- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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When the three best quarterbacks in college football arrived in New York on the same weekend last December, few people realized they would remain tethered eight months later.
In an era in which undergraduate stars almost always depart for the NFL, the Heisman Trophy ceremony has become a stage from which they begin to wave goodbye to college football. Instead, Sam Bradford of Oklahoma, Colt McCoy of Texas and Tim Tebow of Florida set the stage for the 2009 season.
It is not just their talent that links them. Every Heisman finalist is talented. And as unusual as it is that all three returned to campus this fall, that's not the reason that Bradford, McCoy and Tebow already have signed this sport with an indelible Sharpie.
What sets these three young men apart are qualities such as character and leadership, maturity and -- in a time when people feel a stop at the dry cleaner must be tweeted -- humility.
"They're both awesome players, awesome guys," McCoy said. "They both stand for a lot of good things that I feel this world needs to see."
Tebow, who turns 22 on Friday, has the perspective of a man twice his age.
"So many people and athletes today can get consumed by winning or losing or this game," Tebow said. "That can be life or death for people. If you don't have an outside perspective, if you don't have a bigger picture, if you don't have some type of faith, then, you know, then there's not much you're living for."
They have been venerated as role models, hailed as leaders and promoted as offensive prototypes. None of it is hyperbole. They would tell you that they are lucky to have college football. It turns out the reverse is true, too.
Last December, Jan McCoy traveled to New York to see her grandson honored at the Heisman weekend. She got to the outdoor set of the "Today" show on the following Monday early enough to be on the rope line. When one of the guests, actor Tom Cruise, worked the crowd, she introduced herself to him as Colt McCoy's grandmother. Cruise lit up.
"I love your grandson!" Cruise said. "You should be so proud. He's a great player and a great kid."
"I think it's a wonderful thing for those three kids to be the face of college football," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "They're all three great kids. They're all three very religious. They all three believe in what's right. And I hear this so much. It's amazing the influence all three of those kids can have."
When there are only three Heisman finalists, they have that much more time alone. And one of the finalists, Tebow, had been there before. He didn't participate in all of the tours and the other optional events that the Heisman people arrange. Though it pains Longhorns and Sooners to know it, Bradford and McCoy bonded. They talk or text at least once a week.
"I think we just got to talking," Bradford said. "We were really similar in the way we were brought up. We both played a lot of sports growing up. I think we've gone through some of the same things. He started as a redshirt freshman. I started as a redshirt freshman."
"We both went to a small [high] school," McCoy said. "We both really weren't recruited heavily out of high school, We both went to our in-state university that we loved and had grown up watching. He played all the sports in high school. So did I. We finally got to school and focused on one thing, and that ended up being football."
"I think we just had a lot in common and we just kind of clicked," Bradford said.
The arcs of all three careers are different, lengths and destinations as yet unknown.
Tebow arrived at Florida in 2006 as one of the most celebrated recruits in the nation. Bradford went to Oklahoma the same season, little known outside the state.
They were shoved onto the field as freshmen, responsibility spilling off their shoulders like a suit two sizes too big. McCoy, a redshirt freshman in 2006, stepped into the cleats of Vince Young, the hero who had brought the first national championship to Texas in 35 years. McCoy led the Longhorns to a 10-3 record.
Tebow, with a package of plays drawn up for him, became a folk hero on a national championship team before he became a starter.
Bradford didn't play at all.
"I still remember my parents' dropping me off my first day of summer my freshman year," Bradford said recently in an interview in the lobby of the Switzer Center in Norman. "That night, a bunch of guys in the freshman class, we all went to the Chinese buffet over on the west side of town. I had about nine guys in my car, a Tahoe. We had to get there, open the back door and let them out. They weren't small guys, either.
"I can almost replay that whole first week. To look back and see what's happened since that point, it's crazy."
A year later, Oklahoma thrust redshirt freshman Bradford into the starting lineup. He was all the Sooners had. Rhett Bomar was supposed to be the quarterback, but a no-show job put him on the bus to Sam Houston State. Bradford completed 21 of 23 passes for 363 yards and three touchdowns against North Texas in his debut. He has rarely been slowed since.
In two seasons, Bradford is 23-5 as a starter. He has thrown for 7,841 yards. He has thrown 86 touchdowns and only 16 interceptions.
Tebow, 22-5 as a starter over the last two seasons after backing up Chris Leak as a freshman, has career totals of 6,390 yards and 67 touchdowns passing, and 2,037 yards and 43 touchdowns rushing.
McCoy, 32-7 as a starter in three seasons, has thrown for 9,732 yards, 85 touchdowns and 33 interceptions.
Their career arcs are tracing different parabolas. For now, as the 2009 season begins, they are at the same altitude, high above every other college football player in the nation. Tebow has a Heisman and two national championship rings. Bradford has a Heisman. McCoy has a BCS ring and an FBS season passing record for accuracy (76.7 percent). Though he may not have made Texans forget Young, he has carved out his own space in Longhorn hearts.
Each of them, given the opportunity last January to go to the NFL, chose not to go.
"It wasn't enough to give up the University of Florida," Tebow said at SEC media days last month. "I don't know what would have been."
"You only get to go to college one time," Bradford said. "I'm having a blast right now. It's my dream to play at Oklahoma."
When Miami executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells watched Oklahoma practice last January before the BCS National Championship Game, he told Sooner coach Bob Stoops that Bradford should remain in college to, if nothing else, fill out. The 6-foot-4 Bradford now weighs 223 pounds, 10 more than a year ago.
Others say it doesn't matter. Former Cleveland general manager Phil Savage believes that Bradford would have been picked No. 1 last April ahead of Matthew Stafford.
The smart money says that a few years from now, Bradford will be an NFL star. McCoy will get a chance. Tebow? Ask 10 scouts, you'll get 12 answers. There is no doubt in the mind of Florida quarterback coach Scot Loeffler, who spent last season in the same job with the Detroit Lions.
"He has the 'It Factor' that I've experienced with guys I've coached," Loeffler said of Tebow. "There are a lot of guys who can throw the football. There are a lot of guys who are smart on the [white]board. But if you don't have that 'It Factor,' it's hard to accomplish what you want to accomplish at this position. Obviously, you see the 'It Factor' every Sunday up in New England."
Loeffler referred to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a grad of Michigan, where Loeffler coached quarterbacks from 1996 to '99 as a graduate assistant and from 2002 to '07 as an assistant. Four years ago, he made a scholarship offer to Tebow and to a tall, skinny kid from Putnam City North High in Oklahoma City.
"He kind of reminded you to an extent of Brady," Loeffler said of Bradford. "Not overly recruited, good technique, could develop arm strength, could develop size. Appeared to be a great leader, appeared to have somewhat the 'It Factor', without a doubt.
"He committed to Oklahoma, I think, two weeks after we offered," Loeffler said. "I think Oklahoma put the screws to him."
Tebow is the most personable, Bradford the most reserved. Each has what the other lacks. Bradford has more credibility with NFL scouts, who consider him the closer to the prototype of the NFL passer. Tebow won one of his two BCS rings at Bradford's expense last January when the Gators defeated the Sooners, 24-14.
Tebow said he has watched the game only once or twice. Oklahoma quarterback coach Josh Heupel would not allow Bradford to watch it until after spring practice, when the quarterback could separate himself from the emotion of losing.
Heupel's theory didn't work.
"I've seen it probably three or four times now," Bradford said. "It's tough." Bradford let out a sigh. "I mean, a couple of times, you're watching the game, and you're thinking, 'I don't want to watch this anymore.' You know the outcome, know it's not in your favor. Sticking to it and watching it all is best for me in the long run."
McCoy, of course, also has a national championship ring, which he won during his redshirt year in 2005.
"I don't wear it," McCoy said, "because I didn't earn it."
All three of them hold themselves to a similar standard. Bradford doesn't trust success. He considers it an impostor. Others may embrace the spotlight. Bradford views it his suspicion, constantly checking his mental wallet to make sure the spoils of success haven't picked it.
This summer, by chance, Bradford and McCoy roomed together as counselors at the camp led by the NFL quarterbacking brothers, Peyton and Eli Manning and their father Archie.
"Frick and Frack," Archie Manning said of Bradford and McCoy. "They're good kids. They're polite. They deal with their celebrity. They didn't try to be different. We got quarterbacks from Arkansas State, from Samford, from Duke. Sam and Colt didn't try to stay apart."
Tebow, the son of evangelists, is so busy speaking to and working with the underprivileged that he could not find a time to come to New Orleans to accept the Manning Award, a quarterbacking honor given by the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Manning Camp wasn't a possibility, either.
A few days after the Manning Camp, Bradford and McCoy met last month in the Cotton Bowl, where ESPN taped them in a series of Superstars-like competitions, including golf and table tennis.
"He was asked to do that," McCoy's roommate and lifelong friend, sixth-year wide receiver Jordan Shipley, said, implying that otherwise, there's no way that McCoy would hang with Bradford.
"I caught some heat in the locker room," McCoy said. "I'm sure he did, too."
"I've gotten that a lot," Bradford said. "Some of my teammates even said, 'Why do you even talk to him?'"
McCoy assured his fellow Longhorns. "I said, 'It's all right. Y'all wear him out all you want when we're playing. He's a good guy. He's one of my friends.'"
Bradford believes there is upside in the relationship. They play five common opponents (the rest of the Big 12 South and Kansas), six if you count the public.
"Some people can't see past the rivalry," Bradford said. "Me and Colt, being friends actually benefits both of us because we can both pick each other's brain. Obviously, people are gonna question it because he plays for Texas and I play for Oklahoma. 'Oh, what's going to happen when you play each other? You guys aren't going to be friends?' Just because we play each other doesn't mean we're going to play any less hard on Saturday."
You would think it would make them play harder.
"Exactly," Bradford said.
A bond that began in New York last December holds strong to this day. It's hard to imagine that Bradford, McCoy and Tebow won't return to New York in December when the Heisman is awarded again.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at email@example.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, & Traditions," is on sale now.