SCOTTSDALE, AZ — Jemalle Cornelius, anointed “The Face of Florida Football” by Coach Urban Meyer, lives life with a grin on his face. Mention freshman quarterback Tim Tebow to Cornelius and the grin becomes as wide and as bright as one of those spectacular Arizona sunsets.
“Tebow … maybe he got dropped on his head as a baby or something because he’s really different,” Cornelius says with a laugh, shaking his head. His is a typical reaction. Just mention the name Tim Tebow and teammates laugh. They smile. They shake their heads.
And all of them have a Tim Tebow story.
“He had just gotten to Florida and I saw him bench press 225 26 times,” says All-SEC center Steve Rissler. Rissler is a big guy, a 300-pounder and a weight room warrior. As a fifth-year senior who has seen his share of hotshot rookies come and go, it takes a lot to impress him.
“I thought that’s crazy,” said Rissler. “That’s what offensive and defensive linemen do. A freshman quarterback?”
Dallas Baker remembers this one time in the weight room when Tebow was maxing out on the bench press.
“After he got off the bench press he hops down and does some pushups,” said Baker, an All-SEC wide receiver, and another fifth-year senior. “I mean you’ve just burned out on the bench press and you’re going to jump down and do more pushups? He’s all about getting that extra edge.”
Before he had ever arrived on the Florida campus, Tim Tebow was on the verge of folk hero status. He was the golden child, the All-American boy that was too good to be true. He was a record-setting quarterback, one of the best in the nation and the reason that Florida fans rejoiced and Alabama fans went into a heightened state of apoplexy the day he announced to the nation that he was going to be a Gator.
The son of missionaries to The Philippines, Tebow is as comfortable giving his personal testimony before crowds of thousands as he is running over a linebacker, a contrast so startling that it only adds to the growing legend. To be so gentle and so sweet natured when he’s working with kids or teenagers, Tebow is the fierce warrior when it comes to anything that has to do with football. On the field he will do whatever it takes to win, especially if that means he gets to run over a cornerback. Off the field, he is so humble and caring that you can’t imagine he actually plays football.
All of the Florida football players knew Tebow could play. They all saw the ESPN documentary — “The Chosen One” — and they figured he was pretty tough, too. You don’t play the second half of a football game on a broken ankle and limp your way to a long touchdown run that wins that game in the fourth quarter if you aren’t a tough guy. Still, they had to see for themselves to actually believe.
When his teammates saw him in the weight room in January they were impressed.
“He’s just a freshman but he’s a man,” said Rissler.
Then came mat drills in February and that’s when the fiery, competitive personality really surfaced. That’s when teammates really began to take notice.
“I saw him run his head into the wall early in the morning before a mat drill to get himself going,” said junior wide receiver Andre Caldwell. “We thought he was crazy when he first got here but then we saw him get on the field and we knew he was all right.”
Mat drills bring out the best and worst in everybody on the football team. The early morning workouts that begin at 5 a.m. are designed to push each player to his physical and emotional limit. Trash cans line the walls of the room. They’re in place for players that have pushed it so hard they have to barf and they are usually filled by the time each session is over.
Mat drills are as much about winning and losing as they are about discipline. Win and you’re rewarded. Lose and you have to do the drill over again. Break a rule by starting too soon or stepping over a line and the punishment is swift.
That’s when Baker began to notice Tebow was far different than any freshman he had encountered.
“He seemed that he was having fun out of the punishment we were getting,” said Baker. “He has this big issue with losing, really. His competitive edge is really high and that’s different from somebody coming out of high school.”
Cornelius also found out that Tebow is addicted to winning. Winning only makes him more competitive. When the juices start to stir within, Tebow only wants to win even more.
“One day we were doing a competition where you have to push a plate across the weight room,” Cornelius recalled. “He was winning so he went about 15 times, just taking on anybody that wanted to beat him. Well he went 14 times and he didn’t lose. It wasn’t until the last time — his fifteenth try — that he lost and that was only because he was so tired.”
Considering Florida’s depth problem at quarterback — Tebow and starter Chris Leak are the only two scholarship players at the position — everybody knew that Tebow would get into games on a regular basis as a freshman. Given Tebow’s fiery, competitive nature, his performance in last April’s Orange and Blue Game went a long way toward convincing quite a few in the Florida and national media that a quarterback controversy was on the Gator horizon. Some folks openly pondered that the first time Leak had a so-so game and Tebow did well there would be an open, unhealable schism in the Florida team.
That never happened.
Yes, Tebow played and he played well. He rushed for 430 yards, second best on the team, (5.4 average per carry), and a team best seven touchdowns. He passed for 357 yards and four touchdowns. Against LSU, Tebow ran for one touchdown and threw for two in one of Florida’s most important wins on its march to the Southeastern Conference championship.
For all his success as a freshman, however, Tebow has never once caused a problem with his attitude. If anything, Tebow’s attitude has probably brought out the best in Leak.
“One of the biggest things that Tim Tebow has helped do is bring out Chris’s personality,” said offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, who also coaches the Florida quarterbacks. “Tim has so much personality. I think Tim has made it okay for Chris to laugh and have fun at the game.
“If he makes a mistake or does something wrong, Tim will kind of edge him on and tease him a little bit and make jokes and he can laugh and then Chris does the same thing back to Tim. That relationship that those two have built has really allowed Chris to open up and relax and have a lot more fun playing the game.”
That Leak and Tebow can not only co-exist but have fun doing it has given the Gators a lethal two-headed monster at the quarterback position. Their combined numbers are 3,086 passing yards and 26 touchdowns to go with 453 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
Leak is more the passer of the two and Tebow is more the runner. Mullen says that’s just fine with Leak.
“Chris has never stormed into my office and said hey on fourth and one I need to run the ISO play right up the middle,” said Mullen with a grin. “He looks at me and says it’s okay for Tim to go do that.”
And while Tebow has had plenty of success running the football, there have been a couple of occasions when he met his match.
“We’re watching a play late in the game against Alabama,” Mullen recalled. “Tim runs a play right up the middle and got rejected for minus two. We’re watching the film and Chris says, ‘Hey Tim, they lift weights at Alabama, too.’”
Mullen enjoys a good Tebow story just like everyone else on the Florida football team and he’s got several good ones that he’ll share on a moment’s notice. But, like all the players on the team, Mullen also shakes his head in amazement and understands why there can be so much hype and so much written about Tebow without it affecting the team or tweaking petty jealousies.
“What people don’t see is people aren’t out there at 6 o’clock in the morning in February, March, April,” said Mullen. “They’re not out there running stadium steps with him. The team looks and they know how hard he trains. When you do that you have the respect of your teammates. As soon as you have the respect of your teammates there is no jealousy.”