Florida quarterback reaches out to young inmates with a message about faith and the importance of being able to 'finish strong' in life.
Published: Sunday, August 2, 2009 at 9:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 2, 2009 at 9:39 p.m.
LAKE CITY — When Tim Tebow, casual in a blue polo shirt, well-worn jeans and sneakers, strides through the door, applause breaks out. Even without shoulder pads, at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, he is an imposing presence.
Nothing unusual there.
What is different is the audience waiting for him. On this particular Tuesday, Tebow is speaking to more than 800 young inmates at the Lake City Correctional Institution.
His message is simple: Wherever they find themselves in life today, it is important to finish strong.
The Columbia County facility is located about five miles east of Lake City. It is run for the Florida Department of Corrections by the private, Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America.
All of the inmates are male, youthful offenders between the ages of 18 and 24. The uniform of pants and shirt could pass for hospital scrubs and is color keyed. Some wear orange, others blue, green or khaki. A few wear stripes.
Those dressed in red are the worst offenders.
"This is pretty much their last chance before they are put into the adult prison system," Warden Jason Medlin says of those who wear red.
The facility's open-air gymnasium has concrete block walls 8 feet high, topped by wire fencing looped with razor wire. Wrens dart in and out through the wire.
"Play like a champion today" is painted on the front wall. A podium with a microphone faces rows of 300 plastic chairs.
The inmates enter in a single-file line, called out by housing units, or pods. Guards on the rooftop suggest that moving this many inmates at one time is not an everyday occurrence.
Accompanying Tebow on his visit are Jim Williams, who has done volunteer work in the state's prison system for years, Williams' grandson Zachary, a junior at UF, and Major Wailon Haston, of the Department of Corrections. Williams has known Bob Tebow, Tim's dad, for more than 30 years. Everyone in the group calls the quarterback Timmy, not Tim.
Williams knows the odds are against the young men who hear Tebow's message escaping the cycle of jail or prison.
He points to a 2008 report by the Pew Center that says one of every 100 adult Americans is in jail or prison.
One in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars. For black males in that age group, the figure is one in nine.
In his willingness to speak of his faith to prisoners, "Timmy has a platform like no one else," says Williams, a Jacksonville electrical contractor.
Warden Medlin introduces Williams, who announces the Gator quarterback as "No. 15, Timmy Tebow."
Tebow pulls the microphone from its stand and advances on the young men ranged before him. He paces just short of the front row. He's in their face, down among them.
Tebow tells them that for the past 18 months, the Gator football team has been working with a new mantra: "Finish strong."
Whether it was lifting weights in the weight room or doing sprints on the practice field, the focus has been the same. "Finish strong."
"Then we were playing Alabama (in the SEC Championship) and losing ... in the fourth quarter, with nine minutes to go. That was what we'd trained for," he says. The Gators scored two touchdowns the last quarter and won the game.
"We finished strong," he says.
Next up was Oklahoma in the National Championship Game, he tells them. The Sooners were led by the 2008 Heisman trophy winner, Sam Bradford.
"The game was tied 14-14 in the fourth quarter, but it didn't matter because we were going to finish strong," Tebow recounts.
When it mattered, the Gators scored 10 unanswered points to win.
"How much more important is it in life to finish strong?" he asks the group. "You may not have had a good first, second or third quarter, but you can still finish strong in life."
In the grand scheme of things, the Heisman Trophy winner says, "football doesn't really matter, but life does."
"He's someone that this age group can identify with - he's a very upstanding young man, on and off the field," Medlin says later.
Tebow describes being interviewed by an ESPN reporter, who commented on how he'd won two national championships and a Heisman Trophy and was recognized all over the country.
"Because of all this, you must consider your life a success, right?" the reporter asked.
To himself, Tebow says he thought, "She has no idea what she's talking about."
But he answered, "Yes, ma'am." (And the polite 21-year-old does say "ma'am.")
'Jesus is knocking on your heart'
"I consider my life a success, but not for the reasons you named. It is because I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ," Tebow says.
"I may not know what the future holds, but I know who holds my future. And that's why I can stand in front of you and say my life has been a success."
Tebow tells of growing up in church, part of a religious family, but says it wasn't until someone shared his personal testimony with him that he made the choice to become a committed Christian.
"At first I thought, 'I don't need anybody. I can get there on my own.' I let my pride get in the way. But I realized I could never be good enough or famous enough to get to heaven on my own."
Tebow says people often ask him why he spends his time speaking to prisoners, when he could be hanging out on the beach or at practice with his teammates.
"I am here because there is nothing more important than me sharing with you. In your heart, you want and need what I have ... and that is not a national championship," he says.
"You can use every excuse there is, and I have heard them all, but you know that Jesus is knocking on your heart. It is your choice whether you will let him in."
He invites the men sitting slouched all around to come forward and stand with him.
"There is nothing better than having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ," he assures them.
One man rises and steps forward to applause. Then two ... then 20. Tebow greets and thanks each man who joins him in the circle under the basketball net. He leads the group in prayer.
"Remember, it's not the prayer that saves you," he tells them. "In Jesus, you have a friend who sticks closer than a brother. Welcome to the family of God."
Everyone wants his time
Tebow speaks to 816 inmates in three separate sessions over three hours; 138 come forward to declare their faith.
As each of the 816 files out under the watchful eye of guards, Tebow shakes hands. Only one gives him a cold shoulder. Another flashes a University of Miami sign.
"It's OK. I understand," the Gator quarterback says. Today is not about football.
Everyone wants a piece of his time, however.
Between sessions, Tebow gets a break and a bottle of cold water in the warden's office. This might be a prison facility, but at least today, it is also Gator Country.
Staffers push open the door and line up for an autograph or a photo. The office copier is working overtime, printing out Tebow photos to be signed.
Some carry bags from Wal-Mart with caps, footballs, jackets or shirts. One brings her grandchildren's undies. Many have the latest Sports Illustrated magazine with Tebow on the cover.
Warden Medlin has a framed photo of the University of Michigan stadium on the wall above his desk. Still, he has a few Gator items to be autographed.
"They're for the boy next door," Medlin explains. "He heard that Tim was going to be here and was standing in my driveway when I left for work this morning."
Tebow, a left-hander, signs and smiles. Someone brings him more Sharpies. One man slides a copy of the new Sports Illustrated SEC Preview edition in front of him.
It cracks him up.
On the cover, UF coach Urban Meyer peers over a set of sunglasses pulled low on his nose. Very Tom Cruise in "Risky Business."
"That has to be the most ridiculous cover photo ever," Tebow says with a laugh. "How'd they convince him to do that?"
Shortly before 5 p.m., Tebow piles into a second-row seat in a van driven by Williams for the return to Gainesville. It has been a long day. The next day promises to be equally long. He will speak to the men at Union Correctional Institution, which houses Florida's death row.
His message, he says, will be the same. Even on death row, change is possible. Forgiveness is possible. Salvation is possible.
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