Welcome to Waldo,Fla., home of a giant flea market (NORTH CENTRAL FLORIDA'S LARGEST!), a superbantiques village (OPEN 7 DAYS) and one of the most devious speed traps in theworld. Over the course of a quarter mile on the way into town, the speed limitplunges from 65 mph to 35. Word is, Waldo's finest aren't real big on givingout warnings.
There, just northof the antiques village, a southbound semi sat on the shoulder on a recent Julyevening, its driver a picture of surliness as an officer wrote him up. Cruisingpast in the opposite direction in his customized white GMC van, Jim Williamsissued this instruction to one of his seven passengers: "Tim, duck yourhead."
"Yes,sir," replied Florida quarterback Tim Tebow from his uncomfortable—andillegal—position on the floor of the vehicle. When the traveling party turnedout to have one more member than the van had seats, the most valuable player onthe defending national champions had insisted on being the one to ride withouta seat belt.
Williams is anelectrical contractor who has volunteered in the state's Department ofCorrections for 35 years. He was ferrying Tebow and three other Gators to theLawtey Correctional Institution, one of Florida's four"faith-and-character-based" prisons. There would be prayers andsinging, and gospel music from the prison's own band. But the highlight of thenight would be a 25-minute oration by Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner,who would stress the importance of "finishing strong" and conclude withan invitation for inmates to come down from the bleachers to be his"brothers in Christ" and be born again.
July 26, 2009
"It's one ofmy favorite things to do," Tebow said during the drive, making it sound asif he were bound for Walt Disney World rather than this razor-wire-ribbonedstalag 35 miles northeast of Gainesville. "You're talking to guys who haveno hope, no support, who have been totally written off by the world."
Watching Tebowzip passes into the seams of opposing defenses, lower his shoulder in shortyardage and exhort his teammates like King Henry V on St. Crispin's Day, onemight think that he was put on this earth just to run coach Urban Meyer'sspread offense. Watching him pace the floor of a gymnasium packed with 660wayward men hanging on his every syllable is to realize that regardless of whatposition Tebow eventually plays in the NFL, and for how long, the footballphase of his life is merely a means to a greater end.
The man on theother end of the line is calling from the Philippines. He has taken time fromhis missionary work to reply to a reporter's e-mailed questions. Now Bob Tebowhas a question of his own: "Have you heard the story of Timmy'sbirth?"
Even if you have,it's worth hearing from the mouth of his father: "When I was out in themountains in Mindanao, back in '86, I was showing a film and preaching thatnight. I was weeping over the millions of babies being [aborted] in America,and I prayed, 'God, if you give me a son, if you give me Timmy, I'll raise himto be a preacher.'" Not long after, Bob and Pam Tebow conceived their fifthchild. It was a very difficult pregnancy. "The placenta was never properlyattached, and there was bleeding from the get-go," Bob recalls. "Wethought we'd lost him several times." Early in the pregnancy Pam contractedamebic dysentery, which briefly put her in a coma. Her doctors, fearful thatmedications they had given her had damaged the fetus, advised her to abort it.She refused, and on Aug. 14, 1987, Pam delivered a healthy if somewhat scrawnyTimothy Richard Tebow.
"All hislife, from the moment he could understand, I told him, 'You're a miraclebaby,'" Bob recalls. "'God's got a purpose for you, and at some point Ithink He's going to call you to preach.'
"I asked Godfor a preacher, and he gave me a quarterback."
It's a good line,and a welcome injection of levity from a man who takes his religion veryseriously. But it's fast becoming obsolete. Having covered Tim for three years,I would say he's the most effective ambassador-warrior for his faith I've comeacross in 25 years at SI.
Why? A bigreason, Tebow believes, is his style of play. A lot of otherwise jaded inmates"respect the way I play the game," he speculates, "so they'll keepan open mind, give me a chance." As Florida State coach Bobby Bowden notedafter watching number 15 carry half his defense into the end zone on atouchdown run last season, Tebow "brings a little Bronko Nagurski to thequarterback position."
But while Tebowwill happily discuss his religion, he has no use for the hard sell. That's nothis style. "He's not going to come up and force anything on you," saysDavid Nelson, the Florida senior wideout who accompanied Tebow to Lawtey alongwith Gators cornerbacks Adrian Bushell, a freshman, and sophomore JanorisJenkins, and who introduced Tebow to the prisoners. "He wants people to seewhat he believes through his actions. He wants them to say, 'I see the way youlive your life, the passion you have, the fun you have, and I want what you'vegot.'"
It helps thatTebow does not resemble the dour ascetics of Grant Wood's iconic paintingAmerican Gothic. When he wasn't saving souls or signing autographs at Lawtey,Tebow was chatting up prison officials and their wives and children or crackingwise with Nelson. (The wideout's passion for spreading the word rivals Tebow's,while Bushell and Jenkins were making their first prison visit at the strongurging of their quarterback.)
At a time whenAmericans are leaving organized religion in large numbers, according to a 2008Pew Research poll, Tebow is leading his own personal counterinsurgency."Every Sunday we have a service for our players and their families,"says Meyer, who remembers when "three or four kids would show up. Now theroom's full." Since Tebow's arrival on campus, and in large part because ofhim, Florida has launched a series of community-service initiatives. Even asthe football program has suffered an embarrassing string of arrests, the numberof hours players devote to charitable causes has dramatically increased."Our community service hours are completely off the charts," saysMeyer, who describes his quarterback's influence on the team as"phenomenal."
Only slightlyless remarkable was the decision by Meyer and his family last summer to take aTebow-inspired missionary trip to the Dominican Republic. It had begun to preyon Meyer's conscience that he luxuriated on a cruise ship or sat on a beachwhile his starting quarterback spent his vacation working in a Filipino slum.Thus did the Meyer clan sign on for six days of servitude in the Dominican—andend up loving it. "Tim has done a lot of things to open my eyes," saysthe coach, "and that's one of them."
Even Meyer wouldadmit, however, that the Tebow Effect can be disruptive. Various Gatorsassistants were approaching DefCon 1 in the hours before last January's BCStitle game against Oklahoma: Fifteen or so players were not in their rooms atthe team hotel and couldn't be found. It turned out they'd been summoned toTebow's room, where the quarterback admitted that the immense pressure of thelooming title game had begun to distract him, wear him down. Thumbing throughhis Bible (the one with TIMMY inscribed on the cover), he'd chanced upon apassage in Matthew that gave him a measure of calm and that he wanted to sharewith them: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give yourest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble inheart, and you will find rest for your souls.
The verses hadthe desired effect, relaxing the assembled Gators so much that a kind ofimpromptu revival meeting broke out. Soon the entire group had broken intosong. Casting his mind back to that day, Tebow recalls informing his teammatesthat they would beat the Sooners "not because we're the better team orbecause we've worked harder," although he believed those things were true."We're going to win because we're going to handle it the right way, we'regoing to be humble with it, with God leading us."
So it struck adiscordant note to see this Christian warrior flagged for a penalty following a13-yard run late in the fourth quarter. Rather than turn away after a fusilladeof profanity from Oklahoma safety Nic Harris, Tebow says, "I let the Gatorspeak for me." His theatrical Gator chomp in the direction of Harris drewwhat is believed to be the first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty of his life.It isn't always the Almighty speaking through Tebow, it turns out. Sometimesit's an oversize reptile.
The Tebows movedfrom the Philippines to Florida when Tim was three. He grew up country strong,doing chores on the family's 44-acre spread outside Jacksonville. All five ofthe Tebow children were homeschooled by Pam, the daughter of an Army colonel.To meet Pam is to understand where Tim gets much of his mental toughness. Pamemphasized selflessness and compassion—lessons underscored during the kids'annual summer visits to the Philippines, where they worked in their father'sministry. Founded in 1985, the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association boasts astaff of 45 Filipino pastors who have preached the Gospel to more than 15million. The ministry has also helped start 10,000 churches and opened anorphanage that houses more than 50 children.
Under the headingWhat We Believe, the BTEA's website details the conservative brand ofChristianity it is spreading. The ministry espouses a literal interpretation ofthe Bible ("This is to say the written Word of God is totally without errorof any kind"), supports the teaching of Creationism ("We believe Godcreated the heavens and the earth ... out of nothing in six 24-hour days")and is convinced of the inevitability of the Rapture followed by a seven-yeartribulation period. "During this time the antichrist will appear," saysthe BTEA. Some will be saved, but "many will be martyred."
Asked if there isany wiggle room for people nagged by doubts about, say, the creation of theworld in six days or the imminence of the Rapture, Bob strikes a warm,inclusive note. "You don't have to believe everything I believe to besaved," he says. "You just need to believe in the Lord Jesus and trusthim to give you the free gift of eternal life, and you can figure out Genesisand all that other stuff later."
A few minutesbefore arriving at Lawtey, Williams reminds his passengers to leave theirphones behind. "They have two cellphone dogs," he says. "Theprisoners smuggle 'em in and do business with 'em, so the Florida legislaturemade it a third-degree felony to have a cellphone in prison."
A guard acrossthe parking lot greets the visitors with an enthusiastic Gator chomp. At themain gate officers collect driver's licenses from the visitors and hand themelectronic monitoring devices to be attached to their waistbands. "Ifyou're about to get shanked," Tebow tells Bushell and Jenkins, "youpush this button." They think he's kidding, but they're not sure. As if toreinforce their doubts, a guard says, "This ain't the Swamp. We ain'tplayin' here."
When Tebowfinally takes the mike, he is greeted by raucous cheers and more Gator chomps.He asks the convicts, "Who's got the best hands in here?" Atight-end-sized ward of the state claims that he does and runs a pattern underthe near baseline. He muffs a pass from Tebow that, to be fair, was thrownslightly behind him.
In a speechpunctuated by exclamations of "Amen!" and bursts of static from guards'radios, Tebow relates how, regardless of the venue—weight room, off-seasonworkout, practice field or game—the Florida coaches are always on the Gators to"finish strong." He notes how this ethos fueled a fourth-quartercomeback against Alabama in the SEC title game, then helped break a 7--7halftime deadlock against Oklahoma.
Yes, the emphasison finishing strong applied to football, Tebow says. "But moreimportant," he adds, telegraphing his transition, "it applies tolife.
"A lot of youhave started the first, second and third quarters really bad," he says, andthe room falls silent. "You might be losing. But you know what? It doesn'tmatter. Because it's about how you finish!"
When the cheeringfades, Tebow shares with the inmates the fact that as a young boy he cared moreabout sports than about his Savior. "I told myself, I don't needJesus," he says. "I was full of pride. It was all about me." If hecould see the light, they can too. But, he continues, "you might say, 'Idon't want that gift. I'll be fine—I don't need any help!'" Then he asksthe convicts a question:
"If you wereto die right now, where would you be?" By which he means, in whichdirection would your soul be headed? "For me," he says, "I have ananswer to that question. I am one hundred percent certain I'm going to go toheaven because I have Jesus Christ in my life."
When the speechis over, Tebow is introduced to a wiry inmate named Jeremy Bensen, who withinseconds is sharing the initial difficulty he had "trusting in God." TheScripture that got him over the hump, he says, "was Proverbs 3: 5 and6." He begins to recite—"Trust in the Lord with all your heart"—andTebow chimes in, "In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall directyour path." They finish together, then smile a bit sheepishly across thetable at one another like the nerds for Jesus they are.
After Tebow hasspent a half hour signing memorabilia; after he and his teammates have gatheredfor a picture in the foyer outside the warden's office; and after Bushell hastried to sabotage the shot by goosing Tebow and Tebow has mumbled, "Here weare in prison and I've got Adrian grabbing my butt," cracking up the entireroom, Williams assesses the evening's harvest. "Fourteen salvations and tworededications," he announces. "Not a bad day's work." Fourteen menaccepted Tebow's invitation to follow his righteous path.
Back on Highway301, headed for Gainesville, Williams estimates that he has taken Tebow toabout a dozen prisons. "His mama trusts me with him," the older manexplains. "She doesn't want him to spend his limited time speaking toKiwanis clubs. She wants him speaking to people who are not Christians, peoplewho are going to hell."
"You shouldcome with us to death row," he tells a reporter on the drive back toGainesville. "It's gonna be great!"
On July 21, infact, Tebow and Williams planned to head to the Florida State Prison in aptlynamed Starke. There, Tebow hoped to be allowed to speak to the 30 or soprisoners awaiting execution. The more incorrigible the inmate, the more Tebowrelishes the chance to save him. "Sometimes it's those guys at rock bottomwho are the ones looking for a change," he explains. If Lawtey was anearly-season nonconference opponent for Tebow, death row was akin to DeathValley, as LSU's Tiger Stadium is known.
This is inkeeping with his father's disregard for danger in his quest to serve. Bob Tebowregularly takes his message to islands where he is not necessarily welcome."I quit [reading] the State Department's advisories a long time ago,"says the man who joked that he asked the Lord for a preacher and got aquarterback. The truth is, he got both.
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INMATES "RESPECT THE WAY I PLAY THE GAME, SOTHEY'LL KEEP AN OPEN MIND, GIVE ME A CHANCE," SAYS TEBOW.
"TIM HAS DONE A LOT TO OPEN MY EYES," MEYERSAID AFTER GOING ON A MISSION OF HIS OWN.
THE MORE INCORRIGIBLE THE INMATE, THE MORE TEBOWRELISHES THE CHANCE TO SAVE HIM.
"FOURTEEN SALVATIONS AND TWO REDEDICATIONS,"SAYS WILLIAMS. "NOT A BAD DAY'S WORK."