Alligator Arms

Let it be written, that a new hope shall rise from the swamp to lead Gator Nation back into the Promised Land. And he shall cause touchdowns to rain like brimstone upon her enemies, like unto the great ones of old. For many are called, but few are chosen.

A MURMUR surges through thousands of Gator faithful lining University Avenue hours before kickoff. Is he coming? A blond little girl in an orange cheerleader's outfit waves from Daddy's shoulder as the players file past. I think that's him! Larger than life in a black pinstriped suit, the 6'3", 230-pound freshman quarterback flashes high cheekbones above a preacher's grin.

Other voices ring out. We love you! Take us all the way! Camera shutters click as he veers close enough to slap hands with front-row fans without breaking ranks from the team. The crowd erupts in a chorus of praise: Te-bow! Te-bow!

A few spots back, starting quarterback Chris Leak disappears in plain view. It's likely as close as you'll see him to Tebow in public. Leak wears a distant smile and a Gator-blue warmup jacket, black suitcase in tow. The senior sticks to the center of the redbrick walkway. Head down, eyes straight ahead, he doesn't see the students sporting hand-edited Leak (scratch that) Tebow for Heisman T-shirts. From the back of the crowd, a lone fan chants his name like a voice in the wilderness. Later, Leak will say he doesn't hear the cheers, only feels the love. His mind is on the game.

It's a big one. After three years of disappointment, Leak has led the Gators to the brink of greatness, in a competitive partnership with the kid they call the Chosen One. But before he can knock on the BCS door with an SEC East title in hand, Leak has to face down Steve Spurrier's South Carolina squad before a home crowd that's infatuated with his hulking understudy. If Leak resents sharing the spotlight, though, he doesn't admit it. Stuck between Florida's past and its future, he is intent on making the present his own.

In that day, he shall wield the sword of knowledge, striking his enemies asunder and his wide receivers on the numbers. Yet shall he be a man of grief and sorrow, for no man is a prophet in his own land.

FILM IS Leak's oracle, and has been since he was an 8-year-old QB in the Carolina Youth Football League his father, Curtis, founded. Chris and older brother C.J., also a quarterback, borrowed VHS game tapes from teammates' parents. Every week, and especially after a loss, they would sit for hours rewinding and replaying each down. This is what quarterbacks do, and it's the only life Leak has known. Playing with Dad meant learning pass routes from a wide receiver who just missed playing in the NFL. "Chris picked up everything C.J. did," says Curtis, who was drafted out of Johnson C. Smith by the Packers in the 11th round in 1976. "But he did everything his way. Everyone saw how physical C.J. was, so Chris always threw spirals."

That's exactly what the Gators needed in 2003: a sublime quarterback to save them from mediocrity. Stung by Spurrier's departure to the NFL, bruised by successor Ron Zook's five-loss debut, only a torrent of touchdown passes could douse Gator Nation's pain. So when America's top high school prospect chose Gainesville despite his corner's voicing concern over the Gators' short history with black quarterbacks, the faithful rejoiced. Over the next two seasons, Leak delivered brilliant stats—even leading the SEC in passing and touchdowns as a sophomore—but not enough victories. After two more five-loss seasons, Zook was fired.

As the program crumbled around his ears, Leak retreated into the only refuge he knows. He spent hours with remote in hand, brother C.J. on the phone and a game on the tube. Away from the pressure, the fans, even his team. "That season I saw Chris outside of football once," says junior middle linebacker Brandon Siler. "We didn't know him, didn't have a relationship with him."

His new coach didn't know what to make of it. "He's a very quiet guy," says Urban Meyer. "A very introverted guy. I've never seen that in a quarterback." He urged Leak to become more vocal, more social with the team. "I've never met a quarterback in the NFL or college who has won a championship that , you k now, you'd have to ask to do that."

Step by step, Leak invited his teammates into his football-obsessed life. He watched film with them. Watched games with them. Played Madden with them. One day last season, his apartment crowded with offensive linemen, Leak showed himself being sacked in slo mo. A first-year starter shifted uncomfortably as his missed block oozed across the screen. Leak hit pause and looked him in the eye. Please promise me you won't do that again. "I can't change how God made me," Leak says softly.

It may not be exactly what Meyer had in mind, but something has clicked. "I let him know that if he trusted us, if he could be himself around us, then we'd trust him too," says receiver and classmate Andre Caldwell. "We're gonna fight for him." And word did go forth throughout the land that a great warrior had come among them. For, behold, he did run like unto a Mack truck, and did stiff-arm like unto Chuck Norris, and spake with the voice of an angry prophet.

WITH THE Swamp lurking outside his office window, Meyer recalls the first time he heard of Tim Tebow. "The day I got hired, they told me about this quarterback at Nease High School," he says, swinging his hands to point to every corner of the campus. "Twenty thousand people. I'm not exaggerating." While Gator Nation openly questioned pocket-passer Leak's ability to succeed in Meyer's offense, Tebow looked like the answer to their prayers: a railroading, stiff-arming quarterback who could sell the triple option.

Bob Tebow didn't pray for his youngest son to be a quarterback. The full-time evangelist wanted a preacher. Nineteen years ago, during an extended mission to the Philippines, where his evangelical association still trains local pastors and operates an orphanage, Bob asked God for a fifth child, a son specifically prepared to carry on his life's work. His answer came, but only after a complicated pregnancy. The Tebows credit the child's survival to nothing less than divine intervention.

Like his four older siblings, Tim was home-schooled on the family farm in west Jacksonville. He studied the Bible and had to recite a memorized piece of Scripture each week before he could suit up for youth football games. He had to finish his chores before he could lift weights in the barn. He spent every summer during his high school years on family missions, playing with orphans and preaching to throngs of up to 10,000 Filipinos. Unlike them, though, he was built like a tractor and about as subtle as the Fourth of July.

At Nease he was a man possessed, running the huddle with fire and brimstone and singlehandedly altering the Panthers' losing tradition. As a senior, he practically willed them to the state title, and in three seasons at quarterback, he accounted for more than 13,000 yards of total offense and 158 TDs. So he spent 2005 on every college coach's wish list as his fame spread like a new religion. Not that his family was surprised. "The platform on which God has put Timmy is no accident," says older brother Peter. "The character qualities that God has given Timmy, that allow him to be so dynamic as a person, are for a reason."

When the Gators faced the hated Florida State Seminoles at home last season, somebody handed Florida's cheerleaders a flyer. They didn't recognize the name it told them to chant, but the crowd did, and their voices filled the stadium: Te-bow! Te-bow! The Chosen One, on his official visit, felt right at home. "People look up to football players, and that gives you a chance to share your faith with others you might not get a chance to if you didn't play," he says. "I do it for the glory of God and give the credit to God. If you have a bad play, give that to Him too." Tebow is no preacher in the locker room, but he is demonstrative about his faith and tries to lead by example.

Let your light so shine, the Bible says. A city on a hill cannot be hid. An athlete destined for greatness doesn't wait out a redshirt year. "He wanted to be able to have an impact right away," his brother Peter says. "That was definitely a factor in where he went." Lacking depth at the position, Florida gave him that opportunity. By January, Tebow was a Gator. In those great and last days of the season shall the mighty become humble and the weak be made strong in adversity, and they shall behave like brothers in arms (liketh it or not). For their games are numbered, and only united may they prevail.

THE REFEREE'S arms rise to signal Tebow's first college touchdown. Bouncing from the end zone like an oversize tail-thumping puppy, he sprints toward his mentor. At midfield, Leak lifts his protégé in a brotherly embrace. This scene, from the Gators' 34-7 opening day win over Southern Miss this past September, is the way everyone associated with Florida football wants to see the relationship between their two quarterbacks. Nobody wants a rift. Not now, not ever.

"As long as the team is winning, Chris loves everyone on the team," says Caldwell. "He loves Tebow as a teammate and person." But the two quarterbacks appear more often coolly cordial and hotly competitive. When Meyer asked Leak to take his heir apparent under his wing, he did—at first. "Through the early part of the season, I was trying to mentor the young guys as best I could," Leak says. "But when you're busy mentoring guys, it's going to take away from you developing as fully as you want to."

Ask Tebow what he has learned from his teacher. "There's a time to be calm as well," he says. Ask Leak what Tebow brings to the team. "You'll have to ask Tim Tebow that," he says. Observe them on game day. Leak sits on a bench surrounded by his wide receivers, a holler away from his linemen. Tebow stalks the sideline, alone, barely able to contain himself.

Against Tennessee on Sept. 16, Tebow showed what he was put there to do. One play after Leak's slide landed just short of the marker, with the team down 20-14 in the fourth quarter, he pounded out two yards for the first down. As he erupted into his characteristic arm-flapping celebration, man-crushes blossomed at every sports bar in Gainesville.

As a short-yardage specialist and Meyer's red zone favorite, Tebow's highlight reel has fueled his already frenzied popularity. Even before the season began, the freshman was buried by invitations to judge sorority pageants and masses of autograph requests at local clubs, not to mention "Chuck Norris (scratch that) Tim Tebow" jokes. At night the bogeyman checks under his bed for Tim Tebow.

Teetotaling Tebow wasn't the life of the campuswide party, he was the party. "He changes your mind about the whole home-school thing really quickly," Siler says. Fans called for Leak to step aside and posted tribute videos to the next-in-line on the web. Some, including one called The Great White Hope, ended up on one of the two dozen MySpace pages claiming to be Tim Tebow's. "I hear 'Tebow for Heisman,'" says senior center Steve Rissler. "He doesn't play but eight snaps a game. I mean, Chris has had a great career."

Still, by comparison, Leak's popularity has continued to take body shots. It hit an all-time low in a closer-than-it-should-have-been game against Kentucky on Sept. 23. He retook the field at the Wildcats' 6, following three Tebow rushes that had gained 62 yards. After two failed plays and a penalty, he threw an interception. This unfortunate pattern has repeated itself throughout the season: promising drive crumbles after QB switch. False starts. Incomplete passes. Muffed snaps. Leak plays the goat, and the next time he takes the field, the home crowd boos their Heisman candidate.

"That's the dilemma we've dealt ourselves," says Meyer of his situational quarterback scheme. Meyer speaks carefully. It's a delicate subject, which may explain why two PR guys sit in on the interview. His student-athletes are on the front line, barraged by pressure to produce wins, and in spectacular fashion. "I worry about the effect it has on Chris," he says. "We talk about it quite often."

If Leak keeps playing the way he did against South Carolina, Meyer has nothing to fear. A week after tossing three picks against Vanderbilt on Nov. 4, Leak plays with the authority of a man who knows his place and the abandon of a man whose time is running short. He audibles to his own draws, stiff-arms cornerbacks and dives ahead instead of sliding. After a touchdown pass, he leaps into the arms of lineman Jim Tartt. Gator fans look as thrilled as they do perplexed.

"It's time for us seniors to get back to playing our game," Leak says, "and play to the best of our abilities." On this day, they do. Dallas Baker wrestles for Leak's underthrown pass before dropping into the end zone. DeShawn Wynn slices for 91 yards on 12 carries. Jarvis Moss, a redshirt junior who came in with Leak, blocks two kicks, including the potential game-winner.

With just over three minutes left on the clock, Leak has driven the Gators to the 12-yard line. But it is the red zone specialist who, from the shotgun, sprints off left tackle, weaving the remaining yards for the go-ahead touchdown. It's just one more impact play for his résumé.

After Moss' last-second heroics, he is mobbed by TV cameras, Baker bawls with joy and Tebow sprints along the sideline slapping hands with fans. At the northeast corner of the field, the team gathers to sing the fight song with the student section. Leak, who completed 19 of 27 passes, joins in quietly, from the back of the crowd.

"That game was senior leadership at its finest," Leak says. He has the serenity of a man at peace.