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AP photo by Joe Mahoney / Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow kneels on the sidelines during the third quarter of an NFL wild-card playoff game against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 8, 2012.

In a few minutes, Tim Tebow would take the stage at Redemption to the Nations Church on Bailey Avenue and deliver an inspirational, spiritual message every bit as strong, if not stronger, than any performance he ever gave on a football field. And the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner was pretty good at football in leading the Florida Gators to two national championships.

But before he spoke Sunday afternoon to a gathering of close to 500 mostly socially distanced, somewhat mask-wearing folks in Chattanooga, a video recounting some of his athletic achievements filled a giant video screen, followed by these words from Tebow: "I want to be known for bringing faith, hope and love to those in need."

Then he strongly underscored those words throughout most of a riveting talk that lasted more than an hour.

"Does your life actually show a sense of urgency in what you believe?" he asked at one point. "Or do you hope to just kind of get by?"

He then added: "People mistake excitement, momentum, hype for passion. They're not. When I get hit by a 300-pound defensive lineman, I no longer have much excitement, momentum or hype. Passion is caring so much for something that you're willing to suffer for it."

He wasn't talking about the aches and pains of football, but Jesus Christ suffering on the cross.

This isn't to say Tebow didn't tell any football stories. And he's sure to tell some more Monday when he visits the McLemore golf resort atop Lookout Mountain to spearhead a fundraiser for the Challenge Golf charity, which Tebow describes as "evangelizing and sharing the love of Jesus Christ through golf."

He recalled how he almost signed with Alabama instead of Florida because he felt so close to Mike Shula, then the coach of the Crimson Tide.

He recounted his recruiting visit to Knoxville, when Phil Fulmer — the current Tennessee athletic director was the Volunteers' football coach at the time — and his staff seemed more interested in another quarterback than him.

Angered by the perceived slight, Tebow told his father on the way back home to the Jacksonville, Florida, area: "Wherever I go, I'm going to come back here and beat these guys and it's going to be real personal for me."

And as every Big Orange fan is painfully aware, that's exactly what happened for the next four years.

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AP photo by Vera Nieuwenhuis / Tim Tebow stands in the New York Mets' dugout during an MLB spring training game against the Miami Marlins on Feb. 22 in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

There was also the stunning story of Tebow writing Bible verses with silver Sharpies on his eyeblack patches while with the Gators. The first was Philippians 4:13, which reads "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

But it's the second that should give pause to anyone who doesn't believe in a higher power. Having worn the Philippians verse for much of the 2008 season, he changed it for that year's national title game against Oklahoma to John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."

A couple of nights after that 24-14 win, Tebow and his parents were back in Gainesville eating dinner with Urban Meyer when the Gators coach's phone rang. It was the program's media relations director, Steve McClain, with an interesting bit of news.

Said Meyer to Tebow when he hung up the phone, "Steve wanted me to tell you that 94 million people Googled John 3:16 during the game."

Tebow's initial reaction: "How do 94 million people not know John 3:16?"

Now fast-forward to Jan. 8, 2012, three years to the day after that 2009 victory over Oklahoma. Now a Denver Broncos quarterback, Tebow leads his team to an unexpected NFL playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Afterward, a media person for the Broncos informs Tebow he has just thrown for 316 yards, his completions averaged 31.6 yards and he also averaged 3.16 yards a carry.

One other thing: CBS's final quarter-hour overnight ratings that evening were — cue the theme song from "The Twilight Zone" — 31.6.

"It froze Twitter," Tebow said.

But it was not a sports story that Tebow, in his seventh year as an SEC Network analyst and a baseball player in the New York Mets' farm system since 2016, most wanted the crowd to embrace.

Tebow talked of a young man who was failing out of high school, every aspect of his life a mess save for one teacher who believed in him. One day, as he was about to drop out, she pleaded with him to not only stay, but to take the SAT. Not only did he take it, he made a 1480 out of a possible 1600, which got him into a pretty good college after he raised his grades.

Suddenly believing in himself as he never had before, he graduated college, started a wildly successful business, got married and began raising a family.

Then one day a letter arrived. Turns out there had been a mistake on his SAT. Instead of a 1480, he'd actually made a 740, which wouldn't have gotten him into any college.

"He began to laugh," Tebow said. "The moment that changed my life was a lie, he told himself. But that's not the point. The point is that belief is a really powerful thing."

We all desperately need to believe in something these days. Returning to his faith, Tebow said, "Salvation is going from having no hope to having a home in heaven. Always remember that the importance of people lasts forever."

In this year above all years, whether you worship God or believe in no god, if we all haven't learned the importance of people of all colors, faith and backgrounds, if we haven't begun to embrace the importance of bringing faith, hope and love to those in need, we never will.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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