Nine years after throwing his last pass in a Florida football uniform, 10 years after leading the Gators to a national championship and 11 years after winning a Heisman Trophy, Tim Tebow still resonates.
On the set of SEC Nation, as Tebow interviewed Florida coach Dan Mullen on Friday at the Plaza of Americas on UF’s campus, fans lined up against the fences, cell phones out, taking pictures. One student yelled “Tebow, wish me luck on my exam!” while another yelled at Mullen to “put Tebow in the game!” A 9-year old boy held up a Tebow sign.
“I guess that’s probably parents sharing stories with him,” Tebow said.
Each time Tebow returns to campus, he says it’s special. But this weekend will be different. On Saturday, Tebow will be placed in UF’s Ring of Honor at Ben Hill Griffin, and will be honored with teammates for the 10-year anniversary of the 2008 national title team.
“It means a lot,” Tebow said. “This place is so near and dear to my heart. It’s one of my favorite places on this Earth. So it’s a honor. I love Gator Nation and I feel like it’s pretty reciprocal. It just makes you feel great to be able to come back and experience that. It’s very special for me.”
At 31, Tebow has found a second chapter, in both TV as a SEC Network analyst and personality and as a minor league baseball player in the New York Mets system, since his NFL career came to an end in 2015. There’s also been plenty of commercial appearances, motivational speaking engagements and countless stories of good works. Last month, Tebow revealed he auctioned off his Heisman Trophy to celebrity Kathie Lee Gifford for a year for $100,000 to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project.
Laura Rutledge, who now works alongside Tebow as SEC Nation’s host, was a freshman at UF when Tebow won his Heisman and a sophomore when he helped lead the Gators to the 2008 title.
“Now I just think of him as Tim and I don’t think of him as that big of a deal,” Rutledge said. “But earlier today we were actually on the field and walking through some of his memories and I get chills, even talking about it now, because that year obviously and just that time in general was special to anybody who was a Florida student, anyone who went to school here.”
Rutledge said she believes Tebow still resonates with Florida fans because he’s genuine.
“That’s sort of rare, sadly, in our society that somebody is that true to their core and that true to their values,” Rutledge said. “But he’s always been the same, he’s always been reliable.
“He’s very convicted in his faith and he puts that out there and wears it certainly proudly on his sleeve. I think his success has only grown since he was in school and he would probably even tell you that as a person he’s matured a lot even from being in college. He’s always been a great leader and a lot of what he’s been through, and a lot of failure too, and somehow has always been this example of someone who can always bounce back from that, so I think we all find great hope in that.”
UF senior Elizabeth Colvin was among close to 100 students who lined up to watch Tebow on the SEC Nation set Friday. Colvin grew up in St. Augustine, where Tebow starred at Nease High School before coming to UF. To Colvin, Tebow remains an inspiration.
“He’s driven by faith and by his love for what he does,” Colvin said. “So whether it be football, whether it be sports in general, just walking by faith in life.”