Highlights from the Florida Gators’ 2008 national championship game flash from plasma television sets lining the back wall.
Gators gear hangs from every rack in sight.
Little kids run by with eyeblack and number 15 jerseys, almost as if ready to charge through the crowd of people as their favorite player used to do in the Swamp.
People shout, smile, laugh and hold cameras high over their heads in a desperate attempt to get a glimpse of someone behind a wall of people.
Orange and blue balloons float in an atmosphere so thick it is a wonder they don’t burst.
A woman pushing a cart through the chaos looks up with a curious expression of bewilderment at the excited mob of fans.
“What’s going on here?” she asks, almost embarrassed that she is out of the loop.
“Tim Tebow book signing.”
It was as if someone had just explained the meaning of life to her.
“Ohhhhhhh,” she replies, as a giant smile creeps onto her face and her face changes from that of confusion to that of utter comprehension. She glances around at all of the orange and blue jerseys and rolls her cart away into the sea of Gators gear.
Tim Tebow may have merely been taking a Sharpie to a few book jackets Thursday evening, but for some people, it was a much more profound experience. For those who love Tebow as a superstar and person that has meant so much to the city of Gainesville and Gator Nation, it was a chance to thank their hero and freeze the sports world’s most infectious smile in a photograph forever.
The fact that he could return to a Gainesville Walmart in a parking lot not even large enough to hold cars that his supporters flocked to in was a truly special experience for hundreds.
One man sat in a large van with the door open towards the back of the parking lot, calmly reading a book as chaos had already broken out inside the Walmart.
Harold Donahue said he had kick-started the fandom of the Gators in his family by graduating from the University of Florida in the ‘60s, and then sending his two sons off to Gainesville in the ‘80s. In support of Tebow, he had driven up to Gainesville from Ocala to share the experience with his wife and 11-year-old granddaughter.
Donahue said Tebow’s book, titled “Through My Eyes,” was a perfectly accurate portrayal of Tebow and underlined his importance to Gators fans everywhere.
“It fits his life perfectly,” he said. “He’s not boastful. He just portrays the facts of his life and I think it’s awesome to have a role model of that caliber.”
Inside the Walmart, younger fans scurried around, some rocking Denver Broncos jerseys with the number 15 and the fresh lettering of “Tebow” on the backs. For many fans, Tebow’s passion for football has carried their support into the pros, where they have adopted the Broncos as their favorite team to root on their favorite player.
One group of girls admitted to ditching the New England Patriots for the Broncos, saying it was Tebow’s personality and character that made him an irresistible icon to cheer on.
Such was proven true about ten minutes later after the girls had met Tebow, saying that his publicist had been forced to usher them away as the affable Tebow sat patiently conversing with the girls.
One man, Randy Shadburn, sat in a wheelchair on the edge of the chaos sporting a prosthetic leg and a plastic Gators kneecap. Unable to stand up to see Tebow, he sat beaming from ear-to-ear nonetheless.
He cradled a photograph of him in a hospital bed with none other than Tebow standing at his side with that famous grin.
“This is a picture of me and him in the hospital about a year-and-a-half ago,” he said. “I didn’t look very well then, but hopefully he will remember me and this will all be worth it tomorrow.”
Shadburn chuckled while recounting the story of Tebow coming to visit him.
“I was sedated pretty good and had all these people coming in and out, and then all of a sudden in comes Tebow and I thought, ‘This must be the morphine,’” he said. “He stayed for about an hour talking and signing autographs. What you see is what you get with him. He’s genuine.”
A Gators fan since 1954, Shadburn tapped on his prosthetic leg and joked some more, remaining tremendously jovial amidst all of the Tebow mania.
“This here is not my gameday leg,” he chuckled. “I have another one at home. This one needs to be re-done.”
Shadburn finished talking and repositioned himself with his Gators walking cane to face Tebow again, eager to have another chat out of a hospital bed with an old friend that had visited at a time of need.
Walmart may simply be a place to buy toothpaste or pick up the newest DVD release, but on Thursday it was much more. It was a place Tim Tebow could come back to his old stomping grounds — not with shoulder pads and a gameday scowl, but with a warm smile and a pen.
He may only have had a few minutes to shake hands before the publicist hurried the endless line along, but it was apparent that those few moments were precious to each fan.
A young girl walked away from the line with a smile so big that even the Joker would be jealous.
“That was the best moment of my life,” she giggled.
She was not alone.