video.
“It was so quiet in the press conference as Tim paused and looked as if he was done speaking,” recalled Casey. “When he turned back to the microphone and said ‘I just want to say one thing,’ he had everyone’s attention and left us speechless.”
And yet the negative impact drove the team to new heights.
What took place in the South End Zone meeting room was more than a game-changer – it was transformative.
Brenden Martin of Gator Country recalled videoing the moment with a camera that was about to lose battery power.
“As Tebow began to talk I could sense the emotions boiling to the surface,” Martin wrote. “I got the sense he wanted to cry and rip somebody's head off all at the same time. As he fielded question after question, 2, 3, 4 minutes passed and he kept answering them as best as he could -- but you could tell he was on auto pilot. I knew he was going to get emotional, but as a Gator fan I wanted him to shut up and say all things he was supposed to say, be mad and walk off.”
Anger was the prevailing mood for many.
“I remember feeling so nauseous walking into that room because I was just sick that Florida had lost that game,” Rutledge recalled. “I could not believe it. I was so mad about it. It really was the first time, I think that I had felt disappointment in sports like that. And a lot of it was because that season was supposed to be this big championship year. Are you kidding me? I could not even process that that was happening even as the game was going on.”
An historical reverberation of legendary proportion was being unveiled in real time, right before our eyes. Tebow made The Promise. It produced an immediate and a remarkable response. He delivered on The Promise. And a lot more.
It was A Covenant. A Call to Action. Maybe even A Mandate. For sure it was A Moment.
“And this was before people used the phrase ‘Mic Drop,” said Rutledge. “It was such a ‘Mic Drop’ moment, but we didn't know that it was going to affect the team that way.”
Florida Head Coach and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen recently told me: "I know losing that game changed the attitude of the team for the rest of the season. I think Tim’s speech encapsulated the feeling of everyone on the team and in the program. There was a different sense of urgency and focus after that game.”
And The Promise would become the major catalyst in a national championship drive as it sent shockwaves throughout college football.
Why did Tebow feel compelled to do it? In Rutledge’s mind: “He loved Florida. And he bled orange in blue. And that's something that was ingrained in his family from the early stages of his life. And so first and foremost, being a Florida fan, that hit him on that side, too. He felt he had let down his team and he had missed on his goals. And he had let down this Gator Nation that is so important to him. So I really think all of it came from that.”
Since that time Rutledge and Tebow have become friends and colleagues on the popular ESPN Saturday morning show SEC Nation. Both of them have matured impressively as broadcasters and are vigilantly trying to remain above the fray by not showing prejudice toward their Gators. But don’t think for a minute Tim’s competitive juices aren’t still flowing. Or that he’s forgotten that loss -- even though the 2008 season turned out great for him. Tebow still seethes underneath about not making that yard and losing to Ole Miss.
And it’s interesting when you talk to him about it still today, 12 years later – and I'm trying to think the last time that we would have talked about it, maybe a couple of years ago. Even at that point, you could just see how the loss itself ate at him. And even though he ended up winning the ultimate prize that year and The Promise was what really fueled something bigger than even he probably realized, it still kills him that he lost that game. You know, he still would have much rather not had that to even happen.
It was 110 words that were about to be chiseled into a plaque on a wall outside the Bill Heavener Complex:
“To the fans and everybody in Gator Nation, I’m sorry, extremely sorry. We were hoping for an undefeated season. That was my goal, something Florida’s never done here.
“But I promise you one thing, a lot of good will come out of this. You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season, and you will never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of the season, and you will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season. God bless.”
Laura Rutledge was working the story.
“I sat down in that room and I remember when Tim walked in – I can even visualize it now. And he opens the door and he goes to the podium and starts in on The Promise. And as it was happening — it was almost one of those things that I don't know that any of us realized the gravity of in that moment.”
Urban Meyer didn’t want him to do it, but upon reflecting on The Promise, Meyer now says: “It was absolutely Florida’s ‘Gipper’ speech. A great example of leadership. Speeches are speeches and plaques are plaques. But this was different and it moved people right away.”
Meyer and offensive coordinator Mullen weren’t in the media room during the speech but quickly heard about it. Urban had found Tim in front of his locker, heaped into a hot mess of tears, instinctively knowing there was nothing he could say to ease the pain of his star player.
So Tim’s head coach sat on the floor with his back to his quarterback, leaning up against his legs to let him know he was there and feeling the pain, too. “I didn’t know he was going to do ‘The Promise’ and probably would have tried to talk him out of it,” said Meyer.
Nobody saw it coming, but once he was into it you knew this was not just lockerroom talk and blood oaths were being sworn.
“I knew that something amazing was happening,” said Rutledge. “In fact, I turned around to look at his parents because both of his parents were in the room, his mom and dad, who were lovely people. And just even seeing their faces. They were proud but they were also feeling his pain in that moment. It was a combination of those things. And I think I understand that a lot better now being a parent, even though I'm a recent parent. But I get kind of why they looked the way that they looked and that really sticks with me. I can still visualize their faces. And then as he walked out of the room, I remember all of us kind of looking at each other like, “What just happened?”
The effect was felt right away, said Meyer.
“The next morning David Nelson was in my office at 7 a.m. wanting to know what he could do,” Meyer said. “That’s when he asked to play on special teams. And he wound up catching the only touchdown in the SEC title game victory over Alabama and the difference-making score against Oklahoma in national championship game. That’s leadership.”
At the time I was covering Gator football regularly as the Editor/Columnist for GatorCountry.com. My other colleague in the room was Franz Beard – we were sitting on the front row six feet away from Tim. Brenden Martin was in the back videoing the speech. Literally three seconds after “God bless” I turned to Beard in amazement, locked eyeballs, and we said in almost-unison: “WOW! I don’t believe what I just saw.”
The Promise had a profound impact on Rutledge: “When I think back on the moments that I've had, as a reporter and as a person in this business, that one will always stick with me as one of the most important.”
Columnist Franz Beard, then also of Gator Country, was blown away by Tebow’s willingness to shoulder the blame: “Here was the best college football player in the country, a kid who would go down as one of the two or three greatest players in the history of the game, baring his soul to the world and doing what great leaders do — placing the entire blame for the loss entirely on his own broad shoulders. This was a powerful moment because not only did we understand just how important winning was to Tim Tebow, but more importantly how much it meant to him to lead by example. In his own eyes, the example Tim Tebow set against Ole Miss failed, and in his own heart and mind that afternoon, failure was not going to be an option ever again, not that season.”
In 1940 they made a movie in Hollywood entitled Knute Rockne – All American. A guy named Ronald Reagan played George Gipp, greatest Notre Dame player in history at the time who had died. But the words in the script were Hollywood-ized fiction.
I would argue that Tebow’s Promise was much better and bigger than Rockne’s Gipper speech and would make a better movie. After all, Rockne’s speech at halftime of a nothing game against Army in Yankee Stadium was a desperate attempt to salvage something out of his worst season ever.
And while the Irish did come back to beat the Black Knights of the Hudson 12-6, they lost their final two games to Carnegie Mellon and Southern Cal, finishing 5-4 on the season.
Tebow’s speech fueled maybe the greatest season in Florida football history.
Are you listening Hollywood? Or maybe Netflix?