Tim Tebow finds audience among old rivals

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Tim Tebow spotted the guys in the Tennessee orange near the front of the room and went where the spirit moved him.

“I’ve just got to say I’m sorry,” the former Heisman winner said, drawing laughs from the crowd at Community Bible Church in Port Royal. “Tennessee was a big rival for us, and we just hated those colors.”

The true-blue Florida Gator probably could have offered a similar mea culpa to all the Gamecock garnet scattered about the sanctuary. Or the handful in Georgia red and black. And who knows what other SEC colors might have been hiding underneath jackets Thursday night. Tebow thrashed them all at one point.

Here’s the catch, though: They all came out to hear Tebow speak. Not only was the church sanctuary filled, auxiliary buildings were showing his message via closed-circuit.

From a quarterback standpoint, there still may be no middle ground about his football ability. Even when the Philadelphia Eagles brought Tebow to camp last summer, the debate over whether he should be third on Chip Kelly’s depth chart flared hotter than some open starting jobs elsewhere.

No less polarizing has been Tebow’s out-front Christian faith, burnished since childhood as the youngest son of Baptist missionaries. Where some saw his end-zone genuflecting — remember “Tebowing”? — as an expression of godly thanks, others saw self-promotion.

Give him a room and an audience, though — whether one person or a thousand — and it’s hard not to get caught up in his infectious zest for life. And competition.

“We had the most competitive family,” Tebow said. “If there was a challenge, we were somehow going to meet that challenge.”

It wasn’t always sports. He recalled after an afternoon of watching John Wayne movies, his brother Robby had the idea to imitate Wayne’s move of dropping from the rafters onto a running horse. He got the timing right, too — but no one factored in the horse’s reaction. Robby wound up with a badly broken arm.

Tebow also shared the story of his first game in organized sports, playing T-ball shortly after moving to Florida from the Philippines. His coach went into the standard speech about how the score doesn’t matter, the important thing is to have fun.

Little Timmy, unable to contain himself, blurted out, “Winning is when you have fun!” Moreover, when Tebow discovered his first baseman couldn’t catch the ball a lick, he’d field grounders and run them to the bag himself.

Again, everyone laughed. Hey, it’s funny when it’s not your team on the other end.

(As an aside, kudos to the menu planner at Community Bible who managed to include gator bites on the Men’s Wildlife Supper selection. Clever, yet subtle. Tasty, too.)

For a guy whose NFL career essentially short-circuited after two seasons in Denver, Tebow has made the most of his platform. He’s been well received as an SEC Network analyst, and has thrown considerable energy into his charitable efforts. The Tim Tebow Foundation, founded in 2010, helps provide support for children in need both in local communities and abroad.

Just last weekend, Tebow hosted — via satellite — his “Night to Shine” prom for to celebrate people with special needs. Spread out over 200 churches in 48 states, organizers reported some 32,000 in total attendance.

Another jewel came 14 months ago with the opening of Tebow CURE Hospital, a pediatric facility in the Philippines.

“We serve a big God,” Tebow said, “He might want you to change a million people, it might be to change one person.”

He’s seen both. Tebow recalled his days at Florida, when he began writing Bible verses on his eye black. He went through the regular season with Philippians 4:13 under his eyes — “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”

After winning the SEC title, though, Tebow was moved to change the verse. At the BCS Championship game, the Gators beat Oklahoma with Tebow wearing John 3:16 under his eyes.

A few days later, Tebow’s family and coach Urban Meyer were having dinner together when Meyer’s phone rang. A UF staffer informed them that according to Google, some 94 million people had looked up John 3:16 during the game.

Fast forward to last summer, when Tebow and friends went to Florida’s death row to share their message. As the day was winding down, one friend asked about a corridor they hadn’t been down.

It was the suicide watch unit, with four inmates housed. One, they were told, had killed a fellow inmate days earlier and was threatening to kill himself.

Tebow knocked and peered through the tiny window. He was surprised when the man answered, “You are a Christian.”

“Yes, I am,” Tebow replied. “Do you know why we’re here? To tell you God loves you.”

The inmate fell to the floor and wept. Through tears, he told them that just minutes earlier, he’d vowed that if God didn’t show up right then, he’d figure a way to end his life.

“You don’t always know when God is working through you,” Tebow said.

It’s a message that resonates well in any color.