By Gene Frenette/Florida Times-Union
For the last six years, usually on the Friday night before Valentine’s Day and right after the NFL puts on its greatest worldwide spectacle, Tim Tebow takes an active part in what is now his life-changing Super Bowl.
Jacksonville’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback may not throw a pass, but he still delivers what should be considered the most impressive performance of his transcendent career.
As many people know, the Tim Tebow Foundation has an annual “Night To Shine” event that allows special-needs kids ages 14 or older a chance to attend their own prom, which was launched in 2014 through 44 host churches of 14 different denominations.
“Night To Shine” has grown to such epic proportions that last week’s event produced numbers more astounding than anything Tebow ever had in the NFL or at the University of Florida.
Let this stat line marinate in your head for a minute: over approximately a 72-hour time period, with allowances for time zone differences around the world, proms were held in 34 different countries, all 50 U.S. states, by 721 host churches and 36 denominations.
Tebow boarded a private plane with a traveling party of 16 people and made a surprise guest appearance at eight locations. He started in Europe by going to proms in Albania, Rome and Paris, then jetted over to New Jersey, Tallahassee (Genesis Church), Memphis, Birmingham and Mississippi to share his message of love and hope with special-needs prom attendees.
Sure, what quarterback Patrick Mahomes did to help the Kansas City Chiefs win Super Bowl LIV over the San Francisco 49ers was impressive. But imagine the level of passion and commitment it takes for Tebow, plus his entire foundation team of 20 full-time employees and 215,000 volunteers worldwide, to pull off this stupendous event?
Keep in mind, Tebow, 32, just got married three weeks ago to a former Miss Universe, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, in South Africa. He leaves this week for the New York Mets spring training in Port St. Lucie to keep pursing his dream of being a Major League Baseball player.
On top of his fall football duties as an analyst for the SEC Network, Tebow maintains a pretty hectic schedule. There are constant requests for his time from everyone because of his celebrity status and potential impact on many charitable endeavors.
But nothing stirs Tebow’s passion quite like making lives better for special-needs kids. This was all triggered by something he witnessed in the Philippines, his birthplace, during a mission trip for his father Bob’s ministry in the summer of 2003.
It was Tim’s first time spreading the gospel message as a speaker and, according to Bob, his youngest of five kids was puzzled over seeing two boys carrying a crippled boy (he was born with backward feet) named Sherwood away before he was set to deliver his message. Tim wanted to know why Sherwood was being taken away.
The reason broke Tim’s heart. It turned out the principal of the school where Tebow was preaching didn’t want Sherwood to be seen because they were ashamed of him.
“Tim ended up sharing the gospel with Sherwood,” said Bob. “He carried Sherwood to the jeep and said, ‘One day, I’ll see you in heaven and race you.’ ”
From that moment of temporary heartbreak, a seed was planted. Tim decided that he would do everything humanly possible to make life better for special-needs kids. More than a decade later, that’s really how a “Night To Shine” became reality.
It remains one of the most amazing acts of humanitarianism because of its worldwide reach. Plus, the organization and planning it takes from 215,000 volunteers and Tebow’s foundation to execute this event is nothing short of extraordinary.
The “Night To Shine” attendees are provided wardrobe, makeup, flowers, transportation and all the amenities associated with proms. Everyone is crowned as a king and queen. They walk on a red carpet. There are respite rooms for the parents and caretakers, a dinner/buffet that is prepared or catered in by the host church.
Tebow shows up at select locations and engages with the kids, either by dancing, taking pictures, helping them get ready for the event and spreading the gospel message.
“We want to make sure our honored kings and queens feel like VIPs,” said Brandi Cook, Vice-President of Ministry for the Tebow Foundation. “I think people have seen just the difference that Night To Shine makes.
“Volunteers go in wanting to serve and they are the ones who are blessed by these kids. Lives are changed because of it.”
So what does this have to do with sports? Actually, quite a bit, because Tebow has taken the platform originally given to him by football and used it for a much greater good.
Once his NFL playing days were over, it really didn’t matter whether his baseball pursuit would lead to a Major League career because Tebow was always destined for bigger things.
All that determination and passion he displayed to win on the field is there in equal or greater abundance to help those less fortunate.
If Tebow were still playing in the NFL, is there any doubt he would have already won the Man of the Year award that Jaguars’ defensive lineman Calais Campbell received 10 days ago for making “Night To Shine” a global celebration?
Not that Tebow cares about awards because his spirit is about giving, not receiving. His NFL career may have lasted only 35 games and 16 starts, mostly with the Denver Broncos, but Tebow’s compassion for his fellow man is Hall of Fame-worthy.
As excited as he was to be part of two national championship teams at Florida, it genuinely pales in comparison to how he feels about what “Night To Shine” means for the 115,000 special-needs kids it now benefits.
“The reach of this worldwide movement to share Faith, Hope and Love is truly humbling and encouraging,” Tim said in a statement put out by his foundation. “Seeing the faces of these Kings and Queens being loved and celebrated across the globe – knowing each one of them is being shown the truth that they are significant, valuable and worthy – I can’t help but get emotional.
“It’s a dream come true seeing so many people come together from around the world to experience this one night, and see each face reflect the love of Christ in their joyful smiles and beautiful spirits.”
Tebow has long been a polarizing figure in the sports world because of his popularity, outspoken religious beliefs and past debate over his NFL quarterback skills. But he doesn’t concern himself with outside perception or get caught up in his own celebrity.
All that matters to Tim Tebow is being a humanitarian and making the world a better place. He’s a different kind of game-changer.
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