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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Pro Day at Florida Starring Tim Tebow

For the record, I am not a fan of Pro Scout Days for college football teams trying to sell their "parts" off to a draft bidder.

Personally, I find them a waste of time. I don't think I have spent more than 30 seconds in my life watching the NFL Combine when some of college football's best players jump, run, catch and throw for a group of slobbering pro executives who jockey with other teams for a better draft selection or just want to feel like they have a shot at somebody they are completely high on.

But the Pro Scout Day at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Wednesday, March 17, 2010 was a little different.

It was a place I had to be. No, not because it was assigned to me, but it was because members of two national championship clubs at the University of Florida were going to show off their talents for the scouts, guys who were not only sure-shots on a college football field, but guys who were going to make a mark in pro football.

There was Riley Cooper, the all-everything wide receiver who I had seen play both in college and for one state playoff game in high school at Clearwater Central Catholic. There was star cornerback Joe Haden, who was a much-heralded star on the defensive side of the ball. There was a highly touted linebacker getting looks from all these high-ranking NFL folks, Brandon Spikes. There was the prototype tight end with a bit of a checkered past that people were drooling over named Aaron Hernandez. And David Nelson, a Gator wide receiver with a lot of all-around talent, was also being looked at by these scouts and execs.

But c'mon! We all knew why we were there.

The star performer on this day was the young man who helped quarterback the Gators to two national championships and built a major following of fans over the years.

We were there for the "Chosen One," Mr. Tim Tebow.

My very few interactions I had with him over the years were very pleasant. He's everything that people advertised about him: He's polite. He's kind. He's respectful. And he keeps many, many things in perspective and is as real as you can get. As a matter of fact, I couldn't imagine what it might be like to be that young man on an everyday basis.

But for all his greatness on a football field, which included winning the 2007 Heisman Trophy, he wasn't pro football material. As someone who has covered the NFL since 2003, I knew exactly what it is that a team looks for when shopping for a quarterback. They want someone to "fit the mold." In that case, the "mold" is being accurate with your passes, not making it easy for the defense to strip you of the ball and running a "pro-style" offense and knows how to drop back on pass attempts properly.

Unfortunately, Tim Tebow was not efficient enough in all of those categories. And at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., less than two months earlier, this larger-than-life individual was made into a mere mortal when he completed 4 of 12 passes and coughed the football up twice.

Worse, he was running a style of offense under coach Urban Meyer that was far from "pro-style" friendly. For example, in his sophomore year, he became the first quarterback in college history to throw for 20 touchdowns (32) and score 20 touchdowns (23). He was a specimen that Meyer had no trouble exploiting in that regard.

But let's face facts -- Urban Meyer did not help Tim Tebow become a "pro quarterback." For the style of play he was used to, Tebow would have had to fit a hybrid-type of offense in which you ran the ball more and created more options from behind center than just the typical drop-back passer that guys like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and recent Super Bowl champion Drew Brees perfected.

Tebow had been working on getting his throwing motion up instead of slinging the ball sideways and not allowing the defense to get its paws on the ball. This had been going on since that Senior Bowl and to many of us in the media, it seemed like what these people were trying to do with the 22-year-old was becoming long and arduous ... a process, really.

And whether he was ready or not, Tebow and his teammates looking to move on to the next level were about to be a showcase for the cattle-herders at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Being at work the night before, I had very little chance to have sleep. I think it was one hour of a nap I took before I headed west on State Road-20 from Palatka to Gainesville on what was just a dreary, awful morning weather-wise with a little drizzle and dark clouds everywhere.

Bleary-eyed or not, I was in Gainesville and maneuvering around the throngs of people who came to see the Florida Gators on display as I pulled into a parking lot near the stadium at the school. I had about a quarter of a mile of a walk, but that wasn't so bad.

I had just been in this stadium the previous September for a Gators game, so I knew my way around a little. Once I had my credentials for the day, it was a matter of waiting around until the day began, so I stayed out of the rain underneath the stands. I did get a chance to snap some shots of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. I was immediately getting messages back to me on my Facebook page that read:

"Please give Tebow my number, and let him know I am ready for a relationship when he is," and "I'm sure you are there to cover Joe Ha(y)den today, right Mark? Cause we don't care about a qb drafted in the third round."

Guess I couldn't hide where I was, could I?

Moments later, the news trickled down to us that the Gators' Pro Day was moved from 10:30 a.m. back to noon. The rain wouldn't stop and it was only fair that they wait so the young men who were out there to show off their skills had a fair chance, though I wasn't so sure how fair it would have been. The field wasn't going to absorb that rain that quickly and there was a chance that the rain would pick up again later. What they did was find an hour-long pocket to fit in a chance to have Pro Day rain-free.

For the next hour, I had a chance to talk to various other media members about what they were hoping to see. They, too, probably had enough with Tebow Overkill. I know they were interested in how well Haden would do as well as what Spikes might show in his performance. It also gave me a chance to talk to a number of Gator fans who made the trip to Gainesville just to watch the Pro Day ceremonies.

Yeah -- in the category of "How I spent my day off from work," there were diehards who were there just to watch Pro Day! These people were nuts, but really friendly. And they were bluntly honest about their love for Tebow and how they wanted to see him star on the next level. You couldn't find a bad thing anyone could say about him ... well, with the exception of the obvious flaws in his game.

"Much different game at the pro level," one old-timer told me.

Amen to that! Not all these Gator lovers were drinking the Kool-Aid. Don't get me wrong -- they wanted to see him succeed, but some fans were realistic, too. He needed a good day.

Most everyone dubbed this day the debut of "Tebow 2.0." And I was excited for the young man. He had a lot to prove and so little time to do so before April's draft.

The rain cleared up, but the clouds still loomed. If I were to sit in the stands and be a spectator instead of being down on the field, I'd have needed to clear the rain fallen on the seats. Something tells me I should have taken a towel with me this day.

By 11:45, some of the other "attractions" there were off and running in their chance to shine. Haden was out there and he was just killin' it -- he was running his defensive back drills with ease and even on a wet turf, he was running the 40-yard dash in the 4.3-second range. I remember my comment to someone after watching him perform.

"Yeah, he's pro ready."

Still no Tebow at this point, so after Haden was done, I walked back to inside the Gators media room located in a staging area on the west side of the field where we were all covered from the weather outside. I simply asked Haden if he felt he was ready to make the next step in his young career.

He looked at me and answered, "I'm ready. I've been playing with pro-type players since I've been here. Going to the NFL will definitely be a challenge every week, every day at practice, but I'm ready for it."

Another key guy there looking to impress for the scouts was Carlos Dunlap, a defensive end with a crazy amount of talent. He did not do well at the NFL Combine so his stock was on the line at this Pro Day. And he did well in improving his time in the 40 and looked much more prepared.

But one person who didn't have a good day was Spikes. The well-talked about linebacker, we came to find out, wasn't the swiftest person afoot and his time in the 40 was stunning. I had brought a stopwatch with me on this day and I wanted to see these guys run those 40s. I thought maybe I started my watch too quickly, but when the time came up just over five seconds, I was stunned. We all were. I can see the looks on some of these Gators backers. They couldn't believe it, either.

By 12:15 p.m., I can hear the crowd begin to roar, though.

He had stepped outside onto The Swamp dressed in a black soak-free shirt and white sweatpants.

It was now Tim Tebow's time to turn up the heat. First, he went through all the drills everyone else was going through to show if he had the coordination to make it in the NFL. He passed that test. They didn't make him run the 40 on this day because he wasn't 100 percent at doing it. And he only had one thing in mind to do on this day.

Prove the scouts and so-called experts wrong and that he could throw the ball with accuracy the way NFL personnel believe would make him succeed.

With each dropback, fans stood up from the stands where I was sitting. Numerous media members were on the field, but I wanted to see him from the level of the fans who watched him every Saturday. He didn't look like a guy who was following a step-by-step, how-to-throw-the-ball tutorial. He was looking good. Some throws were still being slung in a sideway motion, and that was to be understood since he was going through the transformation.

But with each throw he made to Cooper or Nelson or Hernandez, who was his favorite target on this day, Tebow was dropping the ball into their arms with the accuracy most quarterbacks need to survive in the league, whether it be short passes or with bombs. With each completion, the fans cheered loudly, the young girls screaming louder than their male counterparts.

This was not just Pro Day ... this was a happening!

Ten minutes after he began throwing the ball, Tebow's coach, Meyer, nonchalantly walked out onto the field and members of the media wanted to get a quote from him. I wasn't there to talk to him -- his time with all these guys were over and, really, he would have given the normal, coach-speak that most of us have heard over the years from him and others.

This day belonged to the Gators going on to the next level. It was estimated later on that a few thousand people were there to watch this Pro Day in person on a miserable, grey-clouded, drizzling day. And if they weren't there in person, ESPN was showing the day on television. Todd McShay, one of ESPN's  NFL draft experts, was one of Tebow's detractors and most Gator fans who saw him made some kind of comment toward McShay if he were within distance to shout at. But he was pretty much insulated under a tent that ESPN set up for the day.

Yeah, a tent. It felt like a three-ring circus in some ways this morning and afternoon.

By the end of Tebow's workout for the media, scouts and fans, I was on the field, mingling with other media members with what we saw and eyeballing the NFL personnel who were there. I saw Eric Mangini, the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, and not too far from him was his new general manager, the legendary Mike Holmgren. I could see New York Giants coach and former Jacksonville Jaguars mentor Tom Coughlin on the field not far from then-Jaguars general manager Gene Smith, who was being pressured to draft the "local guy." You have no idea of how ramped-up that time period was.

I can see Carolina Panthers coach John Fox there talking to some other personnel on the field. Little did he know the fate that was about to come his way within the next 18 months when it came to Tebow. And right beside me was a throng of media members surrounding Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris, who was starting his second year as the Bucs' coach.

"Is the whole Tampa Bay media out here?" Morris joked. "Where is my P.R. (public relations) director?"

I was also there that day to see if I could corner Tebow into asking him a question about his faith and how it would help him at the next level, though I sensed that one, I wasn't going to get that comfy, cozy, one-on-one feeling with him and two, this wasn't about his faith. The previous September, I had begun work on a column about faith and football and had spent a good couple of minutes talking about that with Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner after he had carved up the Jaguars in game. I enjoyed talking to him, but the story would not be complete unless I got Tebow.

Turns out that Tebow was more embarrassingly insulated from the media than Todd McShay was under that ESPN tent set up for him. Getting a chance to talk to Tebow was like getting an interview with the Dalai Lama. I understand a lot of people wanted to talk to this fine, young man and I couldn't for one minute envy what kind of a headache this could be for the UF media communications department. I was all right in getting something until he got his bell run against Kentucky in a game a few weeks later.

Then I got an email from a media member at UF that simply read, "We will not be coordinating any interviews with Tim for some time since he is recovering from his concussion. I would make alternate plans at this time. Thanks in advance for your understanding."

Bottom line: He was off limits and this guy didn't want to deal with the problem.

It is why I grit my teeth if I have to handle anything that is Gator media-related.

And on this day, I was following behind Tebow as we headed into the interview room where Haden had been an hour earlier. Even if I got to within a mere foot or two from him, you couldn't talk to Tebow. The former Nease High School star quarterback who led his team to a state championship in 2005 was surrounded by an entourage of family, friends, agent, etc. At one point, his father Bob became surly about something someone wanted to ask. 

Again, I couldn't imagine the headache being this likeable young man. We were all seated and I found a spot in the front row for the press conference. Everyone was pretty much set and he looked around for someone to give him the chance to talk. For some reason, he looked my way.

I spoke.

"So how do YOU think it went for you today?"

"It went pretty good," he started as he looked at me. "I thought it was pretty positive. I was happy with the fact I made a lot of changes and that I improved on a lot of things, but I think there's still a lot of room for improvement. I think there are things I can get better at. But I think I made a lot of strides."

That broke the ice. He was free-flowing with his answers from other media members, always was polite with the answers and remained positive throughout. I asked him later in the "presser" about some of the best advice that he was given by those closest to him and maybe not so close.

"It's hard to say who's given me the best advice," he started. "There's been so many people who have invested in me and in my life, especially my whole life, for the last few months. It goes all the way back from my family, my brothers, my sisters, my mom, my dad to the quarterback coaches I worked with to my agents and the people I've been around, even coaches I met with at the Combine have believed in me and invested in me and encouraged me."

For the better part of 12-13 minutes, Tebow took questions about his throwing style and how he had to change up his game. He prided himself on the fact to where he made gradual changes in what he saw on tape from his recent UF days to where he was on the field that particular afternoon. He was even asked about his meeting with McShay, who he shook hands with after the workout.

"I just want to treat everyone the way I want to be treated," Tebow said laughing. The media members laughed.

By 1:15 in the afternoon, I was out the door as the field was being cleared for what would be the first day of spring practice with the new man in charge behind center, John Brantley. A new era was about to begin. I stopped at Leonardo's on University just off campus and had a couple of slices of pizza and a drink before heading back on SR-20 and into Palatka. The first bit of business when I arrived at my apartment -- sleep.

By the time 7 p.m. rolled around, I was up and headed into work to write the story that the Associated Press had already written. I checked quotes to make sure they sounded as accurate as what I had. I knew I was listening correctly to what the prospective pro football players said on this day.

Over a month later on Thursday, April 22, the opening round of the draft was held in New York, the first time the draft was held over three days instead of two. the opening night being in prime time. I was covering a district tournament softball game at Bartram Trail High School between Palatka and the host Bears that night so I missed the first few picks with the game starting the same time as the draft.

No surprise, Haden was the first Gator to go, No. 7 overall to the Cleveland Browns. Center Maurice Pouncey, was next to go at No. 18 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. As my ride was nearing its end to the office, the bombshell went off -- the Denver Broncos had traded their second-, third- and fourth-round picks to the Baltimore Ravens for Baltimore's first-round selection and the 25th pick overall.

Then Roger Goodell reached the stage as I listened on my car radio.

"With the 25th pick in the draft, the Denver Broncos select ... Tim Tebow, quarterback, University of Florida."

My jaw dropped. I think American football fans' collective jaws dropped. For all his improvements in his game, there was still no way this guy was a first-round selection, but here was where coach Josh McDaniels decided to take his chances on the kid. He saw the intangibles that Tebow brought to the table, including the fact the kid was a winner. How could you not see those things?

After all, McDaniels worked with Tom Brady and nearly won a Super Bowl with him to finish a perfect season three seasons earlier with the New England Patriots. Maybe he could turn him into a star quarterback in the league. Unfortunately, McDaniels never got to work with Tebow as he got fired in the 2010 season and the new coach in 2011 became Fox, who was there at Pro Day just one year earlier representing the Panthers, who fired him at the end of that season. When regular Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton struggled, Fox sent Tebow in and all those things McDaniels saw in Tebow -- as well as his biggest fans -- came to life as Tebow won one close game after another in spite of his flaws as a starting quarterback that were still apparent and raw.

By the end of the 2011 season, the Broncos won the scrambled up AFC West title with an 8-8 record, then it was Tebow's 80-yard scoring pass to another first-round pick in that 2010 draft, Demaryius Thomas, that beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Unfortunately, Tebow and the Broncos would be dump-trucked by the Patriots. Soon after that, though, legendary Broncos quarterback John Elway took over as the head of making personnel moves, signed the legendary Manning and let Tebow go. The quarterback, still with his minions of fans, bounced off to the New York Jets, who made him nothing more than a clipboard holder the entire year. After being released at the end of 2012, he hooked up with the Patriots and worked again with McDaniels, but he got cut late in camp.

He's still looking for that quarterback job he hopes to prosper in again and I wish him nothing but the best. He's doing well with ESPN's SEC Network, which debuted, ironically, on Tebow's 27th birthday of August 14, 2014.

As for the other Gators that I saw that day, Dunlap went to the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round and the Patriots took a shot on Spikes, drafting him in the second round. Hernandez would be drafted by the Patriots (Pats owner Bob Kraft listened to the "upside" in the troubled kid the Connecticut-raised Hernandez was from his friend Meyer, reportedly, a decision Kraft regretted after the trouble Hernandez got into off the field) in the fourth round and Cooper got taken in the fifth round by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Like I stated earlier, I'm not a huge fan of the Pro Scout Days. They can be tedious and you are there to witness things these young men wouldn't be normally doing in their everyday lives. It's also why I don't watch the NFL Combine at all.

But this was just an unusual day to remember, especially the cast of characters involved and the young man playing quarterback trying to get a pro team's attention who any mother would be proud for their daughter to bring home.

No, this day was just different.