By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The first time Florida quarterback Tim Tebow faced a large crowd, he trembled with nervousness. Still months away from emerging as a high school star in northern Florida, Tebow, then 15, had never felt 10,000 sets of eyes upon him.
And most unsettling of all, he was nowhere near a football stadium. In fact, he stood some 9,300 miles away from his home at a village in South Cotabato, Philippines. On the first of now-annual missionary trips with his father, Tebow stood behind a microphone and told the assembled high school students about his Christian faith, putting to the test evangelistic skills honed through years of speech classes at home.
Six years later, Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, has become so comfortable addressing crowds that he spoke to inmates at a Florida prison in April. And he has seen so much poverty and despair during his visits to the Philippines that he can't imagine getting stressed out over something as inconsequential as the BCS national championship game on Thursday, when his No. 1 Gators will face No. 2 Oklahoma.
"Pressure is not having to win a football game; pressure is having to find your next meal," Tebow said this weekend. "Even though we love it so much, football is still just a game. A lot of people bleed over it and love it, and I'm one of those people. But at the end of the day, I know what's more important, and pressure is definitely not football."
The more Tebow talks, the more it becomes apparent that almost everything he knows about leading a football team he's learned away from the field. Many important lessons came in his parents' home near Jacksonville, where all five Tebow children were home-schooled and prepared for the missionary trips that would commence when they turned 15. Others came on the ground in the Philippines, where Tebow traveled from village to village, talked to thousands of students and visited the four dozen children at the orphanage his father helps run on the island of Mindanao.
"I did enjoy every part of it, but at the same time, some of it's extremely sad," said Tebow, who was born in the Philippines and moved with his family to the United States when he was 3. "For some people, it can be pretty overwhelming. At the same time, the people you are able to help, you get a lot of joy from."
Pam Tebow said she geared her home-school lessons to her children's interests, with an emphasis on public speaking to ensure they could effectively communicate their beliefs when they were older. Bob Tebow, meantime, described himself as the taskmaster of the family. He insisted the children tend to a half-acre garden -- which provided nearly all of the vegetables for family meals -- and dispose of fallen trees in the back yard as measures designed to teach discipline, and the family had a firm rule: no complaining.
"Influencing people is so much more important than taking out the trash," Bob Tebow said by telephone from his home. "But you still have to take out the trash."
Despite the emphasis on their missionary endeavors, the Tebows embraced their third son's fascination with football, a game he began playing at 6. Though Bob Tebow wished Tim had chosen baseball, a sport known for the longevity of some players' careers, both saw the potential in raising a star athlete.
"I learned as a college student that whatever platform you have . . . you can take that platform and influence people for bad or influence people for good," Bob Tebow said. "In our country, people look up to, and listen to, football players. Is that right? They do, so it doesn't matter if it's right or wrong.
"I wanted all of my kids, not just Timmy, to use whatever they were good at for God's glory."
With the kind of size that allows him to run with the football as well as throw it downfield -- Georgia Coach Mark Richt called him a "freak of nature" and Kentucky defensive end Jeremy Jarmon described hitting him as akin to "trying to tackle a linebacker" -- Tebow could pass for a tight end. Yet when asked to describe Tebow, teammates and family frequently summon words that emphasize tenderness rather than toughness. Whenever the Tebow children would gather together and, at their parents' request, comment on the best qualities in their siblings, Pam Tebow said they all would cite Tebow's kindness.
"He's a great teammate, a great guy," Gators wide receiver Louis Murphy said. "He's caring, loving. Anything you want, you can ask him for, and he'll help you out."
Without the slightest hint of self-consciousness, Tebow frequently reveals personal details that shed light on his wholesome upbringing. He noted that one of his primary pregame routines is drinking a glass of milk the night before the game. He says his competitiveness is rooted in friendly but contentious games of Monopoly and Risk under the Christmas tree at the Tebow homestead, and he credits his father for being his biggest role model, teaching him how to lead with encouragement rather than criticism.
He hasn't, however, backed down from tough talk on the job. When Mississippi handed Florida its only loss of the season on Sept. 27, Tebow issued a tearful apology to the team's fans. Before standing up and saying "I'm extremely sorry" at the postgame news conference and guaranteeing that the Gators would be the hardest-working team in college football the rest of the season, Tebow sat at his locker and prayed about it.
"I didn't want to just go out there and speak straight out of emotion or just ramble on just out of anger," Tebow said. "I wanted to say something that meant something and something that was going to last, and also find the positive out of the situation."
Not only does Tebow seem at ease stating his mind publicly, he also seems to have enjoyed his mandatory interview sessions in recent days, eagerly responding to just about everything thrown at him, and even grinning at hard-hitting questions before taking each one on. He smiled broadly every time he was queried about Oklahoma defensive back Dominique Franks's comment this past weekend that Tebow would qualify as only the fourth-best quarterback in the Big 12.
"I'm just thankful for being fourth," he said with a grin. "That's pretty nice. I'll take it as a compliment."
And how does Tebow handle criticism so smoothly?
"You're always going to have naysayers; that's something I learned a long time ago from my parents," he said. "There are always going to be people who say bad things no matter what you do. . . . You just have to do what you think is right, and do your best. . . . My parents really helped me with that."
All five children received college scholarships, Pam Tebow said, and three remain directly involved in Christian ministry. A daughter, Christy, became a full-time missionary in Bangladesh. Robby is the area director for the Northeast Florida Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Peter, a computer engineer, is an intern at the University of Florida's Campus Crusade for Christ.
Tebow, meantime, preaches from a different pulpit, only the message isn't really much different. As questioner after questioner pressed on the apparent slight from Franks and the motivation it seemed to offer, the grin never left Tebow's face.
"I'm just going to come out here and play as hard as I can," he said. "That's something I was going to do in the first place."