Dan Schorr was shaking as he stepped out of the long line at Spirit Communications Park on Sunday.
One of his trembling hands clutched a copy of Sports Illustrated that featured a picture of former Florida Gators quarterback – and new Columbia Firefly – Tim Tebow after the Gators won the Southeastern Conference championship in 2008. Schorr’s magazine now has Tebow’s signature, scribbled in black Sharpie.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Schorr, 19, a student at the University of South Carolina. “I told him the truth: ‘I’ve been a fan of you since I was 8 years old. I’ve waited so long.’ And he’s like, ‘It’s great to meet you, too.’”
Schorr was among thousands of fans at the Fireflies Fan Fest on Sunday. Music blasted in the stadium throughout the day as fans ate hot dogs, nachos and sno-cones while watching the minor league baseball team practice. As practice ended, the main concourse filled with people hoping to get an autograph, a handshake or even a glimpse of Tebow, the Heisman Trophy winner who led the University of Florida to two BCS national championships.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Tebow and other players signed everything from T-shirts and baseballs to receipts and books.
David Ross, 56, stretched his arm above the crowd, trying to snap a good picture of Tebow in the split second that his face wasn’t encumbered by people’s heads or shoulders.
“It’s pretty mind-boggling, because as a massive celebrity you don’t ever expect to get close to someone who’s that famous,” Ross said. “It’s awesome when you think about it, the fact that he’s here in Columbia.”
Ross was wearing a Denver Broncos jersey with Tebow’s name and number 15, but underneath wore a Gamecocks T-shirt so there were no question about where his allegiance lies.
Tebow, 29, played two seasons with the Broncos and one with the New York Jets. He has been a commentator with the SEC Network but decided last year to try professional baseball. He signed a minor league contract with the Mets in September and was assigned to the Fireflies — the Mets’ Single A affiliate — last month.
Laurie Young and her husband, John Garrett, are Gamecock fans and said they became fans of Tebow after he left Florida. Garrett painted a portrait of Tebow that included a silhouette of him kneeling in prayer – an action that spurred the fad known as “Tebowing” – and hoped to get it autographed at Fan Fest.
“He’s a household name,” said Young, 43. “Everybody knows him. We’re pretty blessed to get him here.”
A wave of cheers washed through the stadium when Tebow stepped up to bat Sunday, with some fans chanting “Te-bow.”
Jacquelyn Graham stood in line to purchase, among other things, a Tebow Fireflies jersey from The Mason Jar gift shop at the ballpark. Despite not being a Gators fan, Graham said she has admired Tebow since his college football days because of his devout Christian faith, and said he’s a role model for her 12-year-old son, who wants to play baseball.
When Graham found out Tebow was coming to Columbia to play for the Fireflies, “I was all over Facebook, woo-hooing,” she said. “He’s very friendly, he’s very personable, and his No. 1 is Christ.”
Like many who wore Florida jerseys bearing No. 15 on Sunday, 35-year-old Brooke Campbell began following Tebow when he played for the Gators. She waited in line Sunday to get him to autograph a newspaper from January 2009, the headline of which reads: “Man of his word: Gators win national championship.”
Campbell believes Tebow will bring good attention not just to Columbia, but to minor league baseball.
“I think he’s going to bring in some fans that maybe didn’t watch this type of baseball,” she said. “Like it says here, a man of his word. He did what he said he was gonna do, and we think he’s gonna do that with the Fireflies.”
Season opener: Thursday, 7:05 p.m., at home vs. the Augusta GreenJackets
Stadium: Spirit Communications Park, 1640 Freed St., in the BullStreet development