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Former University of Florida football player Tim Tebow speaks to fans after he was inducted into the Ring of Honor at Florida Field during the Gators' game against LSU in October 2018. Tebow's foundation started the "Night to Shine" prom for people with special needs.

The supposed highlight of the evening was still close to an hour away. At 8 this past Friday at the John A. Patton Recreation Center in Lookout Valley, Tim Tebow would appear on a giant screen and make this announcment to close to 150 special-needs folks who had just received crowns and tiaras for his foundation's "Night to Shine" prom: "I now crown you queen and king."

At that moment, at both this local prom and at similar events at 536 other sites throughout the world, life would become a wee bit warmer and sweeter and more special for some pretty wonderful folks who need to be told now and then how sweet and special they really are.

But at 7, that was still an hour away, even if the rec center was already full of the event's special guests, as well as more than 175 volunteers, many of whom would be these queens' and kings' "buddies" for the night, including 99 student-athletes, coaches and administrators from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

"We had 100," said a smiling Laura Herron, the school's executive associate athletics director. "But one girl's sister had a baby this morning, so we excused her. We actually had to turn a few athletes away. They were all jumping at the chance to do this."

Mocs soccer player Catherine Meyer was one of those eager to become a buddy to the night's special guests. She was paired with Anthony Crompton, an adult student at the remarkable Trousdale School, just up the road in Cleveland.

A passionate University of Louisville basketball fan and a longtime employee of Food City who always has a smile on his bearded face, Crompton was quick to teach Meyer — who recently won the school's Dayle May academic award — a dance move or two.

"He's incredible. He's so much better than me," Meyer said of Crompton's skills on the dance floor. "Anthony has been a beacon of sunlight this entire night."

The ultimate beacon of light regarding this event was 17-year-old Brianna Smith, a senior at Ider (Alabama) High School who plans to major in nursing at the University of Mobile in the fall. Attending a Tebow speaking engagement in Albertville, Alabama, in 2016, she fell in love with his message and the thought of overseeing her own Night to Shine.

"I was saved that night," she said. "It changed my life."

A member of Wauhatchie United Methodist Church in Lookout Valley, young Smith set out to enlist her church as the host institution for the event. As many as 70 of the church's 200 members began working with her in August to bring the Night to Shine to life.

"Brianna's passion for this has been amazing," said Tommy Messer, the church's senior pastor. "She's been working 40 to 50 hours a week on this for seven months. And she's had a lot of help from a lot of volunteers at our church. But just to see the smiles on all these guests' faces and hear them say 'This is something I thought I'd never get to do' makes it all worthwhile."

How worthwhile? Consider Crompton's parents, Darlene and Ed. Watching Meyer eat dinner with her son, Darlene said: "It's just overwhelming. Just to see how much these students care. You can't fake that."

Added Ed: "Just that these volunteers would go out of their way to create something special for Anthony and so many others. It restores your faith in society."

Anyone who has ever heard Tebow speak should have his or her faith improved, if not completely restored. This was the fifth anniversary of his Night to Shine proms, and if the one staged at Patton Recreation Center is any indication, the best is yet to come.

Just ask Mary Crews, whose buddy Friday night was UTC volleyball player Sarah Root.

"I've waited more than two years for this," Crews said during a brief break from dancing. "I've been doing the sprinkler and the South Carolina shag. We'll do a lot of disco dancing. I've never had more fun."

Root agreed, saying of Crews: "She's awesome. I've learned a lot hanging out with Mary."

The student-athletes came from football, volleyball, soccer, men's cross country and men's tennis, women's golf and cheerleading.

In addition to Herron — who got involved at least partly because her aunt and uncle, LuAnne and James Parker, attend Wauhatchie UMC — the UTC athletic department was represented by administrator Lee Robert, director of football operations Kadeem Wise and his 10-year-old son Jalen, women's golf coach Colette Murray, men's tennis coach Chuck Merzbacher, school videographer Leah Gill, school photographer Dale Rutemeyer and, last but certainly not least, Scrappy the mascot.

"There are a lot of positive vibes out here tonight," Mocs offensive lineman McClendon Curtis said. "My buddy Tequila told me to bring it (on the dance floor)."

Said outside linebacker Ben Brewton: "We've gotten to meet some really cool people. Great experience."

Smith was happy as she watched it all unfold.

"This shows that everybody has a heart," she said. "You see these big, burly football players, but inside they're teddy bears."

A Night to Shine also showed this, a message expressed by Root, a message worth repeating and practicing every day and night of the year: "We're all just here to try and make a difference and show that there's not a difference in people."

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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