Saturday commemorates 50 years since a college football legend was cemented.
Oct. 31, 1959, LSU running back Billy Cannon made his famed "Halloween run," an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown that helped the top-ranked Tigers beat No. 3 Ole Miss in Baton Rouge and vaulted Cannon to the Heisman Trophy. The forgotten postscript is that Cannon also intercepted a pass in that game and helped make the game-sealing tackle on a goal-line stand. Cannon was fast, strong and tough to bring down.
So when Paul Dietzel, Cannon's coach at LSU, praises a certain player's ability to dominate a game unlike anyone he has ever seen, you might think it would be the greatest player in LSU history.
Nope. Dietzel comes to praise Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.
"If I were voting for the Heisman Trophy, I don't think there's anyone in his league," said the 85-year-old Dietzel. "I am extremely impressed with this young man, as impressed as anybody I've ever heard of in the athletics world."
Among other longtime SEC dignitaries, Dietzel has good company in his assessment.
Said Pat Dye, Auburn's legendary coach, "I'm going to tell you something. I think that Tim Tebow is as good as any football player I'm talking about everything as I've ever seen."
With a maximum of seven games remaining in his career, Tebow's status as SEC and college football legend is secure. As a freshman, he played an integral role in Florida's national championship. As a sophomore, he set the NCAA record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a season and won the Heisman Trophy. Last year, he carried Florida to the SEC and national titles. As a senior, all of those prizes are again well within his grasp.
He has burned himself indelibly into the game's lore.
"Really, how many other SEC players would they ever talk about the old joke about ‘Chuck Norris wears Tim Tebow pajamas'?" asked Richard Scott, author of "SEC Football," a history of the conference. "He's taken on that folk hero status."
The praise mostly centers on Tebow's versatility, leadership and winning mentality. Dye notes that there have been players who passed better or were faster than Tebow.
However, "the combination of size, speed and intelligence and toughness and competitiveness and leadership and all of the qualities, when you put them together, I've never seen anybody better," said Dye, who coached one Heisman Trophy winner, Bo Jackson, and against two others in the SEC, including Georgia's Herschel Walker. "He's just got it all."
Some interviewed wouldn't cross the line to say Tebow is the best player in conference history. They noted the difficulty and even unfairness of comparing players across eras and at different positions. Also, as Dietzel noted, "We've had some great players in the Southeastern Conference before you and I got involved."
However, Dietzel, former Georgia coach Vince Dooley and others were more than willing to get quite close to the line.
Said Dooley, echoing Dye's assessment, "Competitive, leader, football player, athlete, student, character, spiritual – I've seen some that are better in certain phases, but there's never been one as complete as he is."
Tebow's hard-nosed style has won Cannon's admiration.
"I can say this without fail," Cannon said. "Inside the 20-yard line, he has the greatest knack for getting in the end zone through physical ability since (1956 Heisman Trophy winner and pro football hall of famer) Paul Hornung, and I saw some great ones between Hornung and Tebow."
Cannon had an interesting insight into Tebow's running form.
"Tebow has a unique way of tackling his tackler," he said. "He stops their momentum with the helmet and the shoulder pads and hits on the rise. As he rises with his leg strength, he just walks away from them."
As an SEC official, Bobby Gaston shared the field with Walker in his first game as a freshman, when Walker famously steamrolled Tennessee's Bill Bates on his way to his first of 52 career touchdowns. Gaston was a 50-year employee of the SEC, as an official, then as an observer and finally as coordinator of officials until his retirement in 2006. That tenure covered, among others, Cannon, Joe Namath, Pat Sullivan, Archie Manning, Walker, Reggie White, Jackson and Peyton Manning.
Walker rated first with Gaston until Tebow.
"Where most other players are special in one thing – Herschel in running – and things of that nature, [Tebow] has the combination of it all," Gaston said. "He certainly is something special, something that I don't know that I've ever seen from a football player from that standpoint."
His record as a starter -- 29-5 going into the Gators' clash with Georgia Saturday in Jacksonville – along with moments such as the SEC championship victory over Alabama and BCS title game win over Oklahoma last year, perhaps give him the most credence among the experts.
"He's not a stylish player," Dooley said. "He's his own. But all I can see is results of taking a team down the field when he has to and finding ways to get it done, and he's done that in championship games."
Cannon will give Tebow's career time to breathe before making a verdict on where he stands. But he'll keep watching.
"I've followed him since the day he got on the varsity down there," Cannon said. "He's been a pleasure to watch."
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