By Nick Vicera (Originally published in Filipinas Magazine, July 2009)
Amidst the roaring chants of adoring fans, Tim Tebow towers like a giant in the football field as he directs the offense of his collegiate championship team, the University of Florida Gators. As the first college sophomore to win the much-coveted Heisman Trophy, given to only the best college football players, he can stand as an equal to such football legends as Mike Ditka, Joe Schmidt, or Joe Montana.
But Tim’s personal story goes beyond football. His other greatness lies in walking around as a virtual unknown in the muddy streets, dirty markets and slums of Mindanao where he preaches a message of love to those whose lives are mired in misery and poverty.
“My conception and birth were beautiful stories of life. They were not stories about choices. They were stories of my parents’ selfless love of life and their unwavering faith in God who knows and sets the bounds and ends of our lives” says Tim, in describing the agonizing circumstance and joyful outcome of his birth in the Philippines, where his parents, Bob and Pam Tebow, worked for five years as Baptist Church missionaries in South Cotabato, Mindanao some 24 years ago.
Because of the poor sanitation that was and still is a common situation in the rural areas of the Philippines, Tim’s mother contracted dysentery while pregnant with him. She fell into a coma. To combat her infection, her Filipino doctor administered a high dose of antibiotics that triggered the side effect of placental abruption.
The Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country, outlaws abortion except in cases when the life of the mother is endangered. Thus, the attending physician of Pam Tebow recommended abortion. “But my Christian faith led me to decide otherwise,” says Pam. “I was flown to Makati, the country’s business capital, to seek the second advice of a medical specialist. With my strong trust in God and in the power of prayers, and encouraged by the care of my new doctor, I carried Tim to term and delivered him a normal infant.”
“That baby who was at first handed a stillbirth sentence in the Philippines would later carry a U.S. college football team to two national championships and is marked to go down as one of the greatest players ever to play the game of football,” says Urban Meyer, head coach of the University of Florida Gators, the 2006 and 2008 Bowl Championship Series (BCS) collegiate champion, with whom Tim has played as quarterback.
Twenty years after his birth in the Philippines, Tim grabbed the sports headlines in the U.S. by contributing as a key reserve in the 2006 collegiate football national championship against Ohio State University. In that championship game, he threw for one touchdown and rushed for another, finishing with 39 rushing yards, which helped secure the 41-14 victory for his Gators team.
Tim first appeared in the sports radar screen in 2006 as one of the nation’s top recruits for college football. He became an instant sports celebrity. He was featured in an ESPN “Faces in Sports” documentary and got the unique branding of a dual threat quarterback because of his mobility to elude or run past defenders of opposing teams. His innate mobility gives him that flexibility to dictate games at will, passing or running, with him either handing the ball off, running it himself, or pitching it to his running back.
Highly sought by coaches of 80 collegiate institutions, Tim chose to attend the University of Florida, the alma mater of both his parents. He made his college debut coming off the bench against Southern Mississippi University. His biggest game in his first college season came against the Louisiana State University when he maneuvered all three of his team’s touchdowns, passing for two and rushing for another.
Tim lived up to the expectations of sports analysts of major news networks. He always played fearless in the field, rushed yards, ran games by himself, and earned the nicknames “running freight truck” and “superman Tebow.” It only took him two years in college to break playing records and post new ones. He is the first and only player in NCAA history to rush and pass for at least 20 touchdowns in both categories in the same season. He compiled 55 touchdowns in his 2007 sophomore season—32 passing and 23 rushing—the most in the history of college football. His rushing touchdowns of that season were the most by a quarterback and are a record-setting feat.
In January of this year at the Dolphin Stadium in Miami, Florida, Tim wowed 73,468 people that were in attendance for the 2008 BCS National Championship against the University of Oklahoma Sooners. After the Sooners’ first failed ten-yard conversion, the towering 6’3” 240-pound left-handed Gators quarterback in his number 15 jersey stepped on the field at 11:47 of the first quarter, and immediately the sea of blue-shirted Gator Nation fans erupted in roaring chants. Four minutes into the second quarter, he threw a pass to his wide receiver Louis Murphy for the first touchdown of the game.
The Oklahoma Sooners retaliated with their own touchdown in the same quarter. The defenses of both teams then became stifling and the game tied at 14-14 three minutes into the last period. The Florida Gators scored a field goal midway through the period and cushioned themselves with a 17-14 lead. With 3:07 left on the game clock and at second-and-goal face-off at the Sooners’ four-yard line, Tim soared for his trademark jump pass with pinpoint accuracy to his other wide receiver David Nelson and gave their Gator team a final 24-14 lead, and all the way to their second national football championship in three seasons. Tim was voted the best offensive player of the game, accounting for 340 yards of total offenses, 109 of which was rushing, and two passing touchdowns.
The Filipino Connection
“My parents moved back here in the U.S. when I was three years old,” Tim recollects. “As I was still a toddler when I was there, I have vague memories of my having lived in the Philippines, except perhaps my having been in the care of my Filipina yaya (babysitter). But one thing for sure, I have a deep attachment to the country and its people. I have been joining my dad’s Christian mission to the Philippines every summer these last four years, and these trips have been my eye opener to the things that need to be done for the less fortunate people, especially children, in that part of our world.”
What Tim’s dad started in the Philip-pines some twenty years ago as a young missionary is now a strong and established ministry of 45 Filipino evangelist staff and 13 workers now funded by the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association of Jacksonville, Florida. It’s located in Cotabato in Mindanao—the hotbed of the southern Muslim insurgency. “The mission is about bringing the faith of Jesus and the goodwill of the American people to over 15 million people in the island.
Through our church planting ministry, we have worked with over 10,000 local churches in the Philippines to build new churches. We also work closely with a local seminary to train local pastors. We hold seasonal charity clinics to provide free healthcare services and distribute medicines to poor people who can’t afford to see a doctor, much more, buy medicines,” says Tebow’s dad, Bob. “We also have built an orphanage, the Uncle Dick’s Home, that now houses more than fifty homeless orphans.”
Every summer, when schools are on break, Tim goes to that barangay (barrio) in the Philippines where his dad had set up his mission. There, as a virtual unknown and away from the media spotlight, he walks the streets of Cotabato and visits the markets of Digos with the Holy Bible in his hand to preach the gospel of Jesus. He saddles homeless kids on his shoulder in the slums of Sarangani and plays kuya (big brother) to them while handing out candies and chocolates. He bathes in cold water just like the natives do, and runs errands for volunteer doctors and nurses who perform surgeries on indigent patients in makeshift operating tables.
A world away from their home in Jacksonville, Florida, that faces the Atlantic, Tim finds himself in a different playing field in the island of Mindanao that is nestled in the Pacific. “It is a much different ballgame,” he says. “There, I hear no roaring chants from fans rooting for a touchdown, but deafening silence as people desire to receive the words of Jesus that I preach about. I see none of those eyes of adulation when we win games, but eyes of faith of people searching for Jesus who I talk about,” Tim relates. “You kind of find out from the get-go, what sets faith apart and what a game is just about.”
With all his outstanding achievements in football, Tim will definitely emerge as the top NFL draft pick of his 2010 class as soon he steps out of college. But he has set his sight and his heart on other things, too—that little orphanage of more than fifty children in Mindanao that his father had founded. “Those kids make me more grounded and help me put things in proper perspective,” he says. “At the end of the day, what matters may not only be about scoring a touchdown, but also winning the future of those kids who do not get the opportunity to receive that touch of hope and love that you and I may have the means of giving.”
Author’s credit: Nick Vicera writes from Miami, Florida.