David Nelson looked at his cell phone and immediately felt a large knot tighten in his stomach. The message was from Tim Tebow and the news was not encouraging. All along, Nelson had thought Tebow would return for his senior season at the University of Florida rather than bolt for the National Football League, but now there was legitimate doubt.
“He actually texted me yesterday morning and said, ‘Pray for me, I’m about to make some life-changing decisions,’” said Nelson after Florida’s national championship celebration at The Swamp Sunday afternoon. “When he sent me that, it kind of hit me that he might be leaving … he might be going.”
After spending three of his four years at the University of Florida with Tebow, Nelson has become close with his quarterback. They share more than a football passed back and forth countless times in the offseason and practice, developing the kind of timing it takes to hook up for victory-sealing touchdowns in both the SEC and BCS National Championship games. They are close friends and confidants, Christians with deep, abiding faith that they’re always willing to share with others.
“I thought all along he would come back,” Nelson said. “He loves this university. He loves playing for Florida. He loves everything about being a college athlete. I never really got too worried until I saw that text message.”
This was one time when Nelson wasn’t going to offer advice to his friend, who had won the Most Outstanding Player award at the FedEx BCS National Championship Game Thursday night with a scintillating performance that included 22 carries for 109 yards and 18-of-30 passing for 231 yards and two touchdowns, including a 4-yard jump pass to Nelson with 3:07 remaining that clinched Florida’s second national championship in the last three years.
“I tried to give him his space,” Nelson continued. “I tried not to get too involved with him. It was his decision and he was going to do what’s best for him.”
So Nelson did as he was asked. He prayed unselfish prayers, asking for guidance for Tim Tebow, who was about to make the next important decision of a young life that has already been filled with monumental choices.
It wasn’t until a few minutes before the Gators ran out of the tunnel onto the field at The Swamp, greeted by 42,000 adoring fans who had come to celebrate the most recent national championship that Nelson knew what Tebow was going to do.
“He told me before we were going out together, ‘Let’s go get another one together,’” Nelson said. “A weight came off my shoulders.”
* * *
Urban Meyer hardly slept Friday night. There was no time for sleep after the Gators beat Oklahoma, 24-14, to win the national championship and Friday was filled with a press conference, saying good-bye to old friends Dan Mullen and John Hevesy, who had coached their last games as Gators the night before, checking on new offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, who was going to have knee surgery at Shands, and preparing for a recruiting weekend that would involve a couple of the best high school players in the country.
There was also this minor little detail of an impending meeting on Saturday with Tim Tebow and his family, a meeting in which he would learn what his record-setting quarterback was going to do — stay for one more year at Florida or head to the National Football League for a brand-new challenge.
Meyer had no doubt that Tebow would make the right decision — “I made the comment that Tim would make the right decision whatever he decided because it was well thought out and he spoke to the right people,” Meyer said after The Swamp celebration — but exactly what was the right decision?
The “right people” included some of Meyer’s closest friends in the National Football League like New England Patriots head coach Bill Bellichick, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden. He knew they would give Tebow an honest evaluation about where he could expect to go in the National Football League Draft in April.
Meyer knew that Tebow had talked with his buddies but he had no idea how those conversations went.
“Tim had some discussions and I don’t know what they said to him,” Meyer admitted at his post-celebration mini-press conference.
After five hours with Tebow and his family — private time that Meyer didn’t care to discuss with the media — Meyer heard words that must have been like sweet music to his ears. Tim Tebow, whom Meyer believes is the greatest college football player in the history of the game, was coming back for his senior season at the University of Florida.
Meyer trusts Tebow like no other player he’s ever coached. He allowed Tebow to have a say in the hiring of new quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler, who replaces Mullen on the Florida staff. He appreciates the impact Tebow has on everyone he comes in contact with and that includes his nine-year old son Nate, seen at The Swamp Sunday wearing a Tebow No. 15 jersey, and his two daughters, Nicki and Gigi.
“When my daughter texts me in the morning and quotes the Bible verse that he has underneath his eyes, that’s good for college football,” said Meyer. “That’s good for young people.”
And Saturday night, unlike Thursday and Friday nights, Meyer slept.
“Last night was a good night,” he said. “The night before was not a good night. I feel good now.”
* * *
In making his decision, Tebow allowed the win over Oklahoma to weigh into his thought process. He loved that championship feeling from Thursday night and he wanted to prolong it for a couple of weeks but there was the matter of the NFL and making the choice that was best for him and his future.
The deadline for declaring for the NFL is Jan. 15 but Tebow didn’t want to extend the decision even for a few more days. Like Meyer, he wasn’t sleeping all that well so the sooner he made the choice the sooner he would be at peace.
“I wanted to get it done with because I could barely sleep just thinking about it,” Tebow said. “I wanted to enjoy the national championship and not have to worry about this. It was a little bit of a burden to me. I wanted to get it done with and enjoy winning the national championship for a week or two.”
Armed with information gathered from talking to NFL coaches that he and Meyer trust, he was ready to weigh the pros and cons with Meyer Saturday, but in his heart of hearts, Tebow already knew what he was going to do.
In a certain way, this was like that December afternoon in 2005 when he chose the Florida Gators over Alabama, a decision that changed the course of Florida football forever. On that day, Tebow’s lifelong love for the Gators was the trump card.
Saturday, love of the Gators was the trump card once again and there was the added wallop of a potential third national championship in four years.
“I love these guys [teammates] and coach Meyer and this program too much,” said Tebow, who added that loyalty to coaches, teammates and the university is a very big deal.
And so he chose to stay but the announcement had to wait for Sunday and it wasn’t without a bit of dramatic flair. Taking a page from the Oh-Fours, whose “We back, baby!” announcement at basketball’s national championship celebration in April of 2006 set off a wild celebration in the O-Dome, Tebow set up the crowd at The Swamp perfectly.
They were on the edge of their seats, desperately hoping to hear that Tebow would announce he was coming back for his senior year. But Tebow talked about how great it is to be a Gator, winning the national championship and faith. He said nothing about coming back for his senior year as he stood on the stage at midfield with Florida’s former national championship quarterbacks, Danny Wuerffel (1996) and Chris Leak (2006).
Finished with his short speech, Tebow walked to the stairs and it was like all the air had been sucked out of The Swamp. The crowd felt deflated.
Suddenly Tebow turned and nonchalantly said, “Oh, by the way … let’s do it again! I’m coming back!”
The Swamp turned electric, almost as if 42,000 fans had been jolted simultaneously by a cattle prod. Once again Tim Tebow had turned The Swamp into his own personal playground. People danced in their seats. They hugged. They slapped hands. They screamed at the top of their lungs.
And Tim Tebow? He just smiled. Just another day at the office for a young man whose impact on college football and the Florida campus is immeasurable.
Immeasurable. Probably the best way to describe Tim Tebow. You can’t measure his impact on the game of college football, the Florida football program or the people he comes in contact with, whether in Gainesville or when he’s globetrotting with his family on mission trips. His impact will grow in the next year and then he will be gone for sure, out of eligibility and this time definitely headed to the NFL.
So enjoy him while you can. The clock is ticking. The next time on the big stage, Tim Tebow will be saying good-bye and all the “one more year” chants in the world won’t be able to bring him back.