Thoughts of the Day: February 18, 2021

A few thoughts to jump start your Thursday morning: FIVE TEBOW MOMENTS TO REMEMBER

Rather than give it one last shot at fulfilling the dreams he had as a kid of playing Major League Baseball, Tim Tebow walked away Wednesday, bringing down the curtain on an athletic career that will be remembered most for his four brilliant years at the University of Florida. Tebow critics – they are numerous and can’t help themselves when it comes to taking their shots – no doubt will say Tebow’s baseball career ended in failure just as his NFL career crashed and burned. The one thing the critics can’t handle, however, is the truth and the truth is other than Herschel Walker, Tim Tebow is probably the greatest college football player of all time.

At Florida, he played in 55 games – 48 won by the Gators – and won two national championship rings, the first as a valuable contributor and Chris Leak’s backup QB in 2006, the second in 2008 when he almost willed UF to the national championship. He was 35-6 as the starting quarterback. He won the 2007 Heisman Trophy as a sophomore, should have won it in 2008 when he finished third behind Sam Bradford and Graham Harrell, and fifth in 2009. Not too many players ever win a single Heisman much less finish as a finalist three straight years.

Tebow’s career numbers are staggering: 661-995 passing (66.4%) for 9,285 yards (9.3 per attempt) and 88 touchdowns with only 16 interceptions. He ran for 2,947 yards (4.3 per carry) and 57 touchdowns.

Looking back on Tebow’s Florida football career, here are five minutes to savor:

1.THE ANNOUNCEMENT; DECEMBER 13, 2005: At the stroke of midnight, Tim Tebow was conflicted. Mike Shula and his Alabama coaching staff had spent Monday at the Tebow household in West Jacksonville and they presented compelling reasons why he should spend his college football career in Tuscaloosa. In a bedroom adorned with Florida posters and all sorts of Gator gear, Tebow dialed the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State.

It was late, but Larry Fedora answered the call. Back when he was Ron Zook’s offensive coordinator at Florida, Fedora had been the lead recruiter Tebow, the best dual threat quarterback in the country. Had he been bitter over the way things ended at Florida – Zook was fired, Fedora wasn’t retained by Urban Meyer – Fedora might have extolled the virtues of Alabama, but instead he urged Tebow to think back to the little kid who cried when the Gators lost to Nebraska in 1995 and who celebrated when UF walloped Florida State for the national championship in 1996.

What Fedora did was to tap the brakes on the Alabama momentum. Tebow spent the day on the family farm contemplating his future and doing what he always did when he had a difficult decision to make – prayed earnestly.

Throughout the day, there was all sorts of speculation that Tebow was going to turn his back on the team he grew up loving to head to Alabama. In the afternoon a packed Nease High School auditorium waited Tebow’s arrival. ESPN had had its crew there to broadcast the announcement live to a national audience. On the Paul Finebaum radio show out of Birmingham, the entire state of Alabama held its collective breath.

Five minutes before Tebow was to take the podium and announce, Bob Redman and I waited for a call from a Tebow insider with the decision. We were about to head into the auditorium minus any indication when the phone rang to tell us it would be Florida. Bob called Finebaum’s producer.

“Florida … it will be Florida,” Bob told him.

“Are you sure?” came the reply.

“100 percent,” Bob said.

While Bob was on the phone with Finebaum, Tim Tebow was making the call to Mike Shula to tell him he was going to be a Gator. The call was polite and quite emotional. Next, Tebow tried to call Urban Meyer but his battery died.

In Gainesville, Meyer got a ring from Tebow but then Tebow’s phone died before a word could be spoken. Because there was no call back, Meyer thought Tebow was going to announce for Bama. There at the Meyer compound in Haile Plantation, Urban walked out the pool area into the back yard. He was remembering the words of Greg Mattison, who had only a few days before while sitting in a plane on a Pennsylvania airport tarmac that failure to sign Tebow would set the Florida program back 10 years.

While Urban paced in the yard, Shelley and the kids watched on ESPN as Tebow stood at the podium and announced he was going to be a Gator. The shouts from the living room carried out to the back yard. Only then did Meyer know he got his quarterback.

Tebow changed the course of football at both Florida and Alabama forever. Tebow helped Meyer lead Florida to national championships in 2006 and 2008. Shula was fired after the 2006 season. In his place Alabama hired Nick Saban. If Tebow had gone to Alabama, Shula might still be the coach and Saban might not have become the greatest college football coach in history.

2. FOURTH AND ONE AT TENNESSEE; SEPTEMBER 16, 2006: That night in Neyland it seemed like old times as the 7th-ranked Gators (2-0) and 11th-ranked Vols (2-0) squared off with the winner expected to take home the SEC East championship.

Florida trailed, 17-7, in the fourth quarter but following a UF touchdown, the Vols stretched their lead back to 20-14 with 10:49 to go on a 51-yard field goal by James Wilhoit that gave the entire Gator Nation a sense of impending doom. After all, it was Wilhoit, who two years before kicked a 50-yard field goal with six seconds to go that lifted Tennessee to a 30-28 win over the Gators, a win that seemed to set in motion the end of the Ron Zook era at UF.

Starting at their own 35, the Gators moved quickly into Tennessee territory when DeShawn Wynn ripped off a 26-yard run on second and eight. A two-yard run by Wynn was followed by a three-yarder by Tebow. On third and five from the Tennessee 32, Chris Leak was forced to scramble for four yards to the Tennessee 28. Meyer called time out to decide what to do on fourth and one. There was still plenty of time on the clock but 45 yards stretched the limit of placekicker Chris Hetland’s field goal range. In the sideline huddle, Tebow all but demanded a chance to run the ball for the first down.

Meyer admitted after the game it was a gamble to trust a freshman in that situation, but the look in Tebow’s eye told him to give the kid a chance. Tebow ran over the left side and pushed the pile for two yards for the first down. One play later, Leak found Dallas Baker for a 21-yard touchdown pass with 6:30 to go in the game. Hetland’s extra point gave the Gators a 21-20 lead.

The Florida defense still had to do its part. Ray McDonald hurried Erik Ainge into a bad throw. Brandon Siler sacked Ainge, who was flagged on the play for intentional grounding, for a 14-yard loss. One play later, Reggie Nelson intercepted Ainge at the Florida 24 to seal the win.

In his post-game remarks, Meyer shook his head, almost in disbelief that he had trusted the game to a freshman but Tebow wasn’t your every day freshman.

3. THE HEISMAN MOMENT; NOVEMBER 10, 2007: When he came into the media room to talk about the Gamecocks’ 51-31 loss to Florida at Williams-Brice Stadium, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier asked the crowd of familiar faces he saw from both the South Carolina and Florida writers, “How many touchdowns did he get?”

When told Tim Tebow had lit up the Gamecocks for seven touchdowns, Spurrier grinned a bit sheepishly. Having kicked that 40-yard field goal to beat Auburn back in 1966, Spurrier knew a Heisman Moment when he saw one and this was a Heisman Moment.

The final numbers were 22-32 passing for 304 yards and two touchdowns, 26-121 rushing and five more touchdowns. Tebow produced touchdown passes of 22 yards to Jarred Fayson and 21 yards to Bubba Caldwell and touchdown runs of five, one, three, two and five yards. En route to the final touchdown, Tebow ran over now UF photographer Tim Casey on the sideline. Casey declined suggestions he have Tebow sign his bruise so it could be converted into a tattoo.

In becoming the first sophomore to win the Heisman, Tebow completed 234-350 passes (66.9%) for 3,286 yards (9.4 per attempt) and 32 touchdowns. He also ran for 895 yards (4.3 per carry) and 23 more touchdowns.

4. THE FOURTH QUARTER VS. ALABAMA; DECEMBER 6, 2008: Alabama came into the SEC Championship Game unbeaten and ranked No. 1 nationally while the Gators were 11-1, having lost earlier in the season to Ole Miss. Following the loss to Ole Miss, Tebow made “The Promise” and led the Gators to eight straight wins and the SEC East title.

When Alabama scored on the last play from scrimmage of the third quarter to take a 20-17 lead, it seemed the Crimson Tide had all the momentum. They had, after all, outscored UF 10-0 in the third quarter and completely dominated play on both sides of the football.

The fourth quarter belonged to Tebow, however.

Florida took a 24-17 lead with an 11-play, 62-yard scoring drive on which Tebow contributed a laser beam 13-yard completion down the middle to David Nelson and a 6-yard shovel pass to tight end Aaron Hernandez for a critical first down to the Alabama three on third and five. On first and goal, Tebow moved the pile two yards. On second down, with everyone expecting Tebow to plow it up the middle again, Tebow ran the option to perfection, pitching to Jeff Demps for the TD with 9:21 to go.

When the Gator defense came up with a three and out, Tebow got the back at the UF 35 where he engineered an eight-play, 65-yard scoring drive that ate up 4:37 of the clock. On the drive, Tebow completed a 33-yard pass to Louis Murphy, a 15-yarder to Hernandez and a five-yard touchdown throw to Riley Cooper to provide the final margin of 31-20.

For the game, Tebow was 14-22 passing for 216 yards and three touchdowns with 17-57 rushing.

The win vaulted Florida into a national championship game matchup with Oklahoma.

5. BRADFORD WON THE HEISMAN, BUT TEBOW GOT THE BIG TROPHY; JANUARY 8, 2007: Twenty-five days prior to Florida’s national game matchup with Oklahoma, Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford won the Heisman Trophy thanks to a season in which he put up Star Wars numbers against Big 12 defenses. Tebow finished third in the voting.

Star Wars was something you saw at a movie theater on January 8, however. Bradford, who had led Oklahoma to 702 regular season points and an NCAA record five straight games with at least 60 points, found the sledding a bit tougher against an SEC defense. He managed 256 passing yards and threw for a pair of critical interceptions against the Gators.

Meanwhile, Tebow was easily the best quarterback on the field and in the nation. He threw for 231 yards and a pair of touchdowns while running for 110 on 22 carries to lead the Gators to a 24-14 win and the national championship.

Like the SEC Championship Game, the fourth quarter belonged to Tebow. The Sooners tied the game at 14-14 with 12:13 to go in the game on a Bradford touchdown pass but the Gators answered with a 27-yard field goal by Jonathan Phillips on a drive sparked by Percy Harvin’s 52-yard run.

After Ahmad Black picked off Bradford at the UF 24, Tebow marched the Gators 76 yards down the field for the touchdown that sealed the win. On the drive, Tebow went 6-6 passing, completing passes of 13 yards to Hernandez, 17 to Cooper, 29 to Nelson, four to Harvin and nine to Hernandez before a signature jump pass to Nelson for the TD from four yards out with 3:07 to go.

Florida iced the win by running out the final 2:26 of the game. Everybody in the stadium in Miami knew Tebow was going to run the football but nobody was going to stop him. He ran five times for 30 yards as Bradford and Oklahoma’s high-powered offense could only stand on the sidelines and watch.

ONE FINAL NOTE: Everybody has their favorite Tebow moments. I could write for the next two days about what Tim did in his four years at Florida. I was there for every single snap of all 55 games in which he played, but these five stand out on a night when contemplating his UF football career.

He’s done with sports now, but not with life. Sports have provided Tebow a great platform that has given us so many memories, but sports will never define him. His greatest years are still to come answering to a higher calling.

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