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There's no debate about the greatness of Tebow

January 09, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

FROM MIAMI — Start with the grass stains. He left the field wearing the most splendid of grass stains, long swaths of green stretching over his shoulders, across his chest, down his back, the badge of a linebacker.

Now check out the number. He is No. 15, but his jersey was tugged and twisted so much, sometimes it looked as if he were No. 11, sometimes 17, the wrinkles of a lineman.

Finish with the face. Thick cheeks decorated in eye black, framed by a crew cut, above a tight expression that sweated with intensity, a face of a fighter.

This is Tim Tebow. For a couple of wonderfully antique hours Thursday, this is the perfect player who made us forget college football's imperfect system.

After Florida's messy 24-14 victory over Oklahoma in the BCS national championship game at Dolphin Stadium, I'm still not sure I can name the nation's best team.

But I'm absolutely positive of its biggest star, that being the Gators quarterback who looks like a Four Horseman, acts like Seven Blocks of Granite, and talks like Knute Rockne.

"I wanted to leave nothing on that field," Tebow said.

But, oh, he did, and suddenly all the BCS controversy momentarily disappeared underneath his churning legs, his exhorting arms, and his game-ending, completely uncharacteristic, in-Oklahoma's-face Gator chomp.

Picked up the first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty of his career.

"I didn't trash talk," he said. "Just gave it a little Gator chomp."

Tebow left memories of his legs, which rushed for 109 yards, including 48 huge strides on Florida's go-ahead touchdown drive in the middle of the third quarter.

"He's one of those guys that you give him your best shot, he's going to get back up," Sooners safety Nic Harris said with a sigh.

He left memories of his arm, which threw two interceptions in the first half, but which found the strength to clinch the game with a four-yard jump pass to David Nelson with 3:07 left.

"A lot of it is their design, and a lot of it is him," admitted Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops.

Tebow accounted for 340 of Florida's 480 total yards, but just before he departed the field, he left one last memory far greater than even all that.

While the other Gators were hugging and dancing and waiting for the trophy presentation on the makeshift stage near one end zone, Tebow was on the other side of the field, running along the base of the stands, slapping hands with fans who screamed and cried and begged the junior for one more year.

Somebody dropped down a string of orange and blue beads, and he wore them. A guy with wild eyes and a huge orange wig held out two hands, and he smiled and grabbed both of them.

"I'm just so thankful for our fans," he said, beaming under the Bible verse printed on that eye black. "I'm so thankful for everything."

College football should be thankful for him. This morning, instead of everyone arguing the merits of undefeated Utah or one-loss USC versus a Florida team that took advantage of the sloppy Sooners, the sports world will be talking mostly about Tebow.

"The natural-born leader," said Nelson. "The man who does everything."

Folks will talk about how Tebow started the Gators' championship run when he publicly apologized to fans after their only loss in late September against Mississippi.

"I'm sorry, extremely sorry," he said at the time. "You will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season."

Nearly four months later, on the confetti-strewn Dolphin Stadium field Thursday, teammates were still marveling at that speech.

"You know, he didn't have to do that, nobody ever does that, and it changed everything," said receiver Percy Harvin. "From that moment on, we climbed on his back."

Folks will talk about a second apology, one that occurred at halftime Thursday with the score tied at 7-7 and Tebow having thrown the two interceptions while struggling to find his rhythm.

"He came to us, said he was sorry, and said we were going to come out and run the ball down the field and win this game," said Nelson.

That's exactly what happened, with Tebow gaining 172 of his yards in the final 25 minutes. He set the tone in that go-ahead drive when, after a 12-yard run, he jumped to his feet and led the crowd in cheers.

"I was trying to run some people over, to get the crowd some momentum," he said.

Folks watching closely might also talk about his final rush, when he ran eight yards for a first down in the final seconds, disappearing into a scrum that collapsed upon one of the officials.

While his teammates separated and hugged and leaped, Tebow stayed behind to help the zebra to his feet.

"I felt bad," he said. "I had to help him put his shoe back on and everything."

And then, of course, he credited everyone else with the victory.

"My teammates came out here and battled for four quarters and played with so much heart," he said. "It was a dream come true."

It's almost as if Tebow is a dream come true, and long before Thursday night.

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