By MARK LONG, Associated Press
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.