ROME, Ga. — The Georgia Bulldogs fan sat just behind the premium home-plate seats, out of sight of those below but not out of earshot.
In the batter’s box, Tim Tebow faced a 2-2 count when the voice reached him.
“GO DAWGS!” came the shout. Then, 1 pitch later: “HOW ‘BOUT THEM DAWGS?!”
Tebow stayed patient to earn a walk, and the home crowd drowned out the lone Bulldogs dissenter with a loud cheer. A former star Florida Gators quarterback, Tebow soaked in plenty more friendly moments from the SEC faithful during a 3-game series between his Columbia Fireflies and the Rome Braves.
“I think it’s awesome,” Tebow said of the support before the series opener Monday. “I think the thing that people don’t really always understand about SEC country, is when you’re playing against the other team, it is incredibly intense, and they may say some things to you that they don’t always mean. But then when you’re away from playing against, let’s say, Georgia, then people support people from the SEC.”
Tebow is among the most successful quarterbacks in college football history. From 2006-09 at Florida, he won a pair of national titles, a Heisman Trophy and finished top 5 in Heisman voting in 2 other seasons. Georgia fans (including at least one in Rome) still are smarting from Tebow’s final 2 performances against the Bulldogs, in which he punched in 9 total touchdowns without tossing an interception.
His bronze statue now stands outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla., next to fellow legendary Gators quarterbacks Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel.
When Braves pitcher Bryse Wilson stared down Tebow for the first time on Monday, it was a surreal moment for the 19-year-old from Hillsborough, N.C., who spent many Saturdays of his youth cheering for the now-29-year-old left fielder.
“I grew up watching him,” Wilson said. “It’s definitely weird.”
Tebow’s football résumé is not lost on his teammates, many of whom are nearly a decade younger. They began peppering him with questions as soon as spring training began.
“One of ‘em asked [Sunday] before the game started, ‘Dude, when you got knocked out versus Kentucky, did that hurt?’ ” Tebow said. “I was like, ‘Well, I was knocked out. I didn’t feel it.’ ”
Fans in Rome wore plenty of Gators gear to the stadium this week. Many got their blue-and-orange No. 15 jerseys autographed. One man brought a full-sized Florida helmet into the park, and someone brought a stuffed Tebow doll in a Gators uniform. Tebow signed both.
Yes, there was a smattering of unfriendly voices throughout the series (“You won’t steal second!” a teenager yelled during a particularly quiet moment, explaining: “You’re too slow!”). But they were molehills next to the mountain of support Tebow received from a friendly Rome crowd.
“How could you not be a fan of his?” Wilson, the Braves pitcher, asked. “Unless you’re an Alabama fan?”