In The End, He Went With His Heart

ST. AUGUSTINE --- In the end, when he finally had to reveal his choice to the world --- a choice he had done his best to carefully guard and made only after agonizing hours of prayer and soul searching --- the All-American kid, Tim Tebow, went with his heart. He was a Gator. He grew up a Gator, the son of Florida graduates, and those ties to family and Florida were tougher to break than the hearts of the schools that came in second.

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In a setting fitting for a rock star with a Nease High School auditorium packed with friends, family, supporters, fans of both the University of Florida and Alabama, not to mention an ESPN national television audience --- and with the fans of both Florida and Alabama on suicide watch --- the can't miss kid who broke all the passing, total offense and touchdown records in the state of Florida pulled the trigger for Coach Urban Meyer and the Gators. As exuberant cheers broke out simultaneously from the largely partisan Gator crowd and throughout the Gator Nation, fans of the University of Alabama were heartbroken, and as heartbroken as they were, you could tell looking at the faces of Tim Tebow, his parents Bob and Pam and his brother Robbie, that this was a tough agonizing decision that affected the entire family.

Make no mistake about it. This was a VERY difficult choice and the reason it was so difficult is that Tebow chose his final five schools based on the personal relationships he developed with the coaching staffs at each school. He loved Les Miles. He loved Lloyd Carr. He loved Pete Carroll. Most of all, though, he loved Urban Meyer and Mike Shula. If Urban Meyer and his Florida staff came up #1, then Mike Shula and Alabama came up #1-A.

Tim said it was 50-50 down to the very end --- pretty much even-steven between the two coaches and their staffs --- but after lots of prayer, what put Florida over the edge was a combination of two things: the fact he grew up loving the Florida Gators and the friendship with former Florida offensive coordinator Larry Fedora.

He prayed hours and hours about it, asking God to give him a sign if at all possible, something that would make it clear and make it easy. But, as he would admit later on during questioning, prayer and faith alone don't guarantee that the choices will be easy. His mom and dad watched, proud and patient, as their youngest child reached his final conclusions. Bob Tebow, who has spent his life serving God, prayed that there would be a sign of all signs, something that would make Tim's decision clearcut, something that would ease the burden.

"We were hoping that God would just somehow communicate with him what he ought to do," said Tim's dad, Bob Tebow. "When God called me to be a missionary to The Philippines, I knew what I'm supposed to do, so it was easy to just go obey it and do it. You don't have to think about it. You get through all the adversity and difficulty when you know God's called you. I wanted him to have that kind of experience with God."

There was no road to Damascus revelation for Tim, just a lifting of certain burdens when he made his choice. He felt comfortable with Meyer, comfortable with the Gators and that was what he needed.

"I prayed the whole time about it and I just felt comfortable [with Florida] and hopefully that's the place that God wants me," Tim said. "I think it is and that's why I chose it."

The comfort with the University of Florida comes naturally. Bob met Pam at Florida, back in the days when he was impacting lives for Campus Crusade for Christ, holding Sunday evening services that rotated from one frat house to another. Bob and Pam married and became missionaries to The Philippines, the place where Tim, the youngest of five children, was born. Even half a world away, the ties to the University of Florida remained strong.

If you've followed the Tebow saga from beginning until his Tuesday announcement, you know all about the four older siblings who went to Florida and how Tim has been to see the Gators play in The Swamp more times than he can count. Those bonds aren't easily broken.

Another bond not easily broken was the friendship with Fedora, who throughout the ordeal was his confidant and mentor. Long before Urban Meyer became the Florida football coach, Larry Fedora was not only the Florida offensive coordinator but a believer that Tebow is that special kind of talent that comes along only once every so often. Fedora was recruiting Tebow for Coach Ron Zook and the Gators and it was during that time the bond formed between Tim and Fedora.

Even when Fedora wasn't retained by Meyer for the new staff he formed back in December, the friendship between Tim and Fedora prospered and grew. Even after Fedora landed at Oklahoma State, they talked regularly, spending long hours on the phone each week to talk over the recruiting process. Fedora's advice to Tim was simple: Meyer's your man and Florida's your school.

If the ties to Florida had Tebow teetering on the verge of a decision, it was Fedora's positive input about Florida and the Gator coaching staff that pushed him over the edge and helped him make that call to Urban Meyer to say "I'm a Gator."

Even with his love for Meyer, for the University of Florida and the input from Fedora, the decision still wasn't made easily. Urban Meyer and Mike Shula are both fine men with outstanding families. They stress all the right things --- God, family, character, education, doing the right thing --- so saying no to one or the other would not be an easy thing to do. Shula spent nearly 12 hours at the Tebows' home Monday night in a last ditch effort to sway Tim to Tuscaloosa.

Shula didn't spend the night, but Bob Tebow says, "He can spend the night at my home any time. I love Mike Shula. He's a fine man."

The call to Meyer to tell him the good news that he would be a Gator was made just prior to going on the air live with ESPN. That one was easy.

"Coach Meyer is a great coach, a great man and the kind of coach that I love and respect," said Tim.

The call to Mike Shula was what Tim says is "the most difficult thing I've ever done. I love Coach Shula and I love Coach Meyer. I can only make one choice and I can honestly say, I couldn't have gone wrong with either one. There was no bad choice."

There wasn't a bad choice, just a very difficult one.

In the months and years to come, Tim Tebow will be making plenty of decisions but perhaps none of them will be quite as difficult as the one he made Tuesday. He believes in his heart that he has made the right decision, and you can know with complete certainty that now that he is a Gator, he is 100 percent committed to Coach Urban Meyer and to the Florida Gators.

He will be calling recruits on Florida's board to urge them to pull the trigger for the Gators and when he talks to them, he'll speak with conviction about how he got through his own tough decision.

"He's a leader like no one else I've ever coached," said Craig Howard, the coach who guided Tebow and Nease to the Florida 4A championship just a few days ago. "He's always been about the team and now he has a new team. The Gators will discover that he's all about lifting up the weakest link on the team. He's not like other superstars, all about himself. You'll find him befriending and encouraging the kids who need the most help.

"He has that special ability to make everyone --- from the best players on the team to the ones who aren't nearly as talented --- to play better than they've ever played. In that respect, he's like Larry Bird, Brett Favre or Michael Jordan. He makes everyone around him better, and with Tim, it's not just better players, but better people."

As the sun set in the west, lighting up the sky in soft blue and brilliant orange, Pam Tebow smiled as glowingly as the sunset. She saw Tim, patiently taking the time to pose for pictures with whoever asked, smiling confidently but still with a shy quality that is almost boyish.

"He's the kindest and sweetest boy we know," she said. "Everyone in our family was ready to support him no matter what choice he made because he's got those qualities. He's the baby of the family and every one loves him but he's so genuine and so kind that you can't help but love him.

"His name means honoring God and he's really motivated to do that in everything he does whether it is speaking to a large group of people or ministering to someone who's hurting or playing football. In whatever he does, he genuinely wants to be the best that God has made him to be."

He will come to Florida with more hype and more expectation than any quarterback or player in Florida history, but if Tuesday afternoon is any indicator, he's probably better prepared to handle it than any kid in Florida history. If he handles blitzing linebackers as well as he handled the toughest situation in his life, he will do just fine.

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