Tim Tebow: Why an athlete, finally, made the cut as a 'Great Floridian'

Tim Tebow joins a distinguished group of 'Great Floridians,' including Thomas Edison and Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez, but, until now, no athletes. Could it be a calculated political move by an unpopular governor in an election year?

Mark Leffingwell/Reuters/File
Then-Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow celebrates after his team defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL AFC wildcard playoff football game in Denver on Jan. 8, 2012. Tebow, who was subsequently traded by the Broncos to the New York Jets, has been named a 'Great Floridian' by Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

‘Great’ Floridians: Thomas Edison, Zora Neale Hurston, Tim Tebow?

Things haven’t been going great for Mr. Tebow in New York. But once the Jets cut him loose (and they will, eventually), he’s got a bit of good news waiting for him back in his home state.

Today, Tebow will be honored with a “Great Floridian” distinction by Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R). The ceremony will take place at Tebow’s charity golf tournament, the Tim Tebow Celebrity Gala and Golf Classic in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., on Friday.

The honor is “presented annually in recognition of the outstanding achievements of men and women who have made significant contributions to the progress and welfare of this state," according to the Florida Division of Historical Resources.

OK, so it’s not an Oscar, a Nobel Prize, or even a Heisman Trophy (which he already has). Winners don’t get much more than a round of applause and a plaque hanging somewhere in the state Capitol. But in becoming a Great Floridian, Tebow joins fairly exclusive company.

Since the program’s founding in 1981, there have only been 66 “Great Floridians,” and up until recently, the list seemed culled straight from the Florida history textbooks and street signs of my youth: Pedro Menendez, the Spanish explorer and founder of St. Augustine (the nation’s real first permanent settlement. Sorry, Jamestown) was honored in 2009. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the author of “River of Grass” and a driving force behind the conservation of Florida’s Everglades, was among the first honorees. Zora Neale Hurston is there, as is inventor Thomas Edison (not technically a Floridian, but he did have a winter vacation home in Fort Myers).

Florida’s chief export, after citrus, is NFL players, but sports don’t dominate the “Great Floridian” list. There are a few coaches here and there, the founder of NASCAR, and some names you’ll see attached to college stadiums (Ben Hill Griffin Jr.: Fruit baron, home of the Florida Gators).

But Tebow, shockingly, is the first athlete to make the cut, from a state that has given us Emmitt Smith, Deion Sanders, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, to name a few. So, why Tebow?

The most obvious answer: Floridians really do adore him and seem dogged in their efforts to make him a historical entity. He has a statue at the University of Florida, and his famous “speech” – the one, after a loss, that they say inspired the Gators to their second national championship in three years, hangs on a plaque at the Gators’ Home Turf. Last year, when Tebow was up for a trade from the Denver Broncos, his hometown Jacksonville Jaguars tried their best to generate fan interest in the lagging club by signing him, before he, ultimately, went to the Jets.

The other, less sane possibility: It’s a calculated political move by an unpopular governor in an election year.

Governor Scott has been on a tear handing out “Great Floridian” honors: Tebow included, he’s given out 17 since his inauguration in 2011. And the list has gotten a bit more accessible on his watch: He gave Edison the nod, as well as former governor Jeb Bush and George Jenkins, the founder of Publix supermarkets. (If you’ve ever been to a Publix, you understand that this is heartily deserved. I still miss Publix.)

Last year, he tapped former Florida State University head football coach Bobby Bowden, who turned the Seminoles program into a national powerhouse, becoming the winningest Division I head coach of all time in the process. Scott couldn’t have a beloved Seminole so recently on the list without giving their bitter rivals, the Gators, a Great Floridian all their own.

This is all silly conjecture, of course, but every shrewd Florida politician knows: Don’t anger a football fan base. Expect a Miami Hurricane to be honored in 2014. Maybe Ray Lewis

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