NORTH NAPLES — Famed Florida Gator and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow broke another record Saturday night — drawing the largest audience in the 30-year history of the Naples Town Hall Distinguished Speaker Series at the Ritz Carlton Golf Resort.
About 1,200 attended — possibly more.
Tebow’s future with the NFL and the New York Jets is unknown with talks of trades to the Jacksonville Jaguars and other teams. He isn’t worried.
“I may not know where I’m going next, but I know what’s guiding me,” said the player who is about as famous for his faith as he is for his athleticism.
His audience Saturday night ranged from families with young children to teen couples, college students and elderly couples.
Most had little to say about where they thought Tebow’s career is going, but praised his philanthropic work through the Tim Tebow Foundation, which among other work provides medical treatment to children in the Philippines, where Tebow was born into a missionary family in August 1987.
The former Florida Gator spoke of his challenging decision-making process in selecting which college to attend. It was between the University of Alabama and University of Florida.
Tebow sat next to guest moderator Dave Shula as Tebow told the story of how he eventually, and painstakingly, chose not to be on Mike Shula’s team.
“We (the Shula family) finally got you — even if just for a couple hours,” Dave Shula said.
Tebow had sought advice from his family and mentors on which college was best for him between Oklahoma, which sought him for years, and Florida, where his family lived and attended college. One by one, the people he sought guidance from said they couldn’t tell Tebow what to do — he made good decisions on his own, Tebow recalled of their responses.
Then he was told to pray on it.
“That sounded like a great idea. So I prayed for the answer to come by morning. I woke up and I had no idea what school to go to,” Tebow said, drawing laughter.
He called Gators’ then-Coach Urban Meyer next to share his commitment to attend Florida. Just as he was about to announce to Meyer that he wanted to play for the Gators, Meyer’s phone went dead, Tebow recalled. (Tebow and Meyer had lunch Saturday in Naples).
It was 15 minutes before Tebow was about to make the announcement of where he’d play college ball that he recalled thinking he still hadn’t actually told Meyer. There was still time.
It was his father who asked Tebow who Tebow would most like to play ball with in the next four years and when Tebow’s first response was Meyer, he went on TV and made the announcement.
He said that even though he believes in God guiding him, it doesn’t mean it comes easy.
Tebow’s collegiate career culminated in two national championships and his being honored as the first sophomore recipient of the Heisman Trophy.
Tebow was a first round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos and led the franchise to the 2011 NFL playoffs for the first time in six years.
“His charitable work, it far outdoes what he’s done athletically and I don’t think anyone really knows that. I’m a big fan of his and I didn’t quite know the extent of it until tonight,” said Ted Ward, of Naples, on Saturday night.
Ward wasn’t the only one impressed by Tebow’s work off the field.
“He (Tebow) was great. It was his whole message about his faith, about Christians being a good example by serving people and not being soft, having good character,” said Beverley Wade, 15, of Naples.
Wade’s younger brother and father said they walked away feeling inspired by Tebow as well.
“He (Tebow) had such an energy and passion behind his stories. They were funny and with a great message,” said the teen’s father, Hap Wade, of Naples.
“Him talking about being humble. You might hit three home runs, you do this and you do that, but always be humble,” said Thomas Wade, 13, of the message he took away from Tebow.
One of Tebow’s best moments in his football career thus far was with Meyer. He recalled Meyer becoming emotional and removing his headset and telling Tebow that he was proud of him for finishing strong.
Tebow said he wants his life to mirror that game-ending moment with his fatherly figure and coach, Meyer.
“At the end of my life, I would like to have lived so my Heavenly Father opens his arms to me and says: ‘I love you. I’m proud of you. You finished strong.’”