(Eds: Adds AP Photos.)|
By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer
Florida graduate and lifelong Gators fan Mike Beattie followed every development of the Tim Tebow trade. After it finally ended, his wife turned to him and said, ``Do we have to start rooting for the Jets?''
``I guess so,'' he responded.
And there it is: the definition of Tebowmania.
Many of the same people who adored Tebow during his four years in Gainesville, Fla., followed everything he did in Denver. And now that the quarterback has been traded to the New York Jets, they almost certainly will do the same. Even if it is the hated Jets.
``He transcends cities and teams,'' said Randy Echevarria, president of the Jacksonville Beach Gator Club. ``It just doesn't matter to Tebow fans.''
And there are legions of them - and it's a group that's ever growing.
His flocks of fans have as much to do with his faith and image as his football skills. A devout Christian, Tebow has been a role model since his days at Florida, when he led the Gators to two national championships and captured the 2007 Heisman Trophy.
Between mission trips overseas, prison ministry, hospital visits, charity work and fan events, Tebow has become one of professional sport's most compelling - and polarizing - athletes.
His ardent supporters praise his good deeds and eagerly point out that he has won football games at every level since Pop Warner. He became must-see TV last season while winning seven of his first eight starts, many of them in come-from-behind fashion, and converted nonbelievers.
Sales of his jersey ranked second in the NFL in 2011, behind only league MVP Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, and could be found at stadiums thousands of miles from Denver. His every move drew attention, none bigger than his sideline prayer that set off the ``Tebowing'' craze.
But Tebow critics also lurk around every corner, waiting for him to fail. They mocked his unorthodox throwing motion and his paltry completion percentage (46.5), and dissected every in-game facial expression from coach John Fox and executive John Elway.
The bottom line, though, was Tebow got attention from people everywhere.
``He's humble, works his tail off, is quick with a smile and has a larger-than-life personality,'' Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. ``He's just a good person, and he stands for all the right things.
``Religiously, no matter what side you're on, you realize he's a good human being who represents his faith and his family in the right way. He always represented the Gators in the right way, and he's a guy that Gator fans will always love.''
No doubt many Broncos fans feel the same way.
Valda Edson, a 13-year-old girl from Parker, Colo., was having trouble dealing with news of Tebow's departure from Denver. So she decided to write him a letter.
``I don't know too much about football, but I know for sure you're an amazing player,'' she wrote. ``Whichever team you end up on I will root for you. ... I hope you go to a great team and win. I'm so glad you came to the Broncos. Denver got a taste of Tebow. Just to let you know, I will always cheer for you. Love you. I hope to meet you someday.''
With Tebow on the move, fans in Denver are making a last dash for memorabilia.
Eric LaBeaux, who works at Sportsfan in Littleton, Colo., said the sporting goods store sold every remaining Tebow jersey this week.
``It's amazing,'' he said. ``I've been a Broncos fan since the `80s. I've watched their good and bad. I wasn't a huge fan, per se, but I like what he did for the community. In our store, he's made us a mint. You don't get sports guys like that anymore - upstanding.''
He's going to make money for stores in the Big Apple, too.
At the Jets Shop in midtown Manhattan on Thursday, a steady stream of customers stopped by hoping to buy Tebow jerseys. The store didn't have any premade ones yet, so many fans took advantage of a sale on personalized apparel to make their own Tebow jerseys.
And that's before he had even picked up a playbook.
Amid pressure from fans, Tebow took over as Denver's quarterback following a 1-4 start last season. He led the Broncos to the playoffs for the first time in six years.
In the postseason, Tebow threw the game-winning touchdown pass on the first play of overtime to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 29-23. Denver lost the following week at New England, 45-10. Although he energized the team, Tebow's long, looping delivery led to some accuracy issues. And with his eagerness to run, he's hardly the prototypical pocket passer.
His fans don't care.
``It's interesting that people keep saying he can't play in the NFL and yet teams are lining up to get him,'' Echevarria said.
Indeed, Tebow's hometown Jaguars and the St. Louis Rams showed interest. Many figured he would be lock to land in Jacksonville, where his fame surely would boost sluggish ticket sales and make the team relevant nationally for the first time in five years.
But in the end, Tebow went to the Jets in exchange for fourth- and sixth-round draft picks. The Broncos also received a seventh-rounder in return.
Some Tebow fans question the destination.
``That's got to be probably the toughest thing for Tebow,'' said Mike McBride, a member of the Clay County Gator Club outside Jacksonville. ``One of the most critical cities in sports is New York, worse than any place in the nation. If they're winning, fine. If they're losing, they want you tarred and feathered and sent packing.''
But McBride, whose wife, daughter and daughter-in-law all proudly wore No. 15 Broncos jerseys in Jaguars country, also believes Tebow could use the larger platform to better share his faith.
``He's different from everyone else,'' McBride said. ``I'll always watch Tebow hoping he's an anomaly in a league where so many guys get to the top and get the big purse and either get in trouble or don't play to the big purse. This kid is full motor. He might not be the best quarterback, but it's not because he's not giving full effort.''
The region that might have the toughest time dealing with Tebow's latest stop is South Florida, where the Dolphins are king and the Gators rank closely behind in the football-fervent state.
Can those Dolphins fans who love Tebow really root for him now that he plays for the AFC East rival Jets?
``I was hoping he would wind up going to the Dolphins,'' said Henry Rivera, a Miami native now playing baseball at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. ``And now that he's playing against our biggest rival, it's heartbreaking.''
Teammate Trevor Freeman, who was sitting a row behind Rivera as they watched the New York Yankees play an intrasquad game in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, was quick to chime in.
``It's not about the Jets; it's about Tim Tebow!'' Freeman said.
Another teammate, Will Palmerton, lived in Gainesville last year and is a Gators fan.
``I don't know if he's going to quite fit in,'' Palmerton said. ``A better fit would've been Jacksonville. I mean, I'll still root for him ... maybe not for the Jets to win, but for him to do well.''
Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner, who went to graduate school in Gainesville, expects Tebow to experience some culture shock in New York. He also feels there will be some conflicted Tebow fans.
``Oh, I'm sure there will be,'' he said. ``Sure will.''
The Beatties are among those.
Mike Beattie's initial reaction when he learned Tebow was landing with the Jets?
``I was disgusted,'' said Beattie, a CPA in Tampa. ``I just thought the Jets would be a horrible place for him. They have a loud-mouth, obnoxious coach and a divided locker room. That whole franchise is a mess. I could pick 25 other teams that would be a better fit. The Jets didn't seem to make any sense.''
But Tebow's there now, for better or worse, leaving Beattie no choice.
``I want him to do well,'' Beattie said. ``If he doesn't play, then I'm not going to care. But it he gets on the field, then I'm going to root for him with everything I've got.''
AP Sports Writers Rachel Cohen in New York, Pat Graham and Arnie Stapleton in Denver, and Ben Walker in Tampa, Fla., contributed to this report.