MIAMI -- Back in July, in a ballroom in a Birmingham, Ala., hotel during Southeastern Conference media days, a reporter asked Tim Tebow the following question:
"I don't mean to sound cynical, but between winning the national championship and winning the Heisman, saving the world in the Philippines and all, did you ever, like, sneak a cigarette when you were in high school? Do you ever do anything wrong? Do you feel like everything off the field is sort of on cruise control for you?"
My immediate reaction: Lord help us. Sporting America has become too jaded to appreciate Tim Tebow. We've been Marion Jonesed and Mark McGwired and Barry Bondsed into suspecting there must be a dark side to the Florida quarterback, who does so many things right on and off the football field. We roll our eyes at his "saving the world in the Philippines," when how many among us have bothered to go across town to help the poor, much less across the globe the way Tebow has? We've been conditioned not to trust a virtuous athlete when he's right in front of us.
Tebow's reaction was better. His response, in part:
"You know, everybody, they can look and say how easy it is. But it's definitely not that easy. The difference is 'cause not many people want to wake up at 5, go through workouts, go speak to young kids, go back, eat lunch, go to class, go to tutoring, go speak at a prison at night, come back. I mean, more people would do those things; they just don't want to sacrifice.
"You know, there's a lot of leaders out there. But, unfortunately, there aren't a lot of good ones. So that's always been my dream and my goal, is to be someone like Danny Wuerffel was to me, to be someone that a parent can say, 'Hey, this kid did it the right way.' That's always been my dream and my goal more so than winning a trophy or winning a championship.
"So if it's cynical or whatnot, that's fine. If people don't believe it, that's fine. There's always going to be naysayers, people that are going to say it's fake. But that's fine because you can't control everybody. But I can control what I do, my attitude, how I approach the situation. So how I approach the situation is I want to do everything in my power that football gives me to influence as many people as I can for the good because that's gonna mean so much more when it's all said and done than just playing football and winning championships."
I don't think anybody is cut out to handle all this. But he handles it.
”-- Peter Tebow, Tim's older brother
That's a lot of wisdom and perspective from a 21-year-old football hero. Even though he represents everything we say we want our athletes to be, he understands a segment of society instead will be probing for flaws and looking for proof that public persona is a sham. Sometimes good people make us uncomfortable with ourselves.
It truly would be a shame to submit to cynicism and not fully appreciate the gift of Tebow -- the way he plays football with an unquenchable passion, and the way he approaches life with even greater ardor. If you think he hits linebackers hard on fourth-and-1, that's nothing compared to the way he tackles his higher calling to spread the word. In this one instance, what looks too good to be true really is true.
There are plenty of athletes who talk the pious talk. Plenty of athletes who write scripture on their eye black the way Tebow does or thank God after victories. But how many have walked the walk like Tebow -- walked it into the prisons, into the slums of the Philippines, into the hearts of people in need of a role model? How many, at age 21, have done as much work on behalf of those less fortunate?
"There are people in the public arena who are playing games -- and I'm not talking about football games," said Tebow's father, Bob. "He's not playing games. There's a lot of phony people in the world. He genuinely cares about people. You have to care about people to go to the hospital and visit the sick on your own."
Tebow has quarterbacked Florida to its second BCS National Championship Game in his three years at the school. He nearly won the Heisman for a second straight season. If the Gators beat Oklahoma on Thursday and he comes back for his senior year, he has a chance to become the most decorated college football player of all time.
Yet none of those are the most important statistics or milestones in Tebow's life. These are: 11 prison visits to preach Christianity to inmates; annual trips to the country of his birth, the Philippines, to assist his father's missionary work there; and seven rubber wrist bands on his arms.
Two commemorate injured or deceased former teammates. Two are for little girls afflicted by cancer. One says, "Praystrong," a twist on the Lance Armstrong bracelet slogan. Another, "TPS," which stands for Time, Place, Substance, distributed by a Florida coach. And one says, "Semper Fi," which means "always faithful" and is the motto of the Marine Corps, among other things.
If Tebow wore all the bracelets he receives from fans and well-wishers, they'd cover both forearms to the elbows. If he answered every call to speak, every request for his presence, every plea for his help, he'd have to quit football and probably school, too. For an admitted pleaser like Tebow, it's a challenge to see how far he can stretch himself without snapping.
"I don't think anybody is cut out to handle all this," said his older brother Peter. "But he handles it."
Said Tebow: "It can be tough to say no, especially knowing it can be a very positive thing you're asked to do. But you can't do everything."
It only seems like Tebow can do everything. In fact, Superman in shoulder pads cannot stomach a roller coaster because of motion sickness. He struggles to carry a tune -- although he doesn't mind singing, most often country and Sinatra ("Send in the Clowns" is a strange-but-true favorite). And he tells bad jokes, according to his teammates.
"I try to laugh," offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey said. "But they're not that funny."
What Tebow does exceedingly well is compete and lead -- he follows the heart he wears on his sleeve. Most of us are lucky to know what we want to do by the time we get to college; Tebow found his twin passions -- pigskin and preaching -- about the time he entered grade school.
He was 9 years old when the devoutly Christian Wuerffel led Florida to the 1996 national title, becoming Tebow's role model. He was 15 years old when he stood up and preached in front of 10,000 high school students. After that, he became a Florida high school folk hero and the nation's No. 1 recruit for his work on the gridiron.
The Tebow who became a superstar is not treated as such in the family home outside Jacksonville, Fla. His bedroom was given away over Christmas break to big sister Katie, who came home from missionary work in Bangladesh with her husband and infant daughter. And in the family pickup games, it was bloodthirsty business as usual -- with a few consolations to his need to remain healthy.
In the Christmas Eve football game, for example, they made "Timmy," as the youngest of five kids is known, the all-time quarterback. That did not sit well with Timmy himself, but it kept him out of harm's way.
And it provided Bob his moment of parental glory. After beating Peter for a touchdown pass from Tim, he promptly quit the game -- retiring with bragging rights.
On Christmas Day, the boys played basketball but established a no-fly zone near the basket -- nobody could drive inside of 5 feet.
"Because then it just becomes football," Tim said.
Taking it to the rack turns the Tebow boys into 1980s Detroit Pistons Nasty Boys. And hard fouls resulting in rolled ankles or stitches would not exactly tickle Urban Meyer at this point in the season.
"It gets a little physical around our house," Peter said. "We get a little competitive. No matter what we're doing, everyone wants to win."
And that is Tim Tebow's greatest gift on the football field. Not his size, strength, speed and throwing arm. Not his ability to read a defense. It's the insatiable competitive instinct that sometimes transforms him into a man possessed.
There have been times, watching film, when Tebow has thought, "Gosh, I did not realize I was that intense."
He'll bring that intensity to a boil Thursday night in Dolphin Stadium against Oklahoma, in search of a national title. Success would leave him with no more mountains to climb collegiately, but with several more doubters to win over in the National Football League, where they're not sold on his pro potential at quarterback.
"We're not going to let him play linebacker in the NFL," Bob Tebow said in a shot at analysts who think his son should play another position at the next level.
The reassuring thing about Tim Tebow is this: Even if his goal of playing in the NFL is unrealized, it will not define his adult life. There are so many other lives to touch.
"I'll be OK" without the NFL, Tebow said. "Would I be upset? Yeah, absolutely. That's my goal. But it's not going to be like my life is over. There's so many other things that I want to do."
After answering that cynical question this past July in Birmingham, Tebow was thanked by the SEC moderator for his time. Tebow responded, "Thank you. Appreciate it."
Appreciate it, indeed. Appreciate the Tim Tebow experience, Sporting America.
Don't hate. Appreciate.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.