November 25, 2009
Tebow gazing with the proprietor of Tim Teblog.
Why is ESPN's GameDay crew breaking for Gainesville Saturday? There have to be more important games than Florida-Florida State in a weekend full of consequential rivalry matches, and certainly there should be more engaging affairs -- the Gators are three-touchdown favorites.
But the appeal is obvious: The pulse of America's Saturday smorgasbord will be there because it's Tim Tebow's final home game. (That it could plausibly be Bobby Bowden's final regular-season game at FSU is a schadenfreudian bonus for Gator fans, who could have the rare opportunity to see off their hero and their nemesis at the same time.) Superlatives are cheap -- the debate about Tebow's place among the greatest college players ever has been largely tabled by his mediocre senior numbers -- but he could still be the most popular player ever. If nothing else, there's no debate that Tebow is the most popular player in Florida history, and that makes his Swamp finale a must-see spectacle.
It's hard to imagine how fans are going react after four steady, mostly spectacular years: If allowed to, the ovation for Tebow could last 10 minutes or more. There is already a clever grassroots campaign underway to get fans to show up for the game wearing eye-black in tribute. And if the game is out of reach early, what will Urban Meyer do to celebrate Tebow's final Swamp snap? (Probably call time-out, if only to allow for a few more minutes of uninterrupted crowd applause. With all his other school records, maybe Tebow can break the mark for adulation, too.)
Tebow's career is already in plain view in the stadium, in large signs promoting the SEC and national titles in 2006 and 2008; in Tebow's No. 15 jersey on display next to Florida's other Heisman winners, Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel; in "The Promise," the vow to concentrate the team's energies into a transcendent effort that's sparked 21 straight wins since the Gators' loss to Ole Miss last September and etched in stone outside of the football offices next to the stadium. I'm not sure Florida will retire Tebow's No. 15 -- even Steve Spurrier's No. 11 and Wuerffel's No. 7 are still in use. But I can't imagine what future Florida player would want to accept the burden of comparison. (Don't hold your breath waiting for Lane Kiffin or Mark Richt or Bobby Bowden to suggest their schools retire No. 15 out of respectful tribute, like LeBron wants all teams and players to do for Michael Jordan's 23.)
Florida fans may be grasping for some kind of feeling of closure -- closing out an undefeated regular season by beating their most hated rival is a good start. But I would suggest something else, apropos given ESPN's presence on campus -- GameDay made its first trip to Gainesville in the Tebow Era on Oct.7, 2006, the afternoon Tebow broke out with two touchdown passes in a stirring effort off the bench to spark the offense against the Tigers. In August, Kirk Herbstreit talked about the moment when Tim Tebow entered the game for the first time and made a big play, and it is a quote that all Tebologists have in their files:
"I said to (Chris) Fowler it's like he's Roy Hobbs from the movie 'The Natural.'"
Just before halftime of that game, Tebow would pull off what I would argue was his irrefutably greatest moment at The Swamp, the jump-pass touchdown to a flailing Tate Casey, a move so unorthodox and spectacular and ultimately crucial to the win that it affirmed for Florida fans that this player was -- as the Doc himself dubbed him -- the "Tebow-Child."
Herbstreit was talking about the crowd's over-the-top reaction to Tebow's entry into the game, but between Tebow's on-field performances and off-field mythology-building, Tebow is the closest thing we have ever seen in real-life sports to Malamud's fictional "Natural." Thinking back to that game, Tebow's career trajectory since that breakthrough moment seems almost obvious in hindsight. And there will be plenty of nostalgia this week about Tebow's Florida career, not to mention his career in The Swamp. Even those who suffer today from Tebow Fatigue can probably remember the moment in 2006 when they shook their head marveling at this freakish freshman who specialized in bulling his way through the line for the team that would finish No. 1 at year's end.
Perhaps to come full circle from GameDay's first Tebow game, Urban Meyer will call for a goal-line jump pass -- what more fitting of a finale could you ask for that Tebow charging toward the line, stepping back and lobbing a little pass over the line like he was an oversized kid on the playground? You know, just to remind them what they're going to miss.