By Jim Forsyth
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - The devout Christian who has been called "God's quarterback" talked faith and football in front of thousands on a warm, sunny Easter Sunday at a Central Texas megachurch.
"Win or lose, it is most important that I honor my Lord and savior Jesus Christ," Tim Tebow said as he talked with Joe Champion, pastor of the Celebration Church in Georgetown, about 15 miles north of Austin.
An adoring crowd of 15,000 to 20,000 at the outdoor service spilled across a hill overlooking Interstate 35, enjoying sunny skies and cool breezes and relishing spending Easter Sunday with the most outspoken Christian in American sports.
"Getting up at 3 a.m. to head to church," Celebration Church volunteer Jeremiah Cheney said on Twitter early today.
He was far from alone. Crowds started gathering at the three designated parking locations before dawn for the 10 a.m. event.
Church officials said they used 90 buses to shuttle the crowd to the hillside, and some 300 portable outdoor toilets were on hand to serve their more worldly needs.
Champion said the high-profile event happened almost by accident. The then-Denver Broncos quarterback - who was recently traded to the New York Jets - called him several weeks ago, suggesting he was interested in speaking to his congregation.
"I said, ‘What about Easter?'" Champion recalled. "His people replied that Easter might work, and it snowballed from there. It really went viral."
Tebow may have been drawn to Celebration Church by his own football background, Champion said. Champion was a star offensive lineman at Louisiana State University, and his father was a long-time NFL assistant coach.
Champion said he spoke to the football team at the University of Florida, Tebow's alma mater, last fall.
Rather than delivering a traditional sermon, Tebow chatted with Champion on stage for about twenty minutes, discussing the importance of athletes being role models, and his own struggle with faith.
"I don't think I was the first athlete to get down on one knee and pray," he said in a reference to "Tebow-ing," the practice of striking a pose on one knee to celebrate an accomplishment - a viral Internet sensation celebrated from YouTube to the Daily Show to Tosh.O.
Champion said it was entirely appropriate for a professional football player to speak to the Christian faithful on Easter Sunday. "This is our Super Bowl," he told KVUE television in Austin. "Easter is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which we celebrate in our faith."
(Editing by Karen Brooks in Austin and Todd Eastham in Washington)