By RODNEY HO/ email@example.com, originally filed Wednesday, June 15, 2016
After season one of Fox's feel-good reality show "Home Free" concluded last summer, Fox executives felt they needed more fire power for its sophomore round.
Enter popular Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. The competition show, set this season in a new development in Paulding County, added the football star as a co host with Mike Holmes, a tough-talking construction expert from Canada. The show returns Thursdays at 9 p.m. after "Bones."
Tebow, a University of Florida graduate, is no construction expert. His job was to keep the 11 contestants motivated as they built homes.
"I'm the skill," said Holmes on set in May. "Tim's the will." Holmes had no idea who he was. "I thought he was a hockey player!" he said. "I don't really care where he comes from. I only care if he's a good person. And that he is. He's pushing them in the right direction every day."
Last season, eight teams of two entered the show thinking only one couple would win a home. The twist: all eight did!
This year, the producers tweaked the concept. They cast 11 people willing to live in sparse quarters and construct 10 homes side by side from scratch for "heroes" they know and respect rather than for themselves. Going in, the contestants didn't realize every hero would get a dream home, rather than just one.
'We're being able to serve heroes, heroes that gave up their time, their energy, their money, their resources, even body parts," Tebow said in an interview on set in May. "And we're able to give these heroes a home. Then there are 11 competitors competing for their heroes. That's awesome. I can encourage them and push them beyond what they can accomplish for their heroes. That was a pretty cool match."
The heroes include war veterans, a woman who gave her kidney to someone she didn't even know and a single mom raising two kids while battling cancer. (I presume if they choose not to take the house, they'll win the cash equivalent.)
The participants aren't 100 percent altruistic. The last person standing does take home $100,000 for themselves.
"The contestants really don't seem to care about the money," Holmes said. "Your hero never gave up on you. You should never give up them."
One of the more colorful characters is James Thomason, a jovial 48-year-old landscaper from Talking Rock who also runs a beard products company. He said he's competing for his personal hero, his mother Betty Estes, who helped him get through his drug addiction when he was younger.
"Her prayers helped me have two successful businesses," Thomason said. "She doesn't have a nice home. She may not even have a home when I get back. She's been under a lot of financial stress. I want to help her out."
His wise-cracking ways are evident in the first episode. To a fellow contestant worried about her lack of construction knowledge, he cracked: "I got some advice for ya. You think it ain't goin' right, fake a seizure!"
Tebow, who is familiar with Atlanta because his sister lives here, said he's there for contestants when they need a lift, when they are frustrated, when they feel like quitting.
"If Tim Tebow is around,' Thomason said, "you've right done something stupid or you're getting a pep talk."
Holmes? "He runs this show just like I run my businesses. No BS whatsoever."
Tebow said his favorite moments were when the contestants presented the homes to their heroes. He admited to shed a tear or two. "It's amazing to be able to be part of changing someone's life by giving them a brand new home," he said.
Another big change from a year ago: all the homes are being built brand new from the ground up in a new development in Dallas where nobody was living. This enabled the show to plant itself in one place for more than two months.
"We're building an entire street from the ground up," Tebow said. "The houses are sweet!"
Last year, the show rehabbed existing homes in metro Atlanta neighborhoods, forcing the show to have to move the entire operation every week or so, an arduous logistical feat.
"We renovated one house at a time," Holmes said. "It was crazy. This time, we have a huge playing field. It's unbelievable how big it is."
And given all the open land, the show was able to do much bigger challenges. On the day I visited, two contestants were in heavy vehicles called skidders on a huge field crushing watermelons, soda bottles and plates in a way that would have made Gallagher jealous.
Realistically, the contestants only played a small role in building the homes. They aren't electricians, roofers or plumbers. That's where Paran Homes of Duluth came in with an assist from designer Veronica Valencia .
The neighborhood, called Oakleigh Pointe, will eventually have about 400 homes, said Keith Daniel, chief operating officer for Paran, who visited the set regularly while the "Home Free" houses were being built. "This gives us a real opportunity to showcase the neighborhood," Daniel said.
The building time was compressed, he said, from a typical 80 to 90 days down to about 60. But he said quality was not sacrificed. This simply meant putting in more shifts and having contractors coordinate tighter schedules.
"They've been a great partner," Holmes said."We're all here for a mission, for me to teach and give a hero a new home."
"Home Free," 9 p.m. Thursdays (starting June 16), Fox