Tebow plays despite illness

Updated: September 26, 2009, 6:55 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow started Saturday at Kentucky despite a respiratory illness that forced him to travel apart from the team.

Tebow appeared energized while running onto the field for Florida's first series. His presence was booed lustily by Kentucky fans eager to end a 22-game losing streak to the Gators. He hardly looked tired while ripping off a 29-yard gain on the game's third play.

Tebow arrived at Commonwealth Stadium with the rest of the top-ranked Gators about two hours before kickoff against the Wildcats. The Heisman Trophy winner was one of the last players off the bus. Wearing a shiny gray suit, his cheeks appearing to be a little flushed in the muggy conditions, Tebow received a hug from coach Urban Meyer before ducking in to the visitors locker room.

He took the field about an hour before kickoff, jogging in uniform alongside backup quarterback John Brantley before starting his typical warmup regimen.

Tebow and Gators teammates including cornerback Joe Haden and safety Major Wright traveled to Lexington on Friday on a separate team plane, sources told ESPN.com's Chris Low. However, the sources said the illness is not being called the flu. A source told ESPN that wide receiver Riley Cooper was also on the plane.

The Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper at the University of Florida, first reported the story.

A source close to the situation told ESPN's Joe Schad the three players arrived in Lexington on Friday evening, at about the same time as the team plane. The source called the illness a "respiratory condition involving congestion."

Wright and Haden missed practice Thursday, while Tebow did not feel sick until Thursday night, according to the source.

A source close to the team told Nix it actually took three planes to get the Gators to Lexington for their game against Kentucky. The primary team plane, a separate school plane with the four players including Tebow, and a third school plane with linebacker A.J. Jones, cornerback Josh Evans, center John Fairbanks, offensive lineman James Wilson and running back Mike Gillislee.

Saturday night's game (ESPN2, ESPN360.com, 6 p.m. ET) is No. 1 Florida's first SEC road game of the season.

Tim Tebow
Tebow

Meyer said Thursday that the team has battled more than 35 cases of the flu over the past four weeks, but did not name Tebow among those who had become ill. Meyer said running back Jeff Demps, tight end Aaron Hernandez and defensive end Jermaine Cunningham played with the flu last week against Tennessee, while linebacker Jones and Haden were among players fighting the virus this week.

According to The Associated Press, a person familiar with Florida's travel plans said everyone on the team's expected travel roster made the trip, including receivers coach Billy Gonzales. He was sent home early in the week, but he returned and wore gloves and a mask at practice.

Meyer said earlier in the week there was no chance he would rest sick players.

"That'd be one of the major errors in coaching history to go do that, because you'd go lose," he said. "No. Absolutely not. We're going to bring everything and go as hard as we can. That gets you out of the profession, those kind of thoughts. You go as hard as you can.

"The good thing is I've got a mature group. Not a whole lot of cheerleading going on this week. Got to get better and go play."

The Gators beat Tennessee 23-13 last Saturday, a disappointing victory for the heavily favored Gators. Meyer partially blamed the conservative game plan on the illnesses. Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin indicated that Meyer was using the illnesses as an excuse to justify a less-than-desirable performance.

The Gainesville Sun reported this week that 97 percent of flu cases on UF's campus this fall have been the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu.

ESPN reporters Wendi Nix and Joe Schad, ESPN.com's Chris Low and Mark Schlabach and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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