Pro football player Tim Tebow drew a crowd of about 15,000 to an outdoor Easter church service Sunday, telling the gathering it's important to be outspoken about faith while admonishing athletes about not being better role models.
"In Christianity, it's the Pope and Tebow right now," Celebration Church pastor Joe Champion said. "We didn't have enough room to handle the Pope."
Tebow — devout Christian, backup National Football League quarterback and cultural phenomenon — has a flock of admirers drawn as much to his religious leanings as his skills on the field that enabled him to win the Heisman Trophy awarded to the year's best college football player.
The quarterback led the Denver Broncos to the NFL playoffs last season with an improbable string of late-game comeback wins. He was acquired by the New York Jets in a trade March 21 after the Broncos signed star quarterback Peyton Manning.
Tebow told the crowd he welcomed the attention on his convictions as well as the "Tebowing" prayer pose he often strikes on the field because it puts his faith and prayer in the public conversation.
"It's being talked about," he said. "That's exciting."
Some at the "Easter on the Hill" morning service under sunny skies about 20 miles (30 kilometers) north of Austin drove more 100 miles (160 kilometers) to hear Tebow speak. The service took on the feel of a rock concert with more than 100 school buses shuttling people to the sprawling mega-church campus from local shopping centers and the nearby college.
The service was peppered with lively Christian rock songs and Tebow took the large stage to cheers from those who could see him while others toward the back watched on massive video screens. He sat for a 20-minute interview with Champion to talk about his faith and its role in his public life.
"It's OK to be outspoken about your faith," Tebow said.
He also took a shot at professional athletes who insist they are not role models.
"Yes you are. You're just not a good one," Tebow said.
Champion asked Tebow what he thought needed to change culturally in America.
"First and foremost is what this country was based on: one nation under God. The more that we can get back to that," Tebow said to applause.
Although church officials had said they typically get their biggest crowds on Easter, Tebow was clearly the big draw Sunday. Several hundred started heading toward the exits after Tebow spoke, not waiting for Champion's main Sunday sermon so they could beat the traffic.
Some couldn't wait for the official 8 a.m. opening to the church grounds and showed up hours early.
Debbie Sandoval and her husband and two sons arrived before sunrise. They wore Tebow's Jets jerseys and set up camp close the large soundstage with a row of chairs.
"I love that boy. ... He's like my third son," said Sandoval, who is not a regular member of the church but wasn't going to miss a chance to hear Tebow speak. A self-described "lifelong Broncos fan," Sandoval said she became a Jets fan because of Tebow.
"Everything about this young man's extraordinary life is special," Sandoval said.
Media access to the event was tightly controlled inside the roped off field. Reporters and photographers were required to have an escort when walking through the crowd before the service. Television cameras were allowed to record only a portion of Tebow's speech and no live video streaming of the service was permitted.
Church officials said Tebow's appearance on Easter Sunday was coincidental. Church spokeswoman Tara Wall said it was Tebow who reached out to Champion with a request to appear and Sunday was the best date available.