It’s a start!

Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Oakland’s “Black Hole.” Some people might call it “Hell Hole,” where fans dress up like it’s a combination of Mardi Gras and a bad Star Wars Convention, where fans delight in the uncouth and profane.

This is where Tim Tebow would finally make his stand as the anointed starter, taking the place of the injured Kyle Orton, maybe with the chance to validate those feelings of admiration and reverence of those advocates who consider him the greatest Florida Gator of all-time.

The chatter began sometime late in the week, but there was no commitment or confirmation yet that Tebow, for certain, would be starting his first NFL game. So many of us didn’t take it all that seriously, until we read that report Sunday from the Denver press that the Gator prodigy would be taking the field in one of the worst snake pit arenas in all of sports.

It’s not that the Raiders are so good. (In fact, they may go unbeaten in the AFC West and not make the playoffs). It’s just that Raider fans are so bad. Take it from somebody who has made many trips to both Oakland and Los Angeles to cover the Broncos-Raiders games. Despite poor seasons of late, the two teams are still hated rivals.

To Bronco fans, it’s more of a morality play, good vs. evil. The perfect backdrop for those who considered Tebow “The Prodigal.” And frankly, a bit of a scary place.

According to the Denver Post, Tebow posted part of the 23rd Psalm on his Facebook page: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

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Of course, nobody in the state of Florida could watch his debut on their home TV unless they had invested in the NFL package. They give us the Jets-Steelers instead.

So when the first news bulletin hit the media, it sent many Tebow/Gator fans scrambling to sports bars and other assorted venues: Tim Tebow had just scampered 40 yards for a touchdown. Game on!

It’s true that while maybe his popularity grew so white hot over four years that some wearied of the Tebow worship, we’ve all also had about enough of the Tebow bashing. Between the disrespect accorded him by so-called experts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay of ESPN, enough already!

And frankly, there needed to be a little vindication. By the same token, we all wanted to see for ourselves what we believed to be true: That Tim Tebow belongs in the NFL.

Posters quickly advised their fellow Gator Countrymen and women that the game could be seen on some links and the comments rolled in. There was a sense of pride emerging and an air of excitement again — something that’s been missing in Gator Nation for a few months.

I decided to go see for myself.

* * *

Once we returned home from a family birthday luncheon and got the word, we drove over to Crawford Ker’s Wing House in Ocala and got there in the second quarter, learning that Tebow had, indeed, run 40 yards for one score and also thrown 34 yards for another. There seemed to be an enthusiastic core of fans in the place, which was jammed, but not 100 per cent Gator.

Around Gainesville, some were already strategically positioned, like our own Tim Casey, Dugan Arnett and Derek Tyson. Casey reported from Gators Dockside:

“Every time Tebow (or the Broncos) do something, the place erupts in cheers. Louis Murphy made a nice play, but nobody seemed to care. This was coming from people wearing Dolphins, Bills, Jets and Steelers jerseys, not just the ones in Tebow Broncos jerseys.

“Just crazy.”

* * *

It was a 17-14 Bronco lead until Sebastian Janokowski’s field goal tied it at halftime.

Indeed, you could feel the orange and blue current running through The Gator Nation again.

Just like the old Tebow — blood on his hand, dirty uniform from the scrambling and crashing for extra yards, fire-breathing exhortations to his teammates, fist-pumping and vein-popping screams of encouragement.

“That stuff does work at this level,” said CBS analyst Steve Tasker.

A Denver Bronco team that had already been labeled as “one of the worst ever” by the media, its second-year coach already fired, was suddenly lit up, with all three units playing inspired football. Proof once again that the juice is important – a commodity that was missing last season for Urban Meyer’s team.

It was more than just his animation, however, because as reflected in his numbers and the poise with which he stood in the pocket the hit his targets, Tim Tebow was proving he belonged. In the third quarter he had already rushed for 75 yards, second most in franchise history.

“Very impressive today,” said announcer Gus Johnson.

* * *

For the better part of three quarters, this jacked up Bronco team played like brand new, taking a 20-20 tie deep into the second half. Then in the fourth they seemed to get a run of bad field position, a crucial penalty, a dropped pass, etc.  and came unglued.

Despite a limited playbook and only 16 passes, Tebow was moving the chains, but on third and one, an offensive lineman jumped and killed the drive. Then the Denver defense hit the snooze button, allowing a 73-yard screen pass for a touchdown. The death knell sounded when Denver was stuffed for a safety on two straight poorly executed — and not very well timed — running plays (by, of all people, former Auburn Tiger Quentin Groves). 

All this was just enough for a sudden loudmouth Raider fan in Wing House to start his taunting and openly berating of Tebow as only a low-brown devotee of the Silver and Black could do. I checked just to make sure it wasn’t Kiper or McShay.

* * *

There were some flashes of brilliance. Tebow became only the third NFL player to throw a TD pass at least 30 yards and run for a score of at least 40 yards in the same game.

Wrote Mike Klis of the Denver Post: “Amid all the hype, anticipation and criticism that greeted his NFL starting debut, Tebow’s performance against the Oakland Raiders provided moments of greatness.”

Looking at the final score 39-23, there probably wasn’t much bragging to be done, but if they handed out stripes like Urban Meyer did for battlefield promotions of rookies, Tim Tebow certainly earned his Sunday. Clearly, there are going to be many more Sundays like this for Tebow, except he will no doubt come out on top more times than not.