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," the Rev. Joe Champion said. "We didn't have enough room to handle the Pope."
Tebow - devout Christian, backup NFL quarterback and cultural phenomenon - has a flock of admirers drawn as much to his religious leanings as his Heisman Trophy skills.
He told them 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 drove more than 100 miles to hear Tebow speak. The service took on the feeling of a rock concert with more than 100 school buses shuttling people to the sprawling megachurch campus from local shopping centers and the nearby college.
The service was peppered with lively Christian rock songs and Tebow hit the large stage to cheers from those who could see him while others toward the back of the crowd watched on massive video screens. Tebow sat for a 20-minute interview with Champion to talk about his faith and the role it plays 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 the better," 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 avoid the 80-degree heat and 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. Tebow led the Broncos to the playoffs last season, but was acquired by the Jets in a trade March 21.
"Everything about this young man's extraordinary life is special," Sandoval said.
Amanda O'Hara drove about 100 miles from San Antonio on Saturday and got to the church about 4:30 a.m. "to be one of the first ones here."
"I only got about four hours sleep, I was so excited," O'Hara said. "He doesn't hide who he is. Parents should see him as a role model."
The crow included people dressed in Easter bunny costumes and one person dressed as the Sesame Street character Elmo. About an hour before the service, Elmo dropped to a knee with a toddler boy to mimic Tebow's prayer pose.
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 initially expected up to 20,000 and 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.
Mike Benaglio and his wife, Debbie, sat on a blanket.
"I'm a fan of any pro athlete who stands up for his faith," he said. "We're thrilled to be part of this. It's not about football. Whatever gets more people over to the cross, I'm in favor of."
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