Quarterbacks shun it. They seek sidelines. Space enough to dive. Safe havens. They’d wear the red practice jersey all game if the rules allowed, would wire their welfare to bank accounts in the Caymans if it could be so guaranteed.
And then there’s Tim Tebow. Where most players at his position consider shoulder pads to be an accessory, something that makes you look broader in the team photo, the Florida quarterback puts his to work. On Thursday evening in Miami, the Gators only began to resemble a national championship team once Tebow began putting licks on people.
“You know, I wanted to do whatever I could to help my team win this game,” Tebow said in the wake of Florida’s 24-14 win over Oklahoma, the Gators’ second BCS Championship Game victory in the past three years, “and if I was trying to run and run some people over, to get the crowd into it, to get the momentum, then that was what I was going to try to do.”
That is partly true. But Tebow also needs to run the ball to get himself into the game. And not in the flag-football, catch-me-if-you-can manner of, say, West Virginia’s Pat White. No, Tebow’s style is more in the manner of a man who once plied his trade not far from here, Miami Dolphins Hall of Famer Larry Csonka.
“I guess there’s some truth to that,” Tebow admitted. “I think that’s when I really get amped up.”
Florida and Oklahoma were tied 7-7 with approximately nine minutes remaining in the third quarter when Tebow took the shotgun snap, found an opening on the left side, and took off for a 12-yard gain. For good measure, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound junior buried his shoulders into Sooner safety Nic Harris at the end of the carry. Tebow then leaped up, punched a fist and exhorted the Gator-heavy crowd inside Dolphin Stadium to erupt.
In the manner that Rocky Balboa needed one, two, half a dozen punches to his mug in order to become aroused against Apollo Creed, the erstwhile (and perhaps future?) Heisman Trophy winner needs to hit someone. On that drive alone Tebow rushed the ball six times for 48 yards, and every last carry ended with a collision.
Don’t be surprised if Dennis Haysbert is peddling Tebow insurance for defensive backs next autumn.
That 75-yard drive gave Florida a 14-7 lead, and while Oklahoma would answer with a touchdown of its own, the sight of Tebow taking on tacklers both soothed and psyched the partisan Gator crowd. This was the warrior quarterback they have come to know and worship.
In the first half Tebow seemed to be attempting to disprove Dominique Franks’ assertion that he’d only be the fourth-best quarterback in the Big 12 (with apologies to Oklahoma State's Zac Robinson). The Jacksonville, Fla., native, who threw two interceptions in 13 games this autumn, tossed that many in the first 23 minutes. After the second pick, a well-thrown bullet to the belly of Sooner defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, you could almost hear blue-and-orange clad wives asking their husbands, “So exactly what does an H-back do in the NFL, anyway?”
However, after that 75-yard third quarter touchdown drive, the real Tim Tebow had arrived. The Sooners would tie the score, but whereas Oklahoma had outplayed Florida in the first half (simply squandering scoring opportunities, two of them, from inside the 7-yard line), suddenly it seemed inexorable that the will — and brutishness — of Tebow would not be denied.
Percy Harvin was brilliant, of course, and “the vice president” of Florida’s offense ripped off two runs of 46 and 52 yards. But it was Tebow’s presence, and his return to violent form, that once again had the greatest impact.
The paradox of Tebow, of course, is that collision-seeking quarterbacks are a lot like reckless pilots: they never live long enough to worry about gray hair. Consider Tebow’s counterpart, Sam Bradford. The Sooner QB, it was remarked this week, often finished games this season with his uniform as clean at it was when he donned it for pre-game warm-ups. Bradford was sacked just 11 times this season (twice more by Florida) and that was a matter of pride for his offensive line.
Tebow? The emblematic photo of him from this season is the shot from November’s game at Florida State, played in a deluge of rain. There was the Gator QB walking down the sideline without his helmet, his right shoulder pad covered in garnet field paint and his face a little bloodied. His visage, as always, fearless and determined. Braveheart, with the Claymore sword.
In the game’s closing moments, as the Gators milked a 10-point lead, their most precious commodity did not take a knee. No. First he barreled 13 yards for a first down, ending in a pile-up with the beleaguered Harris. Then Tebow, who normally struts the tightrope between passion and self-control, indulged himself. Perhaps because it was Harris, who had wrenched Harvin’s sore ankle after tackling him earlier in the fourth quarter, Tebow performed the Gator chomp right in his face — and drew an unsportsmanlike conduct flag.
“Honestly, I didn’t think it was that bad,” Tebow said with a smile. What he did not add, but might have, was that he knew that first down was the coup de grace, so what did it matter?
A few plays later, the Sooners out of timeouts, Tebow stormed up the middle, running like the rambunctious Labrador retriever that he can be, and collided at full speed with umpire Tom Laverty. The impact felled both men (Laverty will always be able to tell his grandchildren that he was the last person to tackle Tebow in the 2009 BCS Championship Game) and was, in fact, so cataclysmic that Laverty lost one of his shoes.
That’s right: Tebow decleated a referee.
But, being Tebow, he held out a hand and helped Laverty up. One more anecdote upon which to nurture the legend.
And so now the story proceeds from “contact” to “contract”. As in NFL. As in, will Tebow go pro, be it as a quarterback or an H-back or simply a winner?
Why should he? Money? Does a man whose only game-day fashion concern is what biblical quote to place on his eye-black (he opted for John 3:16 over Phillippians 4:13 — “Phillippians 4:13 is a good verse,” Tebow said, “but I feel that John 3:16, it just represents Christianity so well”) really covet material wealth that much? If you were to ask Tebow, he might just reply, “Matthew 19:24" (“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”).
Besides, not one defensive player on Florida’s two-deep chart is a senior, and if you happened to notice, the Gators held the Sooners to 37 points below their average on Thursday evening? Even if one or two studs (Brandon Spikes?) leave early, the Gators will be greater in 2009.
Should Tebow jump to the NFL, he will be richer while college football will be so much poorer. Earlier this week Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, also a junior in the SEC, announced that he was leaving Athens to declare for the NFL draft. Stafford projects universally as a higher draft pick than Tebow, and he seems to be a fine young man and all.
Tebow, however, has become the heartbeat of college football the past two seasons. Seldom does a person his age both play and behave with such a keen understanding of how his actions resonate … across the Gainesville campus, across the pantheon of college football, across, now, after two national championships and a Heisman Trophy in three seasons, all of American culture.
Tebow plays, and lives, as if he is on a mission. Fitting for the son of two missionaries.
In the same week that Adam “Pacman” Jones, the anti-Tebow, actually uttered the phrase, “I gotta love me some me” as he was being shown the door by the Dallas Cowboys, and possibly, the NFL, Tebow demonstrated once again that there is a much more enlightened, and successful, path.
Number 15 lingered on the field for at least 45 minutes afterward. He walked over to a corner of the stands to greet his family. He attempted to return to his teammates but was stopped in his tracks by a 10-year-old boy, Tommy Wood, who wanted a photo taken with him. He nearly made it into the tunnel but then Gator defensive coordinator Charlie Strong entreated him to pose for a shot of the two of them (a defensive coordinator asking his own QB for a picture? That’s respect.).
Everywhere Tebow walked, there were continuous valence levels of humans circumscribing him. He was bathed in contact. And that was okay. Even if he couldn’t lower his shoulder.