By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Frustration on the field turned into tears in the locker room and led to the most impassioned speech in school history, maybe even college football lore.
It’s been seven years since Tim Tebow delivered a heartfelt apology following a 31-30 home loss to Mississippi, a stunning upset that ended Florida’s undefeated season and spearheaded the team’s run to a second national championship in three years.
Tebow’s pledge remains as much a part of the Gators’ past as Steve Spurrier’s kick, Ike Hilliard’s stop-and-pop, or Jarvis Moss’ block.
It might even have more staying power than any of those highlight-reel plays. After all, it’s memorialized on a plaque outside the football facility, where coaches, players, students and guests pass by it every day.
And with the third-ranked Rebels (4-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) returning to Gainesville on Saturday for the first time since that shocker on Sept. 27, 2008, Tebow and several of his former teammates reflected on The Promise and what it meant to the Gators then and still signifies now.
"(Tebow) was the type of person who approached the game with the kind of passion unlike anyone else," former Florida receiver Riley Cooper said Thursday. "It kind of rubbed off on you. When he said it, he knew we weren’t going to lose again. He wasn’t going to let us. It was like, ‘This is what we’re going to do and here’s how we’re going to do it."’
Tebow’s words came long after the final seconds ticked off the clock, but long before the Gators came to grips with the outcome.
Florida looked like it would eke out a victory after trailing twice in the fourth quarter. But Tebow was stopped on a fourth-and-1 run at the Ole Miss 32-yard line with 41 seconds remaining. The Rebels had 10 guys near the line of scrimmage and stuffed the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner in the backfield.
Tebow, the Gators and more than 90,000 fans were in disbelief.
"Agonizing," Tebow recalled last week. "I’m sure there were a lot of people yelling at the time. Probably a lot of Florida fans, too."
There was plenty of angst to go around. Jonathan Phillips had an extra point blocked with 3:28 remaining that would have tied the game. Major Wright got beat on an 86-yard touchdown pass from Jevan Snead to Shay Hodge. Percy Harvin and Aaron Hernandez fumbled. So did Tebow. And the offensive line collapsed on the all-important fourth-down play.
"Man, that was an intense game," former Florida receiver Louis Murphy said. "I think we kind of took them for granted. … There was nothing you can say, though. They played their (butts) off. They were a better team than us on that day."
Tebow admittedly cried afterward. He remembers sitting down against a wall and talking to coach Urban Meyer about "What we did wrong. Why did this happen?"
Tebow eventually collected himself and was about to walk into the postgame news conference when his parents showed up. He hugged them and got emotional again.
So he stepped to the podium with his eyes watering, his voice cracking and offered "what I felt in my heart."
"To the fans and everybody in Gator Nation, I’m sorry," Tebow said that day. "I’m extremely sorry. We were hoping for an undefeated season. That was my goal, something Florida never has done here. I promise you one thing: A lot of good will come out of this. You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season. You will never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push somebody the rest of the season.
"You will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season. God bless."
After that, Tebow walked away.
Teammates saw Tebow’s speech later that night.
"Guys were still kind of feeling the same way," Murphy said. "We were all kind of feeling the same, the way he felt. We really felt like we were supposed to win the national championship that year, which we ended up doing."
The Gators responded by winning their final eight regular-season games by a combined 317 points. They followed that run by beating Alabama in the SEC title game and then knocking off Oklahoma in the Bowl Championship Series title game.
Not everyone gave Tebow as much credit as the masses.
"It wasn’t all what it was made out to be," former Gators receiver Percy Harvin said. "It wasn’t anything more than one of the leaders on the team just standing up and saying, `Enough is enough. We’re not going to lose any more games.’ It came from Tebow so it got all kinds of hype and bulletin board.
"But he’s the quarterback and he deserved the credit. Yeah, I’ll say he’s the quarterback so he gets everything. Being that he stood up in front of the team and said, `Look, I’m going to put this on my back. We’re going to win the rest of these games.’ I give him credit for that."
Meyer gave Tebow so much credit that he had the speech engraved on a plaque before the next season, Tebow’s senior year.
"I can’t say that was the reason we won out," Murphy said. "I can’t say that. But it definitely was a pivotal time in our season. We knew we couldn’t lose any more. That’s how we approached it."
AP Sports Writers Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia and John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York, contributed to this report.
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