Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
The narrow country blacktop meanders past mobile homes, cow fields and a small church. After a mile and half, a distinct landmark emerges on the left - a Gator helmet sprouting on the end of a wooden post, a mailbox unlike any other along this rural stretch of road north of Highway 90.
"TEBOW" is written on both sides. The mailbox sits at the head of a half-mile grass-and-gravel driveway that bumps along past grazing cows and a small lake. It leads to a brick house on the left with a basketball goal in front and a small pool in the back. On the right, there is a barn.
This is the farm of Bob and Pam Tebow - a quiet, 44-acre tract of God's country tucked peacefully among the pines and grassy fields between the sleepy hamlet of Baldwin and the city of Jacksonville.
This is an ideal place for someone seeking solitude and answers.
This is where Tim Tebow, the star quarterback at St. Augustine Nease, spent Decision Day - Dec. 13, 2005. The long recruiting process was coming to end as the clock raced toward a self-imposed afternoon deadline.
Alabama or Florida?
It was time to decide.
Tebow cut off his cell phone - and the outside world - and took the family dog to the nearby lake framed by pine trees and oaks.
"We kept all the calls away and gave Timmy the day to think about it," Pam Tebow said of her son. "The lake is a real boys' place. It was a good place to think. He was out there for awhile."
Tebow sat on the bank next to Otis (a 13-year old golden lab), thinking and praying and hoping for a sign from God.
In the meantime, there were many obvious signs all around him coming from a different source - his family's history with the University of Florida.
The mailbox, of course. The Gator bedspread and wallpaper in his bedroom, the Gator shower curtain in his bathroom and the poster of Danny Wuerffel hanging on his bedroom wall. And the pictures in the living room - a whole album, with Tebow and his two brothers wearing UF hats and T-shirts and posing with Florida players at Fan Day the August before the national championship season of 1996.
At 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 13, before a national television audience and several hundred screaming teenagers at the Nease auditorium, Tebow announced he would be attending the University of Florida.
It was a tough decision, he said, one that went down to the wire between Alabama and Florida. In the end, he said he went with his heart.
Those familiar with his family history say UF was an appropriate choice.
Even more appropriate is that Tebow's decision ending this long process was made on the family farm, where it all began when he was just a little boy.
Tebow was born in the Philippines, the third son and fifth child of Bob and Pam Tebow. A minister, Bob had taken a missionary trip to the Philippines and felt the calling to return and set up a ministry there. He had the family join him in Philippines in 1985.
When Tim was 3, the family moved back to Jacksonville. Eighteen months later, the Tebows settled on the farm.
This is where young Timmy learned about work ethic, discipline, humility and character, and where his faith in God grew as strong as his young, athletic body.
"He had a lot of chores," Pam said. "My husband did things on purpose because his goal was to build strong, hard-working young men. They would build fences, take care of the garden, help feed the cows, mow the grass - and we have a lot of grass. They did everything you can think of."
The farm is also where Tim first picked up a baseball bat and where he started pitching around a football (left-handed) with his dad and older brothers Robby and Peter.
"When he was about 4, he had a tremendous arm," Bob said. "By the time he was 6 or 7, I didn't even want to play catch with him. He has a great arm. When he was 7 or 8, I knew this (Tim becoming a big-time football recruit) was going to happen."
Tim's organized athletic career began at age 5, when he started playing Tee-ball.
"At that age, young kids hardly know what they're doing," Pam said. "They'll run in the wrong direction or will be out there picking flowers. Timmy played second base and could hit the ball to the outfield. He would get so perturbed when the other kids didn't know what was going on. He knew what was going on at 5 years old. He was very aware and a lot of that, I think, was from being around his older brothers and watching them."
In Pop Warner, Tim played quarterback and several other positions. By the time he reached ninth grade, it appeared Timmy might be following in the footsteps of his older brothers, who were high school linebackers. Robby played the position so well at Jacksonville Trinity Christian that he earned a football scholarship to Carson-Newman.
As a high school freshman, Tim saw playing time at linebacker on the varsity.
"He was a great athlete, a hard worker and a wonderful young man," Trinity Christian coach Verlon Dorminey said. "He could have been whatever he wanted to be. He played a lot for us as a ninth-grader at linebacker. He was very aggressive and he loved the weight room. He would have been a great athlete here."
But Bob did not see a future for Tim at Trinity, where Dorminey runs the Wing-T offense (mostly a running offense). Bob thought his youngest son had a special gift for throwing the ball and needed a school where his talents could grow.
After Timmy's ninth-grade year, his father started looking for another school. Because all five of the Tebow children were home-schooled by their mother, Tim's options were many.
During his search, Bob started hearing about the new head coach at St. Augustine Nease - Craig Howard - who brought with him a reputation for spreading the field and throwing the football all over the yard.
"Playing quarterback is what Timmy wanted to do," Bob said. "He had a dream, a passion to do that. Other coaches wanted him to play linebacker like his brothers, who were good linebackers. When I looked at Timmy, he didn't have that magic at linebacker. When you put him on the other side of the ball, he had a lot of magic.
"I found a coach, Coach Howard, who believes in the passing game. I knew right away. There was no doubt in my mind he would know what to do with Timmy."
Playing for Nease
To play for Howard, Tim would have to establish residency in the Nease school district, so the Tebows rented an apartment a few miles from the school and Tim and his mother lived there during the school year.
It didn't take Howard long to realize he had inherited a special talent.
"I knew in that first meeting with Timmy and his parents that this was a special kid coming into the Nease program," Howard said. "I told them we were going to fling it around a little bit and have some fun and Timmy was the right gunslinger for the job.
"Timmy's got a strong arm, strong legs, but an even stronger heart. What's inside his heart is what made him a champion."
Tebow thrived in Howard's offense - and so did the Panthers, who had a history of losing and were 2-8 the season before Tebow and Howard arrived.
Tim piled up the numbers running and throwing and also revealed something about his character and toughness during his sophomore season when he injured his leg early in a game against St. Augustine Pedro Menendez.
"He came over to the sideline and I told him to toughen up, it's probably a bruise," Howard said. "I felt like a bad coach later. He played the rest of the game and scored on a 29-yard touchdown run on a broken leg to tie the game in the fourth quarter. The X-ray showed a jagged break of his lower leg. It wasn't a hairline thing.
"That showed me how tough he was. I've never seen a tougher one."
Others started to notice, too, - especially the college coaches and recruiters, who began sending letters and making phones calls, officially beginning the recruiting process.
That's when the word started getting out that this standout quarterback from Nease, who could run and throw equally well, was a life-long Gator fan.
Strong UF bond
Pam Pemberton met Bob Tebow in her freshman year at UF in 1968. Bob was passing out flyers at the Plaza of the Americas for a Christian group that was coming to campus and the two were introduced by friends.
Pam and Bob became friends first and then began dating in the fall of Pam's junior year.
One of the things they had in common was a strong bond with UF. Pam's father, Frank Pemberton, played basketball for the Gators and Bob had been following Florida football from an early age.
"I've been a Gator since 1960," Bob said. "I sold snow cones at Florida Field back when Larry Libetore was the quarterback. I go way back there as a 12-year-old boy."
Pam and Bob passed their passion for the Gators down to their children.
Tim became a huge fan at about the time Danny Wuerffel started playing quarterback for the Gators (1993) and Pam tried to make sure Wuerffel, a humble star and devout Christian, would be looked up to as a role model by her youngest son. It worked. Wuerffel was and is Tim's favorite Gator, Pam said.
"Danny Wuerffel taught him a lot about humility," Pam said. "He always deflected the praise and he never acted like he was better than other people. Those are the kind of things we taught our boys. Danny Wuerffel was a hero for Timmy.
"Danny spoke at our church (First Baptist in downtown Jacksonville) a couple of times, and Timmy got his autograph. He was a wonderful role model and he never disappointed us."
Despite the strong Florida ties, Pam and Bob said they consciously became neutral early in Tim's high school career so their youngest son would not feel pressured or influenced by them in the recruiting process. Tim's parents put away their Gator gear and put the decision about their son's future entirely in his hands.
They have been there for support and guidance, but not to promote their favorite school.
"Before his freshman year, I said, 'Us going to Florida isn't going to affect you. I want you to find God's will for your life,' " Bob said. "I told him, 'We'll come, we'll travel, whether it's to Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan or Southern Cal.'
"I told him if it was in my best interest, Gainesville is easiest, it's an hour away. But it's about God's will and finding the right place for him."
As Tim sat by the lake with his good buddy Otis at his side that December day, it all eventually became clear. God's will. He found it in his heart. He knew, just knew, he wanted to be a Gator and play for Urban Meyer.
Now, came the hardest part of the whole recruiting process - calling four head coaches he'd developed personal relationships with to tell them he wasn't coming. The toughest call, the Tebows said, was to Alabama's Mike Shula, who had spent almost 12 hours with the family on the farm the day before.
"Coach Shula and Timmy are a lot alike," Pam said. "They're both kind, both left-handed quarterbacks and both nice people. Timmy really did have a connection with him. We felt good about both schools (UF and Alabama). We didn't feel he could make a mistake with either one."
After making the tough call to Shula, it was time for Tim to make the fun call - the one to Meyer. But he went to dial ... and nothing. The battery on his cell phoned had died. So, as he went on stage for his big announcement, he'd left his future coach hanging back in Gainesville.
A few minutes later, came joy and relief for Meyer (and Gators everywhere) with Tebow's announcement.
For Pam and Bob, those emotions didn't arrive for a few more days.
"For a little while I couldn't enjoy it because I knew the pain my son had gone through having to turn these other people down," Bob said.
"It was such an emotional drain that the next few days were kind of a blur," Pam said.
Now that things have quieted down and Tim is in classes at UF, all is good back on the farm. The Tebows are enjoying being Gators again - maybe like never before.
"It's fun to be a Gator," Bob said.
"It's a great time to be a Gator," Pam said. "We thought if Timmy didn't go to Florida we'd take down the Gator mail box and change his room around and change the door mats. We decided there was no point in doing that until he made his decision."
Tim has arrived in Gainesville - and Gator stuff gets to stay on the Tebow farm.
Robbie Andreu can be reached at 352-374-5022 or email@example.com
Comments are currently unavailable on this article