BIRMINGHAM, Ala. –Florida quarterback Tim Tebow already has proved throughout his career that he can do the unimaginable. This summer, he pulled off perhaps his most improbable feat yet.
He found a way to go places where people wouldn't ask about his chances of winning a second consecutive Heisman Trophy.
All he had to do was leave the country.
During each of Florida's three scheduled breaks from offseason training, Tebow went on separate ministry trips to the Philippines, Croatia and Thailand. Instead of talking to the media about an upcoming opponent, Tebow was preaching the gospel in prisons, hospitals, schools and marketplaces. And the guy who dissects defenses with surgical precision showed a whole different type of cutting ability while circumcising children – seriously – in poverty-stricken areas.
Every now and then, Tebow would take a break from his ministry and train "Rocky -style" by running up hills and mountains. All the while, the guy who's treated like a rock star wherever he goes in the States finally could walk around in virtual anonymity – at least most of the time.
"I was walking through a German airport and some guy who couldn't even speak English was like 'Tim Tebow!' '' Tebow said Wednesday at the SEC Media Days at the Wynfrey Hotel. "In the Philippines, there was a lady in Manila who came up to me and could barely speak English, but she said her daughter went to Florida and she was so excited.
"There are times you get noticed, but most of the time, you're just a guy passing through."
Tebow is unlikely to have that type of experience anytime in the near future. More than an hour before his scheduled arrival Wednesday, dozens of Gators fans already had gathered in the hotel lobby, including a child holding a sign that said, "All I Want 4 My Birthday Is To Meet Tim Tebow."
Similar scenes have taken place across the country, even in areas that aren't exactly football hotbeds.
"I loved it when I was getting pushed in the back by security in Times Square (during last year's Heisman Trophy week)," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "I was getting pushed in the back because they thought I was hanging around Tim trying to get his autograph or something. I hate to say this, (but) I was. I wanted to get a Christmas present for my son."
Meyer and Tebow could return to Times Square this December, even if history suggests Tebow won't win the award again. The only two-time Heisman recipient is former Ohio State running back Archie Griffin, who won in 1974 and '75. Griffin wouldn't be shocked if he has company by the end of the season.
"I wouldn't be surprised at all because he handles the ball so much," Griffin told Florida Today newspaper earlier this month. "So he'll have a lot to do with the outcome of the games. He runs the ball a lot. He'll pass it. But he'll run it. He's a huge, huge part of that offense at Florida. And I know that they are going to have a successful year because they have some great talent there. So with his role on that team, he's going to get a lot of attention."
Although the past four players to return to school after winning the award failed to match Griffin's accomplishment, there isn't exactly a Heisman jinx going around. Oklahoma running back Billy Sims, BYU quarterback Ty Detmer, Oklahoma quarterback Jason White and USC quarterback Matt Leinart all finished at least third the next season.
"A lot of people ask me about the pressure, but I don't buy into it," Tebow said. "At the University of Florida, every year there's going to be pressure. No matter what happened the previous year or what trophies you won, it's the University of Florida. The quarterback's always going to have pressure. I don't really care too much about it. I've never really been one to worry about pressure too much."
It may be asking too much to expect Tebow to match his production from 2007, when he may have delivered the most impressive statistical performance of any quarterback in college football history. Tebow rushed for 23 touchdowns, a single-season NCAA record for quarterbacks. He also threw for 32 touchdowns while being intercepted only six times. His 55 total touchdowns were the most in SEC history, shattering the previous mark of 41 set by his role model, former Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel, another former Heisman winner who used football as a platform for ministry work.
CAN HE DO IT AGAIN?
History suggests Tim Tebow won't win a second consecutive Heisman Trophy. The only two-time Heisman recipient is Archie Griffin, who won in 1974 and '75. Here's a look at the past four players to return to school after winning the Heisman:
Next year's winner
RB Billy Sims, Oklahoma
USC RB Charles White
QB Ty Detmer, BYU
Michigan WR Desmond Howard
QB Jason White, Oklahoma
USC QB Matt Leinart
QB Matt Leinart, USC
USC RB Reggie Bush
Meyer calls Tebow as good a leader as anyone he's seen, but in many respects, Tebow is a follower. He has followed the lead of the quarterback he idolized, and his favorite player continues to serve as the guide for many of the steps Tebow takes on and off the field. Tebow wouldn't mind being the next Archie Griffin, but it's more important that he become the next Wuerffel.
"There are a lot of leaders out there, but unfortunately there aren't a lot of good ones," Tebow said. "So that's always been my dream and my goal, to be someone like Danny Wuerffel was to me, to be someone that a parent can say, 'Hey, this kid did it the right way.' They can say to their kid, 'I want you to be like them.'
"That's always been my dream and goal moreso than winning a trophy or winning a championship."
Florida probably has upgraded its tailback situation enough that Tebow won't have to carry the ball into the end zone himself so often this season. Yet it's foolish to think Tebow won't rank among the top Heisman contenders once again. He is one of the most efficient passers in the nation, but his 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame makes him tougher to bring down than just about any running back in the nation.
"Have you seen that guy?" LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson said when asked what made Tebow so tough to tackle. "He's built like a lineman. That guy's strong, man."
No wonder Meyer earlier this week reportedly called Tebow the "greatest player of our era," though the coach didn't want to expound on that point Wednesday.
"I'm not going to say that much anymore because I have too much respect for Tim and the job he does. … I get really get excited about great players," Meyer said. "I get even more excited about great players that are great people. I love watching Tim play. I believe he's one of the best players I've seen play."
Tebow has proved equally inspirational with his exploits off the field. Tebow's ministry work caused Meyer to make his own missionary trip to the Dominican Republic this summer, and Meyer said he is going to try to take his family on a similar trip every year. "Tim has done a lot of things that have opened my eyes,'' Meyer said, "and that's one of them."
Those are the type of eye-opening performances Tebow treasures far more than any of the highlight-worthy performances he delivers on Saturdays.
"If I can change a kid's life for the better, that's much more important to me than going out there and beating Georgia or Florida State or whatever team it is," Tebow said. "That's (also) very special to me, but it doesn't come close to having the ability to put a smile on a kid's face or to go to a hospital and see a girl who's about to die, to see her smile because you were there to see her.
"You can't put a price on that, on what that does for me. Most of the time when I go see kids like that or do something like that, it does more for me than I do for that person."