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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As the most impactful player in college football history made his way around the edge of Florida Field for the last time, the poignancy of the moment was etched on thousands of faces.
|Tim Tebow does a lap after each game to thank the fans who support him and the Gators.|
The little girl in tears, saying, "Timmy, I love you." She got a hug. The little boy with special needs who comes to practices, he got a hug, too. Women from 12 to 60 screamed with delight after he touched their hands (some of the younger ones simply burst out crying). Men shouted their thanks. Some rubbed his head, some smacked his shoulder pads. Thousands of fans of all ages and colors paid tribute by mimicking his trademark eye black -- the wife and daughters of the head coach among them.
There were even a few seconds of slapstick, when he accidentally stepped on the ankle of a Florida cheerleader and sent her sprawling to the turf. She got a helping hand up from No. 15 and an apologetic embrace -- and a story to tell for decades to come.
As usual, so many people wanted something from Tim Tebow. As usual, he enthusiastically gave it.
He gave them the customary heroic performance during the game: 221 yards passing and three touchdowns; 90 yards rushing and two more scores. Once again, he was the driving force in a dominant Florida victory over its fading rival, Florida State, 37-10.
Then he gave them more when it was over, as his traditional postgame lap to commune with the fans turned into an eight-minute lovefest of startling intensity. Emotion fermenting for four years turned into a vintage outpouring. The record crowd of 90,907 wasn't leaving before throwing a goodbye party fit for a folk hero.
We can vigorously debate Tebow's place in college football history as a player. What's not up for debate is his unparalleled ability to provoke the deepest of feelings in fans of the sport.
He said afterward that he wants the fans to remember him for "how much I cared." The fact is, fans have never cared so much about a player before.
"I've never seen anything like it," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. " He's made unselfish kind of a cool thing."
|Tebow shared an emotional moment with coach Urban Meyer before the game.|
None of us has seen anything like it. What makes Tebow unique in the 140-year history of this game is not just his unquenchable spirit. It's his generosity of spirit.
The numbers and awards are all impressive and voluminous, but they're not what have made the quarterback a historic figure in Florida and beyond. That's due to the winning attributes, the leadership qualities, the endless acts of charity performed off the field, the ability to graciously lead a heavily scrutinized life.
You just don't find all those things in a single college-aged package.
Tebow long ago entered another dimension of stardom, as his impact went viral. He is the most polarizing college athlete ever, by a wide margin, engendering the deepest of feelings across the culture.
The cynical and envious rip him -- and rip the media for saying nice things about him, claiming that he is overhyped. (They'll say that very thing about this column, I'm quite sure.) Some roll their eyes at his unapologetically public Christianity -- worn on his sleeve and under his eyes -- despite the authenticity that underlies it in word and deed.
It has become an unfortunate aspect of our Hater Nation mentality that many of us cannot stand too much of a good thing.
But the Tebow lovers are numerous and ardent as well. And Saturday was their day to be seen and heard.
|Tebow was swarmed by fans during his final Gator Walk.|
Two hours prior to kickoff, the fans were lined up 20 deep to see Tebow make his final Gator Walk into the stadium. He walked through them in suit and tie, surrounded by law enforcement, keeping his emotions under control.
He was fine most of the day leading up to the 3:30 kickoff, though he conceded that the day seemed to be moving "in slow motion." Finally, when it was time for Senior Day festivities and the oldest Gators ran out onto the field to see their head coach and their families, Tebow lost it.
"[No.] 15 broke down pretty good when he came through that tunnel," Meyer said.
Then he broke down the Seminoles, having a hand in all five Florida touchdowns. He completed 10 straight passes at one point, and threw just four incompletions all day. He ran with power and with speed -- though not without error, fumbling at the end of a 47-yard gallop when he became preoccupied with an extended stiff-arming of a Florida State tackler.
As darkness fell in the fourth quarter and the Gators moved into the closed end of the stadium on their final scoring drive, a spontaneous electrical storm erupted in the stands. Thousands of flashbulbs popped, play after play, as fans sought to preserve for posterity Tebow's final plays in The Swamp.
He wanted his last touchdown here to be a jump pass to tight end Aaron Hernandez -- in fact, he called the play himself, giving a jumping signal to the sidelines to get his point across. Then the play was blown up when Hernandez was tackled coming off the line of scrimmage. After that it was up to Tebow to run it in one more time, pushing his SEC-record total of rushing touchdowns to 56.
|Tebow extended his SEC-best rushing TDs mark on Saturday.|
Shortly thereafter Tebow went to the bench for the rest of the game. He has some hugely important football still to play, most immediately and importantly the SEC championship game against fellow unbeaten Alabama.
But before moving ahead to the Crimson Tide, the last lap afforded a chance to look back and give back.
Tebow has been making the lap ever since he arrived in Gainesville, and he's always exhorted his teammates to do the same in gratitude to the fans. Sometimes they joined him in great number, sometimes they didn't. Saturday, he had a full complement of fellow Gators making the victory lap with him.
"All the seniors I talked to wanted to do it," he said with some satisfaction. "They wanted to stay and embrace that moment."
The moment kept on going, as Tebow slowly circled the field. The roars from the fans kept on coming. Nobody wanted it to end, and with good reason.
We all knew that we'll never see another player like this again.Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.