GAINESVILLE, Fla. — To find the source of Tim Tebow’s inspiration, it takes three days, four planes and two hours of driving on roads so bumpy they rattle the spine. The journey leads to Uncle Dick’s Home, an orphanage in the Philippines so remote it has no mailing address.
More than 9,000 miles and a world away from Florida’s campus, Uncle Dick’s, a home for 48 orphans, is the best place to gauge Tebow’s reach as a college star and what it is he wants to accomplish with the platform his athletic success has afforded him.
Tebow has inspired the orphans personally — they easily break into Florida’s signature cheer, the Gator Chomp — despite them not understanding football. One young boy is called Richard, after Tebow’s middle name.
Tebow has also helped them financially. Some of the more than $300,000 Tebow has helped raise while at Florida has enabled the children to get their own beds, drink clean water and stock their shelves with groceries.
“It’s such tangible things,” Tebow said. “Like getting a chain saw so they don’t have to cut down everything with an ax.”
Tebow, 22, has a chance during his senior year at Florida to establish himself as one of the most accomplished and recognizable athletes in collegiate sports history. But when Tebow talks about the long-term future, his ultimate hope is that football will provide a way for him to run a charitable empire.
With the same passion he has when he speaks about his teammates, his coaches and winning a third national title, Tebow talks of wide-eyed dreams of opening orphanages, a prison ministry, youth ranches and granting wishes to underprivileged children.
“It’s just what my heart is, helping,” Tebow said. “That’s what I feel passionate about, is trying making a difference for people who can’t make a difference for themselves.”
Tebow flirted with the N.F.L. after leading Florida to the national title in January. And although he returned to attempt to lead the Gators to back-to-back championships, there was also an ulterior motive.
Tebow’s status at Florida and in college football epitomizes the sprawling platform now available to college superstars. In fact, he said he thought his reach might be greater than that of some players in the N.F.L.
From TMZ.com to maximum-security prisons where he preaches to the buckle of the Bible Belt, Tebow has achieved something rare for a college athlete — he has crossed over into popular culture. His revelation last month that he was abstaining from sex until marriage became a major news story and a journalistic referendum on taste.
What has separated Tebow from other college stars of his generation has been his focus on using his popularity to help others.
“Tim has come at the right time,” Florida Coach Urban Meyer said. “I’m a father and I want to give my kids something positive to watch. I think that’s why Tim is the phenomenon that he is. Enough about steroids and Michael Vick; let’s talk about Tim Tebow.”
Any talk about Tebow starts in the Philippines, where he was born. His parents, Pam and Bob, are missionaries who say they received separate calls from God to go to the Philippines, where they lived from 1985 to 1990.
Tim Tebow is the fifth and youngest Tebow child. His pregnancy was difficult for his mother, who was advised by doctors to have an abortion to save her life. When Tim was born healthy, Pam Tebow said: “You’re a miracle baby. God has his hand on you and a purpose for you.”
And part of that purpose has been helping Uncle Dick’s Home, where Tebow has visited every year but one since he was 15. Tebow’s father, Bob, helped open the home with an evangelist on his staff. The orphanage started serendipitously; they decided it was necessary when a baby was about to be thrown in a river after the mother died during birth and the father abandoned the child.
That baby, known as Queenie, is now in college and is one of the dozens of success stories Uncle Dick’s Home has produced. Four of the children just graduated from college, and the home has fostered such a family feel that many of the former orphans return there for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Tebow is particularly close to a few of the children, including his namesake, Richard. He also helped raise $50,000 so that another child, Joel, could receive a kidney transplant. Bob Tebow said the children at Uncle Dick’s Home had a faint realization that Tim was a celebrity, but their uncertain grasp of football made it difficult to understand why.
Tim Tebow said he was moved by the journeys of the orphans and how they become a family. He recalled being out with some of them recently and bumping into a former resident of the home.
“All 50 kids came running up to one, and it’s like a huge group hug,” he said. “It’s just so cool to see that and see the relationship.”
After his Heisman Trophy-winning season two years ago, Tebow began working with student government leaders and the University Athletic Association to raise money.
That year, he worked with the student government to run a Powder Puff football game that helped raise $10,000 for charities, including Uncle Dick’s Home. The N.C.A.A. rules are restrictive about how involved student-athletes can be in fundraising, which meant Tebow had to clear every action with Florida’s compliance department.
This past year, in the wake of Florida’s national title and with a year of planning, Tebow joined 30 volunteers, the student government and the University Athletic Association to raise more than $300,000 for charity.
The money benefited Uncle Dick’s Home and is also helping to build a virtual playroom in the pediatric unit at a local hospital, Shands at the University of Florida. Janis Bomar, the director of nursing there, said the playroom would be used by children with diseases like cancer and leukemia, who often have long hospital stays.
Tebow took part in a week of charity activities, which he called “one of the funnest weeks I had in my entire life.” It included a tip to Disney World for underprivileged kids from the Gainesville Boys & Girls Club and a 24-team Powder Puff tournament. (Tebow was supposed to be unbiased but acknowledged rooting for the Filipino Student Association’s team. “The girl they had at quarterback was a stud,” he said.)
And Tebow is as hands-on with his charity work as he is in the huddle. Ryan Moseley, the former student body president who helped Tebow organize the event, said Tebow called a meeting the day after the event finished two years ago.
“We had been scrambling for 30 days,” Moseley said. “And he’s like, We have to start thinking about next year.”
Moseley said Tebow was so involved that he spent 10 straight hours one night in a video editing suite at Florida’s journalism school. He was making sure that a 90-second video to be shown at a charity dinner detailing the plight of Filipino children was just right. He and Moseley did not leave until around 2 a.m.
“He’s probably waking up in probably three hours,” Moseley said. “And he’s doing all of this for a 90-second video. That’s just something that stays with you. That’s where his focus is. He wants people to understand and be moved.”
Like any movement, it has established strong roots close to home. Everyone from Meyer, who took a missionary trip with his family to the Dominican Republic, to Tebow’s teammates, who have logged more community-service hours than previous Gator teams, have been swayed by Tebow’s charity work. Meyer also initiated a program in which Gators players mentor at-risk boys in local middle schools.
“I don’t want to say Tim’s responsible, but he’s made it so you’re not a nerd to help people,” Meyer said. “Here’s the meanest and toughest quarterback who has ever played. And by the way, he also does great things for people.”